Memories of Stillwater

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The scene outside Boone Pickens Stadium following the Owls' 41-24 loss to Oklahoma State on Sept. 19 was bizarrely fascinating. As the Owls mingled with family and friends near the charter buses that hummed ready to return the traveling party to the airport for the flight home, there was an air of satisfaction that engulfed players and supporters alike, a jovial mood resulting from an unspoken acceptance that the Owls survived a pair of nightmarish performances to open the season and had shown signs of life against the vaunted Cowboys.

The proof of the Owls' potential was in the pudding of statistics that highlighted a second half in which they outpaced No. 16 Oklahoma State 21-20. A starter at quarterback had emerged in the form of sophomore transfer Nick Fanuzzi, the inexperienced offensive line began to jell, Toren Dixon and Vance McDonald produced eye-opening catches, and freshmen tailback Charles Ross announced his arrival. The offense, saddled with youth at crucial positions, clicked on three successive possessions, and as the Owls said their final goodbyes, that moment represented a fresh start. Unbridled optimism and joyous enthusiasm were palpable.

"After the Oklahoma State game we felt pretty good about the direction of the offense," Owls coach David Bailiff said. "That's where we lost Nick and we lost (right guard) Jake Hicks."

Nearly seven weeks later that muted celebration remains the emotional apex of the 2009 season. Fanuzzi missed the following two weeks with a shoulder strain, and Hicks hasn't played since being helped off the field that night with a sprained foot. En route to concluding three successive second-half drives with touchdowns, the Owls covered 190 yards on just 23 plays, averaging 8.3 yards per snap via a balanced run-pass ratio of 11 rushes to 12 passes. 

In the two games without Fanuzzi, the Owls averaged just 3.3 yards per play against Vanderbilt and Tulsa. When Fanuzzi returned against Navy, the Owls experienced a slight boost in production (5.0 yards/play against the Midshipmen), but that efficiency began to erode at East Carolina (4.5 yards/play) and approached pre-Fanuzzi levels of ineffectiveness against UCF (3.8 yards/play). The Owls' offense has been down in the doldrums for so long that it's hard to believe that the very same unit that generated a spark against Oklahoma State will take the field this Saturday at Ford Stadium against rival SMU. A revitalization is in order.

"And that's what we have to capture, though," Bailiff said. "Some of our problems is we haven't had a game where we've been able to put it all together where our football team is confident. That's partly due to we've over-scheduled, we've been injured, we're young at some of the wrong places and inexperienced. We need to have two or three very fortunate things happen to us like a turnover that we score on and energizes us or a kickoff return or something positive in the program that's going to spark us. I think we're going to be close to getting that."

Hicks' return at SMU should reinforce the Owls' confidence if only for the fact they will have their entire offense intact. The offensive line, a jumbled mess since Hicks and his backup, Eric Ball, were lost, will feature the quintet that started at UAB, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. That development should provide Fanuzzi a sense of relief for, after standing in the face of mounting pressure against Navy and East Carolina, Fanuzzi resembled Mumble against UCF.

"We've had five different lineups in that offensive line - that hurts," Bailiff said. "Everything on offense starts right there at the offensive line, and those guys have to learn how to work together.

"Fanuzzi - that's been hard on him, just the inconsistencies in the offensive line. With Jake coming back that's going to help us really solidify that offensive line, which will solidify Nick where he'll be confident when standing in the pocket."

Furthermore, the Owls have learned through their hardships the need to get their best players on the field simultaneously, no matter the required creative scheming. Senior tailback Jeramy Goodson briefly eluded to anticipated schematic changes on Monday before Bailiff interrupted his revelation with a humorous "easy now" as Goodson addressed the assembled media. The assumption is that Goodson, Ross and Tyler Smith will be actively involved in the game plan now that the linemen most capable of carving running lanes are back together. And, given the expected improvement in pass protection, Fanuzzi should return to his earlier-season form of checking through his progressions to locate an open receiver as opposed to hastily and recklessly chucking balls down field in order to avert another crushing blow to the sternum.

The Owls rank 111th in total offense (299.1 yards/game) and 117th in scoring offense (14.9 points/game), so no one is expecting Chase Clement, Jarett Dillard or James Casey to sprint out onto the field Saturday afternoon. But we all witnessed what this offense is capable off in Stillwater, and given their return to health and their week off to recuperate mentally, it isn't asking too much of the Owls to reprise the act that had so many excited seven weeks ago.

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Kind of sobering that a 17-point loss is the season's high note.

Hopefully things start to come together on offense with the line back in place. I'm curious to see the new plan to get the 3 RB's on the field together.

This season can still be salvaged with a strong finish.

With the Live Chat nixed, you should come join us in the East stands Saturday.

At Ease: It's been a sobering season. Would you rather recall that loss or the misery that followed UAB, Navy or UCF? All pigs are not equally unattractive. - MK

So a return to the form that produced a 17-point loss is what we are hoping for. Am I the only one who doesn't feel great about that?

Gothic R: You've got to narrow your focus to the second half, the one where the Owls outscored the Pokes 21-20. Just imagine that Dez Bryant didn't play (heck, he shouldn't have played), and disregard that fumbled field goal attempt the Pokes returned for a touchdown. You see, when you stand on one leg, arc your back, close one eye and squint the other, the picture looks beautiful. Work with me here. - MK

Okay, MK, I'm standing on one leg, back arced, one eye closed, and... OWWW!

Gothic R: After a while, you won't even notice that discomfort. - MK

Unless we can figure out how to score more than 30 pts, we will not win Saturday.

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