CINCINNATI -- The sign in Cincinnati's meeting room lists the three goals for the offense this week. Only one of the goals – the last one – is followed by an exclamation point. "Protect The Passer!" it says.
The emphasis is earned. No. 8 Oklahoma (3-0) could have an easy time on Saturday if it can keep Cincinnati's Zach Collaros running around at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bearcats (1-2) have already given up 15 sacks – their total for all last season – and have gotten off to a stunningly bad start because they can't protect the quarterback.
Can an offense that was one of the nation's best last year get its act together against one of the nation's best teams? "I think we can do it," Collaros said. "I think we can put it all together now. We've got a couple games under our belt. We're sick of feeling like we're letting people down."
The Sooners have what it takes to keep the mayhem going in the Bearcats backfield. Defensive end Jeremy Beal had 11 sacks last season, fourth on the school list. He's got two so far along with four tackles in the backfield.
He'll lead the rush to get to Collaros, who hasn't had much time behind a revamped line missing two of its starters from last year. "Didn't those guys go undefeated last year until their bowl game?" defensive tackle Adrian Taylor said. "That's not a coincidence, I don't think. Those guys are going to pick it up.
They're going to get back on track." The Bearcats went unbeaten in the regular season last year, winning the Big East for the second time before losing to Florida in the Sugar Bowl. They've already lost twice as many games this season, failing on the road at Fresno State and North Carolina State.
Their biggest test yet comes in their biggest stadium. Cincinnati plays its second game at Paul Brown, home of the NFL's Bengals. The other game was in 2002 and went down as one of the most memorable in school history.
A dropped pass in the final seconds saved a 23-19 victory for No. 6 Ohio State, which went on to win the national title. Could Oklahoma have an equally tough time? The Sooners are nearly invincible in Norman, where they've won 33 in a row and gone 69-2 under coach Bob Stoops. They're just 51-27 away from Owen Field.
Their first road trip of the season takes them to an NFL field. The Sooners like the idea. "A college stadium is much more personal, but it's great to play in an NFL stadium because they're usually bigger and they're made for the big stage," Beal said. "You're looking forward to the next level, and it's exciting to play in something like that."
The Sooners are accustomed to the NFL stage, playing at the homes of the Chiefs, Cowboys, Cardinals and Dolphins in recent years. Stoops likes visiting stadiums, as his wife found out when they went to Italy. "The Colosseum in Rome," Stoops said, quickly naming his favorite. "Really.
Think about that tradition. I couldn't wait to go. Once my wife and I were able to go a few years ago with some friends. As soon as I got there, I couldn't get there fast enough. That was cool."
Many of the Bearcats have watched Bengals and high school games at Paul Brown. Thirty-seven of them grew up in the area, so their first game there has significance. "It'll be an awesome atmosphere," said linebacker J.K. Schaffer, who estimates he's been a fan for 10 Bengals games there.
"We're playing in front of our city. We want to represent our city and the Bengals organization, since we're playing at their home field." To do that, the Bearcats will have to keep up with Oklahoma's fast-moving offense, which steamrolled Cincinnati 52-26 in the opening game of their series two years ago at Norman.
Receiver Ryan Broyles made his collegiate debut in that game, setting an Oklahoma freshman record with 141 yards on seven catches. Heading into the rematch, the junior has six straight 100-yard receiving games and has scored in five of the last six. He'll be facing a defense that has no senior starters.
"Last year, we struggled a little bit on the road, so as an offense we do have a little something to prove," quarterback Landry Jones said. Not as much as Cincinnati does. The Bearcats have dropped out of the national discussion with their rough start.
A lopsided loss to Oklahoma would leave them with their worst start since 2006, a huge step back for a program that thought it could remain among the nation's best. "Our confidence is not too shaken right now," running back John Goebel said. Right now.