State Sports

December 22, 2010

No. 9 Sooners try to end Fiesta Bowl funk



AP College Football Writer

NORMAN — Eric Mensik twice got to go to the Fiesta Bowl as a young player at Oklahoma. Counting up all of his cherished memories from those two BCS bowl trips doesn't take long to do.

"Honestly, none," said Mensik, now a starting offensive tackle for the ninth-ranked Sooners. "The hotel was nice and the food was great, but other than that if I had to choose if I wanted to go to Arizona, I would rather go to Florida or something else."

The Fiesta Bowl has been no party to Oklahoma. During a five-game Bowl Championship Series losing streak, the Sooners' two most astounding losses came in the Fiesta Bowl, against Boise State in 2007 and West Virginia in 2008.

So, when Oklahoma (11-2) heads to Glendale, Ariz., to play Connecticut (8-4) in the Jan. 1 bowl game, there's redemption on the line.

"We want to prove that even though we've lost two times before, we are still a team that can play in the BCS," said Mensik, a senior who experienced both previous losses from the sideline.

The Sooners are favored by 17 points, matching the largest spread for any bowl game this season, but they were also favored in their last two Fiesta Bowl appearances and lost 43-42 to Boise State and 48-28 to West Virginia.

The other three BCS losses came in championship games: the 2004 Sugar Bowl against LSU, the 2005 Orange Bowl against Southern California and the 2009 BCS title game against Florida.

"Any time you lose, you're going to be criticized. That's how it goes. But in the end, there's always different stories to all of them, and never right or wrong or never an excuse," coach Bob Stoops said Tuesday. "In the end, you need to win."

Stoops doesn't plan to dwell too much on the Sooners' BCS struggles that popped up after he won the Orange Bowl for the national title after the 2000 season and then won the Rose Bowl two seasons later.

"Every year is a different story," he said. "It's its own baby, it's own journey and these guys have run a good course to this point."

There will be some subtle changes that veterans on the team may notice. After staying at the same hotel and practicing at Pinnacle High School in their previous two Fiesta trips, the Sooners are switching hotels and practice sites.

"There's only so much you can do. You have to practice at a certain time. If you have a function you have to go to, you can't tell the bowl you're not going to it," Stoops said. "You do the best you can.

"In the end, you've got to play better. When you get opportunities to make plays, you've got to make them and you can't turn the ball over. That's the bottom line."

The Boise State thriller went down as one of the most memorable college football games ever played, featuring the Broncos' trick-play bonanza of a hook-and-lateral for a touchdown, a halfback pass for another score and a Statue of Liberty play for the winning 2-point conversion.

A year later, the Sooners got trampled as Pat White, Noel Devine and the Mountaineers ran for 349 yards — still the most allowed in Stoops' 12 seasons at Oklahoma.

Together, it's a bundle of memories the Sooners don't want to relive — but they also don't want to focus on the negative.

"If anybody goes into Arizona with that thought process, then we probably won't do good," safety Jonathan Nelson said. "I wouldn't say sour taste in my mouth. More so, we know what happened the last two times that we've been here and hopefully we can change that this time."

So the Sooners are trying to shut out any suggestions that a four-loss, unranked Connecticut team doesn't belong in the BCS and learn lessons from their past.

"We were always told against Boise State and West Virginia that we were going to win. We ended up losing both of those games," Mensik said. "It's a little bit different now. We can't listen to the hype because then we have the possibility of that happening again."

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