NORMAN, Okla. -- The Cotton Bowl has been a place for Oklahoma players to celebrate over the last five years.
The Sooners have turned the State Fair of Texas' signature event into their own personal playground. Winning has done that for them -- making the saltwater taffy on the nearby midway that much sweeter as they've tormented Texas and made Mack Brown's life miserable.
"Coming down the ramp at the Cotton Bowl is my favorite part of college football I've ever experienced," OU defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek said. "I'm more excited about this game than any I've ever played. I wish I could play it tomorrow."
Dvoracek's enthusiasm for Saturday's game is coming despite a talent disparity between the two teams that appears as great as ever in recent memory.
Texas is off to a 4-0 start and has looked like a legitimate national title contender with a wealth of offensive and defensive weapons. The 2-2 Sooners limped out with more losses during the month of September than in any of their previous five complete seasons.
Even though the Sooners are big underdogs, Stoops said his team will play with the assuredness developed by their recent success against the Longhorns.
"We'll go out and get after it like we always do," Stoops said. "I like the plan we've developed and feel like we match up with them better than people think we do."
That confidence is coming despite the iffy condition of All-American tailback Adrian Peterson, who has missed practice this week with a sprained ankle.
Peterson's injury is a continuation of a run of recent struggles for the Sooners.
The biggest difference between this team and the prototypical OU teams of the past has been its defensive struggles. Some speculate that the OU defense hasn't played to Stoops' exacting standards since his brother, former OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, left for the Arizona head coaching job.
Since then, the Sooners have looked lethargic in several big games -- most notably the 2003 Big 12 championship game loss to Kansas State and the Bowl Championship Series title game losses to LSU in the 2004 Sugar Bowl and Southern California in the Orange Bowl in January.
Despite a big effort in last week's 43-21 victory over Kansas State, the Sooners have continued that trend this season. OU ranks among the Big 12 bottom feeders in total defense (eighth), pass efficiency defense (10th), scoring defense (11th), turnover margin (10th) and pass defense (ninth).
Player departures have also played a part in the Sooners' recent drop. Ten Sooners were drafted in the NFL last season, leaving Oklahoma battling the biggest personnel void in the Big 12.
And of the nine Sooners who were selected as first-team All-Big 12 performers last season, only Peterson returns. Among the group of talented players gone from last year include former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jason White, offensive linemen Jammal Brown and Vince Carter, wide receiver Mark Clayton, defensive ends Dan Cody and Jonathan Jackson, linebacker Lance Mitchell and free safety Brodney Pool.
Only six starters from Saturday's game against Kansas State remain from the starting lineup last season against Texas.
And injuries have devastated the unit, particularly defensively. Playmaking defensive ends Larry Birdine and John Williams both were lost early with season-ending injuries.
"The players leaving had nothing to do with it, but we understood what was in front of us and what could happen," Stoops said. "We've got to grow and get better as we went through the season. Unfortunately, we've done that with two losses, but I do feel like we're making the progress we need to make.
"Some of it has been difficult, but you fight through it and keep improving as you go. I think we're doing that."
The Sooners have also made some recruiting mistakes, with only 10 players remaining from the 24-man 2003 class that was ranked among the best in the country. Only punter Cody Freeby is listed among OU's starters from that group, whose prominent defections included quarterback Tommy Grady, defensive linemen Lawrence "Mo" Dampeer and Alonzo Dotson, offensive lineman Akim Millington and wide receiver Tristen Ross.
Compare that to Texas, which has all but three players from that same recruiting class on its current roster. Included from that group are key starters like cornerback Tarell Brown, defensive end Tim Crowder, free safety Michael Griffin and wide receivers Limas Sweed and Billy Pittman.
The lack of production from that group has forced the Sooners to lean more heavily on younger players than in any of Stoops' previous seasons.
Four true freshmen were in OU's starting lineup Saturday night against Kansas State: tackle Branndon Braxton, wide receiver Malcolm Kelly and safeties Nic Harris and Reggie Smith. Freshman receivers Juaquin Iglesias and Manuel Johnson and offensive lineman Duke Robinson appeared in the first quarter and eight true freshmen played for the Sooners against the Wildcats.
The biggest nod to youth came when the Sooners went to redshirt freshman quarterback Rhett Bomar after the TCU loss. He struggled in his first two games with nine fumbles. But Bomar played better against Kansas State, as the Sooners had no turnovers for the first time since a victory over Baylor late last season.
"We still have the quarterback running game. We used all of our backs the other night," Bomar said. "At one point, we had three freshman receivers on the field at the same time -- three true freshmen -- so that shows you that the future is bright. They can play."
The young OU players will get better. But it will take time.
Stoops refuses to use that youth as an excuse.
"What's worrying going to do for me?" he said. "We're going to prepare them well and get them ready to play. Our guys have the excitement, the feeling and confidence knowing if we do things the right way we've got the opportunity to go down there and win."
Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.