Sooner Boomers Near-perfect execution by a crunching defense clinched an unbeaten, untied, unbelievable season for Oklahoma

January 08, 2001

What was Carol Stoops whispering to her husband? Was she wishing
him luck? Reminding him to floss? Knowing she wouldn't speak to
him for about 12 hours, she'd staked him out on Wednesday
morning in the back of a banquet room at the Oklahoma team hotel
in Miami Beach. When the meeting broke, Bob Stoops lagged behind
to share an embrace with his wife.

"We're going to win," said Carol, her eyes welling with tears.
"I know it."

"I know it too," said Bob, the Sooners' coach. "It's our
destiny."

To other people, the only thing that seemed preordained going
into the Orange Bowl, which pitted Oklahoma against heavily
favored Florida State in a battle for the national championship,
was that the game would be marked by a ton of offense. The 11-1
Seminoles had averaged 42.4 points and a nation's best 549.0
yards per game going into this season finale against the 12-0
Sooners, who had averaged 39.0 and 429.3. After practice four
days before the game, Stoops had listened patiently to a litany
of reasons his team would struggle against Florida State, then
cut off a reporter and said, "Hey, we have some athletes too,
you know."

Now the world knows. With an audacious, ingenious defensive game
plan that utterly befuddled Chris Weinke, the Seminoles' Heisman
Trophy-winning quarterback, Oklahoma held powerful Florida State
to one measly safety in a 13-2 victory that earned the Sooners
their seventh national title.

God bless the Sooners, for by winning they spared America an
off-season of bickering over Miami and Florida State, who likely
would have been co-national champions had Oklahoma lost.

Hurricanes fan: "We beat you in the regular season, so we're the
real national champs."

Seminoles fan: "Yeah, but Washington beat you, so by your logic,
the Huskies are Number 1!"

That debate, mercifully, is moot. The Sooners, who entered the
Orange Bowl as 11-point underdogs, are the undisputed champions,
having pulled off perhaps the most stunning postseason victory
since Penn State picked off Vinny Testaverde five times to beat
Miami in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. That Florida State was listed as
such a heavy favorite didn't offend the Oklahoma players as much
as make them feel comfortable, for the Sooners hadn't been
favored in most of their other big games this season. "If the
oddsmakers decided who won," said Stoops two days before the
Orange Bowl, "we'd be 7-4."

While Oklahoma sought merely to win the game, the Seminoles, who
had won last year's championship, had grander ambitions. They
spoke of a desire to make history, of becoming the first Florida
State team to win back-to-back national titles. They craved
recognition, in the words of linebacker Tommy Polley, as "one of
the best teams in the history of college football." Instead, they
ended up losers, a result that surprised Stoops less than anyone
else on earth.

A quick story about the Sooners' coach. In order to goose
attendance at the exhibition opener of the Sooners' softball team
last February, Stoops was invited to take batting practice. He
faced Jennifer Stewart, an All-America lefthander who would lead
Oklahoma to the 2000 NCAA title. Stewart was throwing gas. To the
crowd's amusement, Stoops couldn't do much with her first 10
pitches, whiffing on some, dribbling others toward the mound.
Instead of leaving the batter's box when his turn was over, he
turned to softball coach Patty Gasso and said, "I want 10 more
cuts." Whereupon he started making solid contact. "I took her to
the fence," Stoops says with a smile.

This anecdote isn't meant to illustrate the 40-year-old Stoops's
athleticism--he was a four-year starter and two-time All-Big Ten
safety at Iowa from 1979 through '82--or the erosion thereof. It's
intended to highlight Stoops's distinguishing characteristic, a
rock-solid belief in himself, which has infected everyone else in
the Oklahoma football program. Stoops has exuded this confidence
throughout the two years it has taken him to transform the
Sooners from the moribund mess he inherited in December 1998 to
national champions. It was on display when reporters last week
asked him how on earth his players could hope to match up with
the team speed of the Seminoles. "No one has described us as
slow, either," he responded.

Don't think the Sooners didn't take heart in the fact that before
taking over at Oklahoma, Stoops had served three years as
defensive coordinator at Florida. The suffocating pressure
defense he installed in Gainesville, the so-called Stun 'N' Done,
complemented the Gators' Fun 'N' Gun offense and helped Florida
win the 1996 national title. The Gators' victim in the
championship game? Florida State, which fell 19 points short of
its season scoring average in that 52-20 defeat. While preparing
for the Orange Bowl, Stoops and his staff took some comfort
knowing that the Seminoles had changed their offensive schemes
precious little over the last four years.

Then again, four years ago Weinke was in his sixth season of
riding the bus as a minor leaguer in the Toronto Blue Jays'
organization, not in his third year of directing one of the most
prolific offenses in Florida State's history. Sitting in a
makeshift film room at the Fontainebleau Hilton Hotel in Miami
Beach the day before the game, Mike Stoops--Bob's little brother
and co-defensive coordinator--spent yet another worried hour
studying video of the 28-year-old Weinke, who'd occupied Mike's
thoughts and haunted his sleep for a month. As Weinke completed
pass after pass on tape, Stoops sighed and said, "I wish he'd
gone in the NFL draft last year."

Weinke may be wishing the same thing after Wednesday night. So
superbly did the Sooners' defenders disguise their coverages,
Weinke could not find his rhythm, even while completing 25 of his
51 passes for 274 yards. He also threw two interceptions and
coughed up the fumble that led to Oklahoma's only touchdown.

