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January 2, 2011

Oklahoma gets much-needed Fiesta victory

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It wasn't all that pretty, but that didn't matter. It was a victory in the Fiesta Bowl. And Oklahoma needed it.

"It's a great feeling," Sooners quarterback Landry Jones said Saturday night.

The 48-20 final against Connecticut screamed "blowout." But this was a workmanlike victory, with OU scoring twice in the final 7:56 to finally brush aside the Huskies. While the national championship wasn't on the line for the Sooners, pride was.

This was a program that had lost its past five BCS bowl games, and two embarrassing defeats in that string came in this bowl. There was the overtime loss to Boise State in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. And there was the thumping by West Virginia in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, when the Mountaineers racked up 525 yards of offense.

Some of those demons were exorcised Saturday night.

Just in case any OU players had forgotten about the BCS debacles, the staff showed them clips from the previous games earlier in the week. "It made me mad, personally, just seeing those things," said Jones, who was 34-of-49 for 429 yards and three touchdowns. "It just motivated us."

No, this doesn't erase the 21-14 loss to LSU in the 2003 BCS title game. It doesn't expunge the 55-19 loss to USC in the 2004 BCS title game. And it certainly doesn't wipe away the 24-14 loss to Florida in the 2008 BCS championship game. But it's a start. It's also a baby step toward Stoops regaining his once-famous "Big Game Bob" moniker, which had become a derisive nickname amid the Sooners' postseason wreckage.

"It is nice to get the monkey off our back against a good UConn team," said linebacker Travis Lewis, whose unit limited the Huskies to 335 yards and no offensive touchdowns.

Stoops did all he could to make this trip to the desert different. He changed where the team stayed and practiced from their most recent trips, and the Sooners said all the right things leading up to the game.

"It's a totally different vibe, a totally different atmosphere now," Oklahoma wide receiver Cameron Kenney said. "Everybody is in a business-like mentality."

Stoops even got in on the act.

"Each year is a different game, a different team," he said. "... This is part of the process of this year, and we've answered a lot of other questions through the year. This is another big step."

Despite the loss, the season also was a big step for UConn, which was making its first BCS appearance.

"We didn't win the game, but there's nothing negative that comes from this," UConn coach Randy Edsall said. "To be here and to compete the way these kids competed, I think that says it all.

"It's a game of inches. And we couldn't make enough of those inches today against an outstanding football team in Oklahoma."

UConn really wasn't within a mile of Oklahoma, talent-wise. In fact, this may have been the worst BCS bowl team in the BCS era, with the only competition coming from the 2004 Pittsburgh team that was ripped by Utah in the Fiesta Bowl. This game was over the second the matchup was announced in early December.

It's hard to say who looked more overmatched Saturday: UConn or the Big Ten, which went 0-5. The Huskies failed to score an offensive touchdown, but they kept things close for much of the game with a defensive touchdown and a kickoff return for a score.

Still, it's worth marveling over what UConn has accomplished in a short period of time. Just 12 seasons ago, the Huskies were a FCS school, battling the likes of Maine, Massachusetts and Delaware. Now, UConn has a BCS bowl on its resume.

"The hard part is getting here," Edsall said. "To be in position to be one of 10 teams in a BCS bowl is difficult."

While UConn can use the BCS appearance to continue building the program, Oklahoma can use this is a launching pad toward 2011. The Sooners figure to be the favorite to win the reconfigured Big 12, which will feature 10 teams in one division with the defections of Nebraska (Big Ten) and Colorado (Pac-10).

Only two seniors started on offense Saturday, right tackle Eric Mensik and running back DeMarco Murray, though receiver Ryan Broyles could turn pro. Like the offense, the defense had only two senior starters in end Jeremy Beal and free safety Quinton Carter, with Lewis a possible early entrant. But no one was worrying about next season on this night.

"The kids did a heck of a job," said Stoops, who now is 3-5 in BCS bowls. "I'm proud of them."

And happy to have that BCS losing streak behind him.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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