No. 1 Sooners open vs. Tulsa with heavy hearts

September 2, 2011 - 4:00 PM
Oklahoma Field Football

Cliff Brunken finishes up the U in the OU at the center of Owen Field at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011. Number one Oklahoma opens the season on Saturday against Tulsa. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — When top-ranked Oklahoma takes to the field Saturday night, it will be with heavy hearts and high expectations.

After a training camp that included grieving the offseason death of starting linebacker Austin Box, the Sooners will host Tulsa as they start their bid for an eighth national championship with the preseason No. 1 ranking for the first time in eight years.

"The hard part is Austin, is not having him with us," coach Bob Stoops said. "The rest of it is nothing. At the end of the day, we always have a lot of hype around us. We really do. There's always a ton of talk, and that's all it is, is talk."

Oklahoma is loaded after a strong finish to last season. Quarterback Landry Jones led the Sooners to wins at Oklahoma State to earn a shot at the Big 12 title, against Nebraska to claim the conference crown and then over Connecticut to win the Fiesta Bowl and end a prolonged slide in BCS bowls.

Along with the focus on Jones and All-American receiver Ryan Broyles, the season starts with a good deal of attention on who won't be playing.

Box will be honored in a variety of ways during the season opener. All Sooners players will have a decal on their helmets and his replacement, Tom Wort, will be granted the opportunity to wear the No. 12 jersey that once was his.

Fellow linebacker Travis Lewis, a team captain who led the team in tackles each of the past three seasons, won't play because of a broken toe. Receiver Kenny Stills is also expected to be out — he indicated as much on Twitter, even if Stoops wouldn't confirm his suspension.

Damaris Johnson, arguably Tulsa's best player as the NCAA's career record holder in all-purpose yardage, will be held out after he was charged with felony embezzlement and accused of scheming with his girlfriend to take thousands of dollars in merchandise from the department store where she worked.

The Golden Hurricane will also honor a fallen teammate by wearing No. 71 stickers on their helmets in honor of offensive lineman Wilson Holloway, who died in February after fighting Hodgkin's lymphoma for nearly three years.

Amid all that, a Tulsa team that beat Notre Dame during a seven-game winning streak to close last season in the Top 25 will try to begin the 2011 season with the ultimate upset.

"This is a chance of a lifetime. We get to go play a No. 1 team at home," new defensive coordinator Brent Guy said. "Last year, I think there was three or four times the No. 1 team was upset. Those are the things that all kids come to college to dream about playing in those games, and this is one of them."

Both teams will employ the no-huddle schemes that have brought them great offensive success and plenty of wins in recent years.

Tulsa has led the nation in offense twice in recent years and put together three 10-win seasons in the past four years. Oklahoma crowned Sam Bradford the Heisman Trophy winner and played for the national title during the 2008 season before Jones took over the reins.

"Our guys understand what's at stake, for sure. Oklahoma is ranked No. 1 for a reason," first-year Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said. "They've proven it over and over again. They've got an outstanding ballclub. But all we can do is take care of our team."

Jones enters his third season as Oklahoma's starter, after being forced into duty in 2009 when Bradford got hurt. Down the stretch last season, he showed an ability to win games away from Owen Field, where the Sooners have the nation's longest home winning streak at 36 games.

Then in the offseason, he went on a mission trip, got engaged and dealt with the loss of Box, his friend and teammate.

"Definitely, it feels like a longer offseason than usual. Just I had a lot of emotions going on during that offseason, especially during the summer dealing with Austin and going to Haiti and just processing through a lot of different things," Jones said. "I think a lot of guys on this team are anxious to play and ready to play on Saturday."