The Sports Network
By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The 2010 college football season kicks off in Norman this weekend, as the seventh-ranked Oklahoma Sooners welcome the Utah State Aggies to Memorial Stadium.
The Aggies are in their second year under head coach Gary Andersen, who came over to Logan after spending time at Utah as an assistant with the Utes. It was not an overly auspicious beginning for Andersen in 2009, as his Aggies went just 4-8 overall, including a 3-5 mark in the Western Athletic Conference. However, with 17 returning starters from last year's squad, improvement is expected.
The Sooners are seeking their own improvement, following last year's 8-5 overall record. The sky was the limit to begin the 2009 season in Norman, but losing the reigning Heisman Trophy winner (Sam Bradford) in a season-opening loss to BYU set the tone for the rest of the campaign. Tough losses at Texas, Nebraska and Texas Tech were enough to keep Oklahoma out of the Big 12 race, but the team did rally with a shutout of rival Oklahoma State in the regular- season finale and a thrilling four-point win over Stanford in the Sun Bowl.
This game marks just the fifth time that these two programs have met on the gridiron. It has been all Oklahoma, which has won all four prior meetings, by a combined score of 230-27, including a 54-3 rout in the last meeting in 2007.
Quarterback Diondre Borel returns to lead the Aggie offense after pacing the WAC and ranking 15th in the nation in total offense last year (278.6 ypg). Borel is a dangerous duel threat, who has a penchant for making big plays with his legs as well as arm. He holds the school record for single-season total yardage, gaining 3,343 yards last year. Andersen has plenty of confidence in his athletic signal-caller
"I think that Diondre Borel has prepared himself for a tremendous senior year...he carries himself as a leader on the football team and its much more natural for him to be a leader on and off the field which is a big step for a quarterback."
Borel will be needed to provide some production on the ground, especially due to the absence of Robert Turbin, who placed third in the WAC in 2009 with 108 ypg. Turbin may miss the entire season due to a knee injury, making way for seniors Michael Smith and Derrvin Speights to shoulder the burden in the ground game. It is certainly beneficial to have four returning starters along the offensive line though, headlined by seniors Philip Gapelu and Spencer Johnson. If the guys up front can provide adequate time for Borel in the pocket, he will be able to deliver the ball down the field to receivers like juniors Eric Moats and Xavier Martin, along with newcomers Matt Austin, Travis Reynolds and Dontel Watkins. They will be asked to assuage the loss of another player that was supposed to make an impact in junior WR Stanley Morrison, who is out with an injury as well.
Nine starters return to the defensive side of the ball for Utah State, so coach Andersen should have plenty of veterans to lean on. The one that will be most relied upon is junior linebacker Bobby Wagner, who earned All-WAC First Team honors in 2009, after leading the league in tackles (115). Fellow juniors Kyle Gallagher and Junior Keiaho complete the linebacking corps for the Aggies. The secondary is also chock-full of leadership, led by senior cornerbacks Chris Randle and Curtis Marsh. The key for this unit will be getting improvement up front, after allowing a whopping 205.5 ypg rushing, to rank 110th in the nation. Junior defensive ends Levi Koskan and Quinn Garner along with seniors Devin Johnson and Maxim Dinka-Mba will handle the work off the edges, while senior tackles Casey Davis, Sean Enesi, Daniel Gurrola and Nathan Royster will do their best to clog the middle and penetrate from the inside.
Oklahoma has won six Big 12 titles in Bob Stoops' 11 years at the helm, with five different quarterbacks, so getting steady play under center is a must. Landry Jones was force-fed the offense last season when Bradford went down to injury so the Sooners and the freshman in 2009 will be much better off this season for the experience. Jones threw for an astounding 3,198 yards and 26 TDs, but was responsible for 14 INTs, a number he will have to cut down significantly if Oklahoma is to return to form. Stoops has seen a change in Jones in terms of leadership and likes how Jones has taken over the huddle.
"Coming into this season and even walking into spring ball, you can tell he's just in command. You can tell how confident he is and sure of what he's doing. It's obvious to everyone. So he's progressed well. He continues to mature and develop. He's a great worker. He's very similar to the guys we've had that have had success here. Very grounded guy, confident, great worker."
Of course, it doesn't hurt to have plenty of top-notch talent surrounding a young QB and Oklahoma certainly has that both in the backfield and on the outside. Senior DeMarco Murray is one of the top performers in the Big 12 and may assert himself as one of the better backs in the nation if he can remain healthy. The receiving corps has its own stud thanks to the return of All- American candidate Ryan Broyles. The junior speedster finished 2009 with 89 receptions, 1,120 yards and 15 TDs. The real key for the OU offense will be a revamped offensive line.
The Oklahoma defense was plain old nasty in 2009, ranking among the top teams in the Big 12 in almost every major statistical category. The Sooners' stingy play against the run (92.9 ypg) was particularly noteworthy, ranking eighth nationally. The team also ranked seventh in the nation in scoring defense (14.5 ppg). Unfortunately, a good portion of that unit is gone and only five starters return to the fold. The cupboard isn't exactly bare though and there is All-American talent in every area. Up front, the team will rely heavily on the pass rushing exploits of senior DE Jeremy Beal, who finished 2009 with 69 tackles, 19.0 TFLs and 11 sacks. Star LB Travis Lewis is a legitimate Butkus Award candidate in the middle of the field and also had a huge season last year, leading the team in tackles (109), with 9.5 TFLs. Safeties Sam Proctor (44 tackles) and Quinton Carter (88 tackles, four INTs) headline the play in the secondary and will be called upon to provide support against the run, as well as in coverage.
The Aggies should be much more competitive in year two under Andersen, but it probably won't manifest itself in the opener. The Sooners are eager to prove that last year was an aberration and with Jones, Murray and Broyles leading the way on offense and Beal, Lewis and company setting the tone on defense, this one could get out of hand in a hurry.