As he stood on the field at Boone Pickens Stadium last Saturday, awash in the thunderous cheers of the orange-clad faithful, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy was approached by the man for whom the stadium is named. Pickens, the 81-year-old oil tycoon who has donated more than $250 million to the football program, put his arm around the coach and, with a grin as wide as the Oklahoma panhandle, said in his ear, "Every dollar I've put in has been worth it, just for this one win." ¶ That the No. 9 Cowboys had defeated 13th-ranked Georgia wasn't what was so shocking. After all, Oklahoma State, ranked higher than it had ever been at the start of a season, was favored by a touchdown against a team that had lost its two best players, quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno, to the NFL. What was stunning about the 24--10 win was how the Cowboys bullied the Bulldogs, overwhelming them not in a shootout, which was the trademark of Big 12 teams in 2008, but rather in a bruising battle more typically fought in SEC towns such as Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. Here was the Oklahoma State defense (ranked 93rd last year, a laughingstock after it allowed 56, 61 and 42 points in three of its last four games) yielding a game-opening 80-yard touchdown drive but then holding Georgia to a field goal and 177 total yards the rest of the way. Here were the Cowboys controlling a game in which their three playmakers—quarterback Zac Robinson (11 for 22, 135 yards), running back Kendall Hunter (23 carries, 75 yards) and wideout Dez Bryant (three catches, 77 yards, two touchdowns)—were uncharacteristically out of sync.
After the defense made one last stand, forcing Georgia quarterback Joe Cox to throw an interception with 3:04 left, the roar from the record crowd of 53,012 resonated across this football-crazed state—and all the way to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where three hours later three-time defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma was the victim in the biggest upset of the opening week of the 2009 season, a 14--13 loss to No. 20 BYU. By late Saturday night, after a 54-yard field goal attempt by the Sooners' Tress Way fell well short with 1:23 left and the crimson-and-cream-dressed fans in the crowd of 75,437 went silent, this much was evident: Oklahoma, for one weekend, at least, wasn't the Sooner State.
A 22-point favorite, third-ranked Oklahoma rolled across the Red River into Texas with 14 returning starters, including Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback Sam Bradford. The only question about a team that went 12--2 and scored an NCAA-record 716 points last season was how the offensive line would perform with four new starters and the lone returnee, Trent Williams, playing a new position (left tackle, in a switch from the right side). There had been a setback in the preseason, when the projected center, redshirt freshman Ben Habern, missed time because of a back injury. Brody Eldridge, a 265-pound senior tight end and fullback, was moved to the spot over the ball and wound up starting against BYU.
The line play was abysmal, and in the last 12 seconds of the first half the Sooners' national championship hopes took a devastating blow as a result. With the game tied 7--7 and Bradford dropping back on first down, Cougars linebacker Coleby Clawson blitzed virtually untouched through the left side of the Oklahoma line and slammed Bradford to the turf just after he released a pass. The quarterback landed on his throwing shoulder, clutched it in pain and was helped off the field. It was the third time Bradford, who was sacked only 11 times and rarely otherwise even knocked down last season, hit the turf on that drive. "My heart just dropped when I saw him laying on the ground," Williams said. "Mistakes happen, but you hate for them to happen like that."
The Sooners settled for a field goal and took a three-point lead into the locker room, but that was the last bit of good news for them in this game. When Bradford came out for the second half, he was in street clothes with his right arm in a sling, the result of a sprained acromioclavicular joint. On Monday, coach Bob Stoops said that the junior would be reevaluated in a week or two, adding, "It's going to be a fairly long process."
With redshirt freshman Landry Jones at quarterback behind that shaky line, the Sooner Schooner never got rolling. All told, Oklahoma offensive linemen were flagged for four false starts, a pair of holding penalties and a personal foul. "A tremendous comedy of errors," offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said on Sunday, referring primarily to the line play. "I did not see that coming."
Still leading 10--7 with 13:37 to play, the Sooners got a pass-interference call that gave them a first down at the BYU two-yard line. But three plays netted only one yard, Jones was penalized for delay of game on fourth down and Oklahoma settled for a field goal. "I thought our guys played hard," Stoops said after the game. "I didn't think they played very smart."
It was on Labor Day weekend 25 years ago that BYU stunned another third-ranked team, Pittsburgh, to commence its march to an improbable national championship. Now, with home games left against No. 18 Florida State, No. 17 TCU and No. 19 Utah, this BYU team has positioned itself to make a run at a BCS championship-game berth. And the Cougars' brash, strong-armed senior quarterback, Max Hall—who called to mind BYU greats Jim McMahon and Steve Young as he drove his team 78 yards on 16 plays for the game-winning touchdown—improved his standing in a Heisman race that is more intriguing with Bradford's early exit.
In Stillwater, the buildup to Oklahoma State's most anticipated opener in school history began not long after the 2008 season ended with a 42--31 loss to Oregon in the Holiday Bowl. The Georgia fight song had been blaring on speakers in the Cowboys' weight room as far back as the spring. "I couldn't get it out of my head," says cornerback Perrish Cox. "It got to the point where I found myself humming it out of nowhere." Gundy noted that ticket scalpers were working the streets a week before the game. Four hours before kickoff, as Gundy helped cut the ribbon for the opening of the renovated stadium, a prominent Oklahoma State booster proclaimed the day the "biggest in the history of the university," then turned to Gundy and said, "Good luck."
"No pressure," Gundy quipped later.