Fiesta Bowl pits 2 of nation's best QBs
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By JOHN MARSHALL
GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) The Fiesta Bowl has just about everything you could ask for from a bowl game: two of the nation's best teams, most explosive offenses and underrated defenses, ready-for-the-NFL quarterbacks and this year's best case for changing the BCS.
OK, so maybe there's no national title on the line. LSU and Alabama get that honor under the current BCS format.
Still, when No. 3 Oklahoma State and No. 4 Stanford play Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium, it figures to be one of those can't-miss shows, the kind that leaves fans asking "Did you see that?" the next day.
"This is about as good as it gets right here," Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden. "I'm pretty sure everybody around the country will be watching."
Might as well start with the quarterbacks. They are, after all, two of the most intelligent, mature and prolific ones out there.
Stanford's Andrew Luck has been projected as the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft almost since his days at Stratford High in Houston. Last year's Heisman Trophy runner-up, he made it two straight just misses after returning for a stellar senior season.
Prototypically sized, deceptively agile and mature beyond his years, Luck tore through Stanford's record book almost as often as he did opposing defenses and improved his NFL-ready resume by calling some of his own plays this season.
"There is a reason why he is going to be the first player picked in the draft, because he is very good at what he does and he's had a lot of success the last couple years," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said.
Gundy's quarterback is no slouch.
Weeden won't challenge Luck for the No. 1 pick, but he certainly could give the big Cardinal a run in the Fiesta Bowl.
Agile and accurate with a big right arm, Weeden came seemingly out of nowhere to pile up yards and touchdowns as a junior and continued it this season, putting together one of the most impressive two-year runs in Oklahoma State history.
He forced people across the country to learn how to spell his last name - it ends with "en," not "on" - with his prodigious numbers and throws.
Weeden isn't mature beyond his years like Luck, though. He's just mature; a 28-year-old former professional baseball player who's married and doesn't get caught up by trivialities that might slip up younger players.
"He is great. He has put up numbers. He has done it winning," Stanford co-defensive coordinator Derek Mason said. "Any time you can do that, you put yourself in an elite category of quarterbacks. That's what he is."
Led by their two quarterbacks, Oklahoma State and Stanford have the kind of offenses that turn defensive coordinators inside-out at night trying to figure ways of slowing them down.
The Cowboys have arguably the most dynamic player in college football in Justin Blackmon, only the second two-time winner of the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best receiver.
Oklahoma State also has a big, powerful offensive line and good balance, with running backs Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith combining for over 1,800 yards rushing and 32 touchdowns. The Cowboys were second nationally in scoring offense at nearly 50 points per game and third in total offense with 557 yards per game.
So many weapons, but stopping the Cowboys begins with stopping their best player.
"You start with Blackmon," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "He is the best receiver in the nation. He is great after the catch. He is a big, physical kid. He makes tough catches look easy. As soon as his feet hit the ground to jump up to make a catch, he is at full speed. He is a difference maker. He is a game changer."
Luck makes the difference across the field, but the ironic thing is that for all the attention he gets, the danger in Stanford's offense is its ability to run teams over.
Behind a moving wall of an offensive line, the Cardinal have one of the best ground games in the country, averaging 207 yards per game. Stepfan Taylor was the team's leading rusher, becoming the third player in school history to rush for over 1,000 yards in consecutive season with 1,153 this season, and there are four others with the ability to churn out yards, including the deceptively agile Luck.
Stanford ran the ball 54 percent of the time this season and had 2,495 yards rushing, third-most in school history, setting up Luck and the passing game.
"They never get tackled for the loss. They continue to drive their feet and move the pile," Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Bill Young said. "They are a very patient offense from the standpoint if they can make 2 or 3 yards, they will try to get 3 or 4 more on second down, and then they will hit you with a play-action pass when you are sucking it up to play the run too much."
The final bit of intrigue is the it-could-be-us argument from a pair of teams that finished 11-1 - the same record as Alabama, which earned the No. 2 spot in the Bowl Championship Series.
The Cardinal's lone loss was Nov. 12 to Oregon, which won the Pac-12 and is playing Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl earlier Monday. Stanford wasn't close to Alabama in the final BCS rankings, but could make a case for a spot in the title game if the system was different.
Oklahoma State can make an argument either way.
The Cowboys' loss, to Iowa State on Nov. 18, wasn't a particularly good one, but there were extenuating circumstances: The team was still reeling from the death of Oklahoma State women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna in a plane crash the day before.
The computers don't look at why a team lost, only who it lost to, so the Cowboys finished third in the BCS, an agonizingly close .0086 behind the Crimson Tide.
"The system is in place. It worked out. We came up little bit short," Weeden said. "If you looked back and you said before the year started we wanted to go to the national championship, you probably thought we were crazy. But our goal was to go to a BCS game."
The Cowboys got there - and it could be a doozy.
Updated January 1, 2012