TEMPE, Ariz. — As Oklahoma’s defensive captain and one of the most eloquent players on either side of the ball, Travis Lewis had become a go-to guy for reporters, someone who could provide a non-slanted assessment of the team.
So when the senior linebacker zipped up over the final six weeks of the season, it was a pretty good indication of just how disappointing the year had gone for the Sooners.
“Everybody knew the expectations going into this season — the fans did, we did, the coaches did,” Lewis said after breaking his silence on Wednesday. “The most disappointing thing is we felt like we had that team. We felt like we had all the pieces in place this year. And we didn’t meet expectations.”
When Oklahoma (9-3) faces Iowa in Friday night’s Insight Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium, it will be the Sooners’ 13th straight bowl — every year since coach Bob Stoops took over the program — and give them a chance at a nation-leading 33rd season with at least 10 wins.
Nice accomplishments, just not what was expected coming out of Norman.
Armed with one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Landry Jones and receivers in Ryan Broyles, with talented players at pretty much every position and a No. 1 ranking, the Sooners had aspirations of earning their second national title under Stoops and eighth overall.
They got off to a solid start, bumping off Florida State and Texas while winning their first six games. A 41-38 home loss to Texas Tech on Oct. 22 hurt, but, if the rest of the season unfolded just right, Oklahoma could still be right in the thick of the national-championship chase.
Following a resounding win over No. 8 Kansas State the next week, the Sooners’ season started to unravel.
Broyles, an All-American and the NCAA’s all-time leader in receptions, tore a knee ligament against Texas A&M the following week. Oklahoma won that game, but followed with a loss to Baylor and ended the regular season two weeks later with a deflating 44-10 rout by Bedlam rival Oklahoma State.
A year after rolling over Connecticut in the Fiesta Bowl, the Sooners are back in the desert trying to put a strong finish on what’s been a frustrating season.
“Every year you are not going to be in the national championship game, but you still have to try and win each and every game you play,” Stoops said. “That’s what we are trying to do.”
Iowa (7-5) doesn’t figure to be a walkover for the Sooners.
The Hawkeyes barely won half their games, but played a brutal schedule that included seven ranked teams. Iowa also has a bit of confidence in bowls, having won a school-record three straight, including 27-24 over Missouri in last year’s Insight Bowl.
The Hawkeyes entered last year’s game as underdogs and had to switch gears when their top running back was suspended. They enter this year’s game with almost identical circumstances: Oklahoma is favored by 14 and Iowa will be without running back Marcus Coker, who was suspended for violating the university’s student-athlete code of conduct.
“It is almost scary how similar the circumstances are,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, a former University of Maine head coach.
The Insight Bowl will be the culmination of a long, difficult year at Iowa.
During the offseason, the Hawkeyes had 13 players hospitalized for a muscle disorder called rhabdomyolysis that was caused by a team workout, leading to criticism of Ferentz and the program.
Iowa had some rough stretches during the regular season, losing two of its final three games, had defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski leave the program to pursue another coaching job and will be playing its final game with defensive coordinator Norm Parker, who’s retiring.
On top of that, they’ll try to replace Coker’s 1,384 yards and 15 touchdowns with a group of unproven running backs — none of whom have more than 18 carries.
“We better be motivated and to have a chance in this game, we will have to play our absolute best in all three phases,” Ferentz said. “We can’t open the door anywhere and expect to win.”
Especially with Oklahoma and Lewis looking to emphatically close the door on its season.
“I thought, maybe if I just quit the talking, my team would focus on playing and start winning ballgames,” Lewis said. “I didn’t want to make excuses for our wins, for our losses. I wanted to just practice and play and let everything take care of itself.”