Norman, Okla. With their own fans surrounding them in the friendly confines of Owen Field, the Oklahoma Sooners have been practically invincible.
It’s been more than five years and 33 straight games since the eighth-ranked Sooners (3-0) lost at home, the longest stretch in the country.
Get them playing somewhere else, and it’s a different story.
Under Bob Stoops, Oklahoma has a sparkling 69-2 record at home but is just 51-27 elsewhere — including five losses in the last seven games on the road or at neutral sites. This season’s first test away from home comes Saturday night, when the Sooners face Cincinnati (1-2) at Paul Brown Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Bengals.
“It shouldn’t matter if we’re on the road or not,” said defensive end Jeremy Beal, one of the team’s captains. “We should always play the same.”
As Beal would admit, that can be easier said than done, and recent history shows it. The Sooners outscored opponents 276-47 in six home victories last season, notching three shutouts and scoring at least 27 points in each game. They didn’t score half that many in four of their five losses away from home, where they averaged about two extra turnovers.
“You get out there and the crowd starts yelling,” offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. “Do you lose your edge or do you feed off the energy of the opposing crowd to have the energy that we have at home? Can we have that kind of energy on the road?”
At home, Oklahoma’s players are used to feeding off the 80,000-plus fans that have sold out all 71 games since Stoops took over in 1999. On the road, it’s more about playing the role of the antagonist and getting excited about plays that silence the opponent’s fans.
“You have to take the crowd out,” defensive tackle Adrian Taylor said. “You have to take everybody out but your coaches and your teammates and learn how to play not dependent on the crowd.”
Taylor said the Sooners hope to recreate the vibe of the 2008 team, which went 6-1 away from home before losing to Florida in the BCS championship game. The Sooners had four future first-round NFL draft picks that year.
“Maturity and experience and good players make a big difference,” Stoops said. The keys for Oklahoma this week are “character, toughness and attitude.”
“Not just with Cincinnati but with our remaining schedule, we have some tremendous challenges and opportunities to go play well on the road, and great teams do that,” Wilson added. “If we’re going to be a good team, we’ve got to embrace this opportunity of playing well on the road.”
The game serves as a tuneup for a far different neutral site experience a week later: the Red River Rivalry game against No. 7 Texas in Dallas with the Cotton Bowl crowd split between fans of the two schools.
Stoops’ Sooners are just 3-2 in road games played the week before the rivalry. And while Cincinnati is struggling to play at the same level it did during an undefeated 2009 regular season, the Sooners might be tempted to look past the Bearcats to the Longhorns.
“We’re always talking about it, we’re always excited,” receiver Kenny Stills said. “They’re always on our mind in the back of our head because that’s always a big game for us.”
This year, there’s the additional challenge of having more freshmen than usual playing meaningful snaps. A dozen freshmen have already played, with Stills, nickelback Tony Jefferson and fullback Trey Millard in starting roles. Another seven redshirt freshmen and sophomores figure to make their first road starts.
Safety Jonathan Nelson, a junior with just two career starts away from Owen Field, said he has learned quickly how important it is to ignore the distractions that can come with traveling.
“I think that’s one thing where experience can help you out because the older you get, the more you realize that you’re not going to remember any of that when you get older,” said Nelson, whose first start came in a 41-13 loss at Texas Tech.
“You’re going to remember the games, not the hotel, not the plane ride, not the bus ride to the airport. Just the actual game and how you performed in that game is the main key, and that’s what you’re going to remember.”