An announcer on one of the college bowl game broadcasts the other day made the cutting remark in the flow of in-game conversation that the day after New Year's, the real bowl games start. I'm not sure I agree with that pronouncement, but there's little question that the Fiesta Bowl matchup today between Big 12 champion and third-ranked Oklahoma State and Stanford, the Pac-12 champion is one of the big games of the 2011-12 bowl season.
Tonight in the Valley of the Sun, all eyes will be on the quarterbacks. Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden was third in the nation in passing yardage per game with an average of 352.75. Slowing down the Cowboys' prolific passing game will be a major challenge for Stanford. The fourth-ranked Cardinal are fifth in the country against the run, but they are vulnerable against an exceptional spread offense like Oklahoma State's, featuring All-American and two-time Biletnikoff Award winner, wide-receiver Justin Blackmon.
How Stanford offsets its deficiency defending the pass is by applying pressure to the quarterback, which the Cardinal do as well as any team in the country. The Stanford defense recorded 38 sacks in its 12 games this season, the nation's sixth best in that category.
As good as the Cowboys have been on offense this year, though, opponents have been able to move the ball against them without a lot of difficulty. The Big 12 champions have been able to get away with a defense that ranks 107th in the country because they lead the country in turnover margin, meaning they give up a lot of yards but they keep teams out of the end zone because they take away the ball a lot through forced fumbles and interceptions.
"Like most teams, we talked about turnovers since last spring," Cowboys' head coach Mike Gundy said, "and the importance in what we believe today's football has evolved (to), in the direction that you have to get the ball in your offense's hand more so than it used to be because of the style of play, especially with what we do on offense."
With Heisman runner-up Luck at quarterback, the second year in a row he has finished second in the Heisman balloting, you think of Stanford as a passing team. The Cardinal do average 273 yards a game throwing the football, but they would much rather run the football. They are 26th in the country in passing and have the 25th-best running attack (207 yards per game).
Both teams have 1,000-yards rushers in Joseph Randle of Oklahoma State and Stepfan Taylor of Stanford.
In breaking down where the advantages lie for both teams, Oklahoma State is the better of the two teams on offense and special teams. Stanford is better defensively and probably has a slight edge when they run the ball. Stopping the run is key for both teams. Whoever does it better and does the best job putting pressure on the opposing quarterback probably has the best chance of winning this game.
Asked what he thinks will be the keys to the game, Gundy said: "This will be a challenge for us, especially when you are competing against a quarterback that has as much experience, as talented as he (Andrew Luck) is. We need to force turnovers, get the ball on the ground, find a way to get on top of it and get our offense back on the field."
The Las Vegas oddsmakers have established Oklahoma State as a three-point favorite in this game, but I think this is too conservative a pick and that the Pokes will move the ball well and win by a wider margin. I'm sticking with my earlier pick: Oklahoma State 38, Stanford 28. This will make the Big 12 6-1 through seven bowl games this postseason with one more - the Cotton Bowl with Kansas State and Arkansas - still to go.
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