EL PASO, Texas — They dressed it up as best they could. No one could blame Stanford considering the way it played Thursday in its first bowl game in eight years.
The Cardinal kept it close, even had a chance to win in the waning minutes, before succumbing to Oklahoma, 31-27, in the Sun Bowl in front of a record crowd of 53,713.
But no matter how much coaches and teammates might have suggested otherwise, the team wasn’t the same without redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck.
Oklahoma’s Landry Jones underscored the point by completing 30 of 51 passes for 418 yards and three touchdowns, all to the elusive Ryan Broyles.
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With Luck on the sideline in sweats, nursing a broken right index finger, the once-mighty Cardinal offense looked anemic on a cloudless day in the American Southwest.
It scored only three points in the second half as the Sooners overcame a 24-17 halftime deficit for a satisfying victory.
“I thought our football team played as well as it possibly could,” Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said.
And perhaps that’s the deal. Relying on fifth-year senior Tavita Pritchard, Stanford challenged the Sooners (8-5) despite lacking a respectable passing attack.
After throwing three passes in four games during the regular season, Pritchard tried to engineer Luck’s high-scoring offense against one of the country’s best defenses.
He completed 8 of 19 passes for 117 yards but had two interceptions. It might have been enough had Stanford (8-5) not fallen apart on third-down plays. The Cardinal converted only one of 12.
As a result, Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart never found his rhythm despite gaining 135 yards in 32 carries.
“Our passing game wasn’t as good as Oklahoma’s, but that’s not on Tavita,” Harbaugh said.
On a day the defensive front shut down the Sooners’ running game, Stanford’s secondary again got burned.Jones, a redshirt freshman, had had an uneven season when taking over for 2008 Heisman winner Sam Bradford after he suffered a shoulder injury in September.
Executing a hurry-up offense, Jones completed 13 passes to Broyles for 156 yards, six to Dejuan Miller for 84 and three to tight end Trent Ratterree for 86.
“His first couple touchdowns were really easy to stop,” free safety Bo McNally said of Jones. “We just lost focus.”
Even when the defense had good stops Jones made big third-down plays; Oklahoma converted on 10 of 20 third-down situations.
None of it dented Stanford’s psyche.
Pritchard calmed down in the second quarter when Stanford scored 17 points and resembled the team that overpowered opponents this season.
Stanford had a great chance to expand its lead when Richard Sherman blocked Tress Way’s punt at the Oklahoma 11-yard-line late in the half.
On the next play, an illegal block by guard Andrew Phillips negated Pritchard’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Owen Marecic. The Cardinal settled for Nate Whitaker’s 35-yard field goal.
It didn’t seem like it at the time, but the Stanford scoring machine was about to go silent until Whitaker made another field goal early in the fourth quarter.
When the Cardinal took over at its 20 with 3:21 left for a potential heart-throbbing finish, it didn’t seem as if it would score.
And Stanford didn’t. Pritchard’s final wobbly pass fell harmlessly near Gerhart to all but end the program’s best season in years.