By John Shinn
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — There isn’t a player in Oklahoma’s locker room with broader shoulders than Blake Bell. It’s good because the Sooner quarterback is likely going to feel like the weight of the world is spread across them Saturday afternoon.
Quarterbacks have to deal with that kind of pressure on a game-by-game basis, but it’s magnified when his team goes on the road.
If Bell’s feeling the heat, he’s masked it like a poker ace. He says the rookie nerves were silenced long ago. He got them out of the way running the “Belldozer” package the previous two seasons.
“I think being out there last year in some big situations — Notre Dame and Okie State and stuff like that — you feel a little bit of a presence back there,” he said. “Obviously, I’m not dropping back and throwing last year. Still, being in those big-game situations, it helps out a little bit.”
Saturday, however, will be different. He’s no longer the guy coming in to spark the offense and close out a drive. He’ll be under the gun from the opening snap. Many OU quarterbacks — and some really good ones at that — struggled the first time they went on the road for the their first big game.
Landry Jones’ initial road start was against Miami of Fla., in 2009. He was 18-for-30 for 188 yards and a touchdown pass, but OU tried its best to keep Jones of harm’s way in that game. The Sooners ran the ball 42 times and were only 5 for 15 converting third downs in a 21-20 loss.
Sam Bradford put up big numbers in his first road start (16 for 22 for 244 yards and three touchdowns in a 62-21 victory over Tulsa in 2007). But the first time OU left the state with Bradford under center, didn’t turn out so well. Bradford was just 8 for 19 for 112 yards and two interceptions in a 27-24 loss at Colorado.
Clearly, former OU offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson tried to minimize the stress on the quarterbacks in those games.
The 14th-ranked Sooners (3-0) don’t appear to have that against the 22nd-ranked Fighting Irish (3-1). Current offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said he won’t treat Bell like a rookie quarterback Saturday.
“He’s been in tough environments, big games, in critical situations. He’s done all that on the road. He’s had to communicate. He’s had to work extremely hard to get the play off,” Heupel said. “When you play in tough environments like that it takes a lot of work and a lot of energy to get that done. Because of his experience that he has had, I expect him to handle it really well.”
If Bell does, the Sooners could leave South Bend, Ind., with a huge non-conference win that shoots them into the national title race and gives them a truckload of confidence with all of their attention turning toward the Big 12 Conference schedule.
A lot of it will depend on whether Bell plays like a veteran quarterback about to play in his ninth career road game, which he technically is dating back to the 2011 season, or like many first-year starters going on the road for the first time.
Teammates believe the former version will be the dominant force on Saturday.
“He’s made a lot of big plays for us on the road and in big games. I don’t think pressure’s one of the things that’s going to effect him,” OU center Gabe Ikard said. “He’s familiar, even just the package last year, he’s been in big moments. I’m sure he’ll play with great confidence and be ready to go.”
Which version arrives at Notre Dame Stadium is largely up to Bell. It’s all on his shoulders.
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