John E. Hoover, Tulsa World, Okla.
In some ways, Oklahoma already trails Iowa in the chase for the Insight Bowl trophy.
The Hawkeyes arrived in Phoenix on Thursday, got practices in Friday and Saturday, then took a Christmas holiday Sunday.
The Sooners, meanwhile, took a couple days off, then reconvened Sunday night at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix.
Coach Bob Stoops did the best he could to spread a little Christmas cheer to the media and bowl staff awaiting their arrival.
“Thankful to everyone for being out here on Christmas night. Sorry to do that to you,” Stoops said. “I wish it didn’t have to be that way, but Iowa has a few days’ head start on us, and we didn’t want to put it back another day.”
So the Sooners will practice Monday afternoon at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, Ariz., essentially playing catch-up.
The teams meet on Friday night at Sun Devil Stadium. Stoops said there’s plenty of time before kickoff.
“I believe our team is really getting prepared well for this,” Stoops said. “We had great practices at home, six straight before they had some time off. They’ve had some time off to spend time with their families for Christmas. We’ll rejoin tonight at the hotel and start our practices again tomorrow. We’re looking forward to the challenge and being out here a few days.”
It’s a challenge that the Sooner Nation wonders if their team is actually up for.
These Sooners finished 9-3 and midway down in the Big 12 Conference standings after nine months of national championship hype and blown opportunities in October and November.
After losses, crucial injuries, multiple transfers – maybe worst of all, playing every play in memory of a fallen teammate, only to come up way short – there is concern that the players couldn’t care less, that 14-point underdog Iowa will give the Sooners their third loss in four games.
The players, however, say they don’t see it that way.
“It’s rough,” said sophomore defensive back Aaron Colvin. “We had great expectations for this season. But at the end of the day, we’re trying to get this 10th win. We’re trying to finish out the year strong. You want to end the year with a win.”
“Winning,” said sophomore offensive lineman Gabe Ikard, “always makes people feel better.
“Either way, it’s still going to be considered a disappointing year from where we started. But heading into next year, we’ve got a lot of talented guys back. It’s one of those things where you want to get that 2012 started off as positively as possible heading into winter workouts and spring ball.”
Since his first season, when a rebuilt OU went 7-5 and lost to Mississippi in the Independence Bowl, Stoops’ teams are 3-0 in non-BCS bowls: 10-3 over Arkansas in the 2001-02 Cotton Bowl, 17-14 over Oregon in the 2005 Holiday Bowl, and 31-27 over Stanford in the 2009 Sun Bowl.
Those were largely disappointing seasons – 10-2 and a loss to Oklahoma State in ’01, 7-4 in a rebuilding year in ’05 and 7-5 after an incomprehensible run of injuries in ’09 – but are recalled more fondly because those teams tacked on a victory with a tense bowl triumph. Each time, the Sooners followed with at least 11 victories and a Big 12 title the following season.
“It’s proving to ourselves that we’re back on the right track, starting with a win leading into next season,” said junior cornerback Demontre Hurst. “We had big plans this year, and we didn’t get them. But our dreams don’t stop there. By getting this win, we start our edge back again getting ready for the spring and next year. This game is very important, to us, the coaches and this program. We’re preparing well.”
“It’s always important,” Stoops said. “In the end, it’s always important to win one more game. When you’re competing and playing at this level, each and every one of them is special. You want it. It’s kinda of what you’re built for, to keep going after one more. This is no different.”
Insight Bowl Vs. Iowa at Tempe. Ariz.
9 p.m. Friday