Indeed, the game's key matchup was the Seminoles' formidable
passing game versus the Sooners' pass defense. Oklahoma won the
battle with execution and trickery. The Sooners went with five
and six defensive backs most of the night, daring Florida State
to run. (The Seminoles couldn't, mustering only 27 yards on 17
rushes.) Oftentimes, nickelback Ontei Jones would start about
five yards from the line of scrimmage, then, just before the
snap, sprint back into deep coverage. Jones and free safety J.T.
Thatcher would blitz on one play, then fake a blitz on the next.
"It seemed like they had radar," said Florida State wideout
Antrews Bell after the game. "Everything we tried they were ready
for."

Bell and his fellow receivers didn't do Weinke any favors,
dropping several balls, including one in the end zone by Robert
Morgan with the Sooners clinging to a 6-0 lead in the fourth
quarter. Looking on from the Seminoles' sideline, flinching at
every muffed ball, was Marvin (Snoop) Minnis, who had caught 63
passes and scored 11 touchdowns for the Seminoles this season. On
Dec. 20, four days after walking in Florida State's graduation
ceremony and, in theory, receiving his degree, Minnis learned
that he'd failed two courses and been declared academically
ineligible for the championship game.

"It was a big shock," said a heartsick Minnis four days before
the game. "I failed research methods and criminology"--the latter
being a particular problem, considering Snoop's major:
criminology. "It's not like I didn't go to class or didn't do my
work," he said. "I went to class every day and turned in all my
papers. But I guess I messed up the exams. It had to be that."

Snoop's absence had the added consequence of preventing the
Seminoles from running as much no-huddle offense as they would
have liked to. Because that up-tempo style is so taxing on the
receivers, said Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt,
"you've got to have at least six receivers, and you're better off
with eight." With Snoop out and Bell nursing a sore hamstring,
the Seminoles were, in effect, down to five.

Even if Minnis had played, Oklahoma's defense would have been up
to the challenge. In the final month of the season it had grown
accustomed to bailing out the Sooners' sputtering offense. After
leading Oklahoma to October victories over Texas, Nebraska and
Kansas State, quarterback Josh Heupel cooled considerably. One of
his worst outings came at Texas A&M on Nov. 11, when he was
flummoxed by the soft umbrella zone that the Aggies unveiled just
for him, and threw three interceptions. With the Sooners trailing
31-28 in the waning minutes of that game, Oklahoma middle
linebacker Torrance Marshall picked off a pass and ran 41 yards
for the winning touchdown.

Watching the game on television in Miami, Hurricanes backup
linebacker Sheven Marshall suddenly found himself being cursed by
his teammates. They were giving him good-natured grief for being
a blood relation of the player (Torrance is Sheven's older
brother) whose heroics for the Sooners had preserved Oklahoma's
undefeated season--and thus prevented Miami from facing Florida
State in the Orange Bowl.

Torrance Marshall is as well-traveled as Heupel, whose tortuous
journey from his native Aberdeen, S.Dak., to Norman (with two
stops in Utah) has been generously documented. Marshall's route
from South Florida to a captaincy in Norman was no less
circuitous. Unable to make the grades he needed to qualify for a
scholarship at Miami, Marshall packed his bags for Kemper
Military School and College in Boonville, Mo., where he was
required to "square" his food--bringing his fork straight up from
his plate, then straight across into his mouth--but permitted to
take the most direct route to the ballcarrier. He made 182
tackles in two seasons and in 1997 became the first junior
college All-America in Kemper's history. Even after returning to
Florida and putting in an extra semester at Miami-Dade Community
College, he failed to meet Miami's academic requirements. He then
chose Oklahoma over Kansas State. With the Sooners he has proved
a perfect complement to stellar weakside linebacker Rocky Calmus.

It was a first quarter interception by Marshall, the Orange
Bowl's MVP, that led to Oklahoma's first points, a 27-yard field
goal by Tim Duncan. Astoundingly, those were the only points the
Sooners would need to clinch their first national crown since
1985.

The game had been over an hour when a sudden downpour forced the
celebrating Heupel family off the field. In a tunnel in Pro
Player Stadium, Heupel spotted a close friend, Patrick McClung, a
minister in Norman. Despite the deluge the two friends walked to
midfield and knelt in prayer. Losing the Heisman to Weinke had
stung Heupel more than he had let on. All along, however, he had
said he would trade that storied doorstop for a national title
any day.

Now that the day was upon him, he wept openly, his tears mingling
with the rain as he thanked the Almighty for allowing him and the
Sooners to fulfill their destiny.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS COVER Case Closed! Oklahoma proved that it's No. 1 by stepping all over mighty Florida State Quentin Griffin scores against the Seminoles COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER MINOR DAMAGE In a typical display of Oklahoma's tackling efficiency, Orange Bowl MVP Marshall (10) and Corey Heinecke hammered Travis Minor. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS Heupel's mobility paid off (214 yards passing, 23 rushing) for the Sooners, but when Weinke took flight it cost the Seminoles the ball and set up Oklahoma's touchdown. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO DEAD-END ZONE Florida State's best chance to score slipped through the fingers of Morgan early in the fourth quarter.

"It seemed like they had radar," Bell said of the Sooners.
"Everything we tried they were ready for."

Even if Minnis had played, Oklahoma's defense would have been up
to the challenge.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)