Known for his D, Stoops has turned OU into an offensive dynamo (cont.)
Still, the coaches weren't sure what to expect when Bradford took the field for the first time last fall. They put him in the shotgun, kept the playbook fairly simple and anticipated relying on his ability to throw on the run. In his first four collegiate starts, Bradford completed 78.1 percent of his passes while throwing 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions. OU averaged 61.5 points in those games, highlighted by a 51-13 rout of Miami.
"When we played Miami, we knew they were going to come after us," Wilson said. "He played so calm and so within himself. He handled a lot of things mentally as a freshman better than I've seen some seniors who were great players."
The coaches added more wrinkles to the game plan every week and watched Bradford continue to excel, often showing a veteran's ability to go through as many as four or five progressions on a given play.
Bradford's freshman season wasn't entirely flawless -- he struggled in his first Big 12 road start, a 27-24 loss at Colorado, and threw a costly interception in the end zone in the Sooners' Fiesta Bowl defeat to West Virginia. However, in leading OU to another 11-win season and Big 12 championship, he finished the season as the nation's top-rated passer, putting up numbers (a 69.5 completion percentage, 3,121 yards, 36 touchdowns and eight interceptions) that impressed even him.
"Obviously, I had confidence in myself and knew if I went in there and played the way the coaches wanted me to play, I'd do well," Bradford said. "But there were times after the season, I'd look back and go, 'Wow ... did that really just happen?' "
With a more veteran unit surrounding Bradford this season -- five returning starters on the offensive line (including preseason All-America guard Duke Robinson), senior receivers Juaquin Iglesias and Manuel Johnson, junior tight end Jermaine Gresham, junior tailback Chris Brown and sophomore DeMarco Murray -- OU's coaches let fly their full playbook from Day 1. They also added a new wrinkle. At the end of last season, Stoops asked Wilson to implement a no-huddle attack, an increasingly popular tactic in the Big 12 that Wilson first used at Northwestern eight years ago.
The results so far: Five straight lopsided victories (against Chattanooga, Cincinnati, Washington, TCU and Baylor), with Bradford throwing for four or more touchdowns three times and notching at least 300 yards each of the past four games. Murray and Brown have averaged a combined 148.8 rushing yards.
How versatile is Oklahoma's offense? On their first offensive series of last week's 49-17 win at Baylor, the Sooners lined up in a shotgun, one-back set and, on the third play, Bradford hit a wide-open Johnson for a 53-yard touchdown. On their next possession, they switched to the I-formation and ran the ball on seven of the nine plays in a 63-yard touchdown drive. From there OU switched between the shotgun and the I-formation, often mixing in two tight end sets or lining up two backs in the shotgun, all while operating without a huddle.
"The beauty of our offense is the ability to do a lot of different things with a lot of different groupings," Wilson said. "It's multiple in looks and multiple in the ability to run and pass."
Bradford said he's come to expect a familiar play-calling strategy from the coaches. "Usually [Wilson] will start out trying to get me into a rhythm, whether it's plays I've told coach Heupel I'm more comfortable running or plays that have worked in the past," the quarterback said. "But once I get going, we get into all the stuff we've talked about during the week."
Bradford also has a certain, comforting voice in his ear on the sideline. "Coach Stoops will come and talk to me during the course of the game," Bradford said. "As a defensive coach, he can recognize what they're doing on defense. If he sees something, he'll let me know. From the emotional standpoint of the game, he's really good about saying 'Go out there, stay calm, have fun.'"
On Saturday, the Sooners face a significant step up in competition, but Texas knows well the difficulties of stopping Stoops' best offenses. In 2000, Heupel led a 63-14 rout of the 'Horns. In '03, White engineered a 65-13 blowout. Last year, Bradford went 21-of-32 for 244 yards and three touchdowns, including a go-ahead 35-yarder to Malcolm Kelly in the fourth quarter of a 28-21 OU victory.
"To [Oklahoma's] credit, they've stayed ahead of the game," said Texas coach Brown. "They've gone from running the Mike Leach offense to lining up in the I and running the ball a lot to running an up-tempo offense that's really giving people problems. They've really kept up with trends in college football."
Yet for all the offensive accolades and gaudy statistics, Stoops' program still encounters two unwanted perceptions -- one real, one outdated.
It's no secret the Sooners have gained a reputation for laying an egg in their recent BCS bowl appearances. They've lost four straight BCS matchups: the 2004 Sugar to LSU, the 2005 Orange to Oklahoma, the 2007 Fiesta to Boise State and the 2008 Fiesta to West Virginia.
Yet somehow, Oklahoma's reputation as a defensive team remains in tact -- this despite the fact that breakdowns on that side of the ball were primarily responsible for OU's past three bowl defeats. While the Sooners' defense has remained consistently respectable, never ranking outside the top 25 nationally this decade, it hasn't been as dominant the past five years as it was during its 2000-03 apex, when Stoops' brother Mike was co-coordinator and its average national ranking was sixth.
OU's offense, on the other hand, has never been more productive than it has over the past two seasons, averaging 44.2 points and 472.9 yards in the 19 games Bradford has started.
"It seems like people still think of us more defensively, but offensively, we've been fairly consistent as well," Stoops said. "Have we gotten the recognition [on offense]? I don't know. But I'm not complaining."