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Is the Sooner Express Unstoppable?

Dec. 29, 2008
Dec. 29, 2008

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Dec. 29, 2008

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Is the Sooner Express Unstoppable?

Florida at least has to slow the point-a-minute Oklahoma offense and give its own high-powered attack a chance to run off with the BCS championship

JOE HADEN showedup for a recent film session looking a bit bleary-eyed. "Had my final inarchitectural history at 7:30 this morning," explained the 19-year-oldFlorida cornerback, who then grumbled about needing some z's. Haden will needto catch up on his sleep by Jan. 8. He is one of seven sophomores starting on aGators defense whose mission that night in the BCS championship game in Miamiwill be to outplay the most prolific, explosive and impatient offense incollege football history. With Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback Sam Bradforddirecting coordinator Kevin Wilson's souped-up, hurry-up, mismatch-making,record-breaking offense, Oklahoma (12--1) racked up 702 points this season, themost by a major college team since Minnesota scored 725 in ... 1904.

This is an article from the Dec. 29, 2008 issue

Five minutesafter cuing up video from Oklahoma's 35--10 win over TCU on Sept. 27, Haden waswide awake. The Sooners had his full attention. Bottled up at his own nine-yardline late in the first quarter, Bradford kicked the hurry-up into overdrive,and for a few slapstick moments the Horned Frogs called to mind Lucy and Ethelon the chocolate-factory assembly line. "Check it out," says Haden, asOklahoma snaps the ball before TCU is remotely ready. "They got dudeslooking at the sideline, dudes running off the field. Even the camera guywasn't ready." A jerk of the lens at the start of the play confirms that,yes, even the videographer is struggling to keep up with the frenetic Sooners'attack. Three plays later the Horned Frogs are flagged for their secondsubstitution infraction in four snaps, and senior safety Steven Coleman can beseen slapping his thigh pads in exasperation.

Haden doesn'tblame him. "Those coaches can't be changing personnel and trying to getsubs in when the ball's about to be hiked," he says.

TCU coach GaryPatterson pleads no contest. Highly regarded for his defensive acumen—his teamranked second in the country in total defense in 2008—Patterson was determinedto shuttle personnel groups on and off the field that night, the narrow windowto do so between snaps be damned. "As soon as I quit trying to be aguru," Patterson said last week, "we played a lot better."

It's true. Onlythe Texas Longhorns, who dealt the Sooners their sole loss of the season,played Oklahoma tougher than TCU. Trailing 28--3 late in the second quarter,the Horned Frogs gave up just one more touchdown the rest of the way. All told,they sacked Bradford three times—he was taken down only six times in Oklahoma'sother 12 games—and forced the Sooners to punt a season-high nine times whileholding them to 25 yards rushing.

How do you stopthese guys? You don't, concedes Haden. "They're going to get theirs,"he says. "We're not going to win every play against a team like this, butwe're going to win our share."

Such wins havebeen rare in '08. When Oklahoma isn't dissecting you with the pass (356.5 yardsa game), it's gashing you with the run (205.5). One of the reasons these guyshave moved the ball so well is because they held on to it better than anyone inthe country, committing nine turnovers, a Division I-A low. That total includedBradford's six interceptions—in 442 attempts, with only one pick since the Oct.11 loss to the Longhorns. Bradford threw for 48 touchdowns in '08, and theSooners scored more than 60 points in their last five games. "And the gamebefore that," points out Gators defensive coordinator Charlie Strong,"they scored 58."

How, then, doesFlorida (12--1) put the brakes on this point-a-minute machine, which engineered18 scoring drives of 60 seconds or less? The question was put to Patterson,whose 2005 Horned Frogs, by the way, were the last team to beat the Sooners inNorman. Befitting a man who favors all-black ensembles, Patterson could nothave been more basic with his first key. Quite simply, Florida must ...

... Make the OUoffense one-dimensional.
"If you want to stay in the game," Patterson says, "you cannotallow them to run the football." The Sooners' two lowest rushing totals byfar came against TCU and then, a fortnight later, in the 45--35 loss to Texas(48 yards). The Horned Frogs and the Longhorns were more stout against the runthis season than the Gators, who gave up a respectable 105.3 yards pergame.

While Bradfordpicked apart the Longhorns' secondary in the first half, he came underincreasing pressure from ill-tempered bookend pass rushers Brian Orakpo andSergio Kindle, who combined for three sacks and subjected Bradford tocrash-test-dummy treatment on numerous other occasions. Texas owed much of itscomeback victory to its ability to ...

... TenderizeBradford.
"He's just chillin' back there," said a mildly disgusted Haden duringthat film session last Thursday. There was Bradford against TCU, loitering inthe pocket for roughly five "Mississippis" before finding tight endJermaine Gresham on a crossing pattern. A similar refrain was heard fromaffronted defenders in meeting rooms throughout the Big 12 this season: Lookhow much time he has! That complaint calls to mind Mark Twain's line:"Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything aboutit."

Bradford isseldom disturbed in his place of business thanks to the extraordinary hulksworking the door, so to speak. All five starters, including All-America leftguard Duke Robinson, All--Big 12 center Jon Cooper and duchy-sized left tacklePhil Loadholt (6'8", 337 pounds), returned to the Sooners' line in '08.With 170 combined starts going into the title game, they are "a dominantforce," marvels Baylor linebacker Joe Pawelek, whose Bears lost to Oklahoma49--17 on Oct. 4. "Every threat they pose—it all starts with thoseguys."

"When I firstgot in this business," says a crusty Big 12 defensive assistant who askednot to be named, "the question was, 'How's anybody ever going to stop thewishbone?' The same way they'll stop [this Oklahoma] offense: Whip 'em at theline of scrimmage, put some pressure on the quarterback and do the best you cancovering. That's never changed." Do all that against the Sooners, he says,"and you got a chance."

The Gators'chance will improve if they can ...

... Weather theearly storm.
So inimitable is Oklahoma's hurry-up that a defense can't possibly get a feelfor it playing against the scout team in practice. "It's like getting readyfor a triple-option team," says Patterson. "You can never emulate whatthey really do, so you have to try to survive the first quarter, until youfigure out all their reads."

While solvingthose riddles, Florida free safety Major Wright will be continually remindinghimself ...

... Don't be asucker.
"Some quarterbacks just stare the receiver down, and you know exactly wherethey're going," says Wright. "This guy [Bradford] can look you off,pump fake you, have you going one way when you need to come back the otherway."

Will the Gatorsput heat on the 2008 Heisman winner? Yes, but probably not as much as they puton the '06 Heisman winner, Troy Smith of Ohio State. Recall how NFL-bound endsