- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009

Even without Sam Bradford, Oklahoma has a serious ‘stache in its pocket.

Although most of the chatter surrounding Saturday’s matchup of the eighth-ranked Sooners (2-1) and No. 17 Miami (2-1) has centered on Bradford’s ailing throwing shoulder, the outcome is likely to ride on the right arm of mustache-sporting backup Landry Jones.

When Bradford went down with a sprained AC joint in the first half of the Sooners’ season-opening loss to Brigham Young, there was considerably more consternation among the crimson-and-cream faithful than on the Oklahoma sideline.

Sure, the hit that put Bradford’s shoulder in a sling was a major blow to Oklahoma’s high-powered offense and cast doubt over the Sooners’ season almost before it started. And there’s no way to dismiss the loss of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, the quarterback who has led the nation in passing efficiency the past two seasons.

But few teams were better positioned than Oklahoma to absorb such a shot.

For one thing, Oklahoma’s program has been predicated on dominant defense since Bob Stoops arrived in Norman in 1999. This season’s squad is no different, responding to Bradford’s injury by posting shutouts of Idaho State (64-0) and high-powered Tulsa (45-0). Entering Saturday’s game at Land Shark Stadium, the Sooners lead the nation in scoring defense (4.7 points a game).

For another, Oklahoma has one of the finest young quarterback coaches in the game in Josh Heupel. After finishing as the runner-up in the Heisman race in 2000 while leading the Sooners to the national title, Heupel stayed on campus to help Jason White to the award in 2003 before mentoring Bradford to the stiff-arming statue during last season’s record-breaking campaign. Give Heupel a prospect with a lithe mind and a reasonably live arm, and he’ll turn him into a quarterback. Give him a talent like Bradford or Jones - and watch out.

At 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds, Jones isn’t a normal backup. The redshirt freshman has a stronger arm than his junior counterpart and far more mobility, a trait that comes in handy against the speed-rush talents of teams like Texas, Florida and Miami. Jones arrived in Norman with a superior prep pedigree after throwing for 7,282 yards and 89 touchdowns during his final two seasons at Artesia (N.M.) High School while leading his team to back-to-back state titles as a Parade All-American and consensus top-five quarterback prospect.

Sure, he looked a little overwhelmed against the Cougars, completing just six of 12 passes for 51 yards when offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson admittedly went into an ultraconservative shock. But Jones hasn’t played like a raw replacement in his two starts since, completing 43 of 69 passes for 622 yards and nine touchdowns, including a school-record six scoring tosses against Tulsa.

“I feel myself getting better every snap. I’m getting more confident after every completion,” Jones said. “At this point, I’m just taking every start I can. … Ever since I was little, I’ve always wanted to play college football and hopefully someday in the [NFL]. Right now, I’m just living the dream.”

Even without Bradford, who returned to practice this week but won’t start Saturday, Oklahoma’s national title dreams are still intact. Unlike other one-loss BCS hopefuls like Southern Cal, Oklahoma’s schedule is loaded with opportunities to impress voters and strengthen its postseason resume. The Sooners still have five games remaining against ranked teams, including a date in Dallas with No. 2 Texas and a Bedlam series installment vs. No. 14 Oklahoma State.

Jones, who sports a scraggly mustache that makes him look like an extra from “Boogie Nights,” already has a cult following of Oklahoma students. They call themselves the “Mustache Mafia” and wear T-shirts emblazoned with their motto, “Fear the ‘Stache.” On Saturday, Jones will take the stage with an opportunity to earn some national converts.

Miami coach Randy Shannon, whose team is looking to redeem itself after last week’s 31-7 loss at Virginia Tech, doesn’t need convincing.

“[Jones] is patient,” he said. “He does what he needs to do to get the job done. He drops back, sees the coverage and goes to his reads. It’s a timing offense, and he does a great job of dropping back and getting the ball out. It’s the same offense [regardless of who plays quarterback]. It doesn’t change at all. They run the same plays. Have you seen the points they’re putting up?”

Those who have noticed no longer doubt the Sooners nor Bradford’s precocious protege.

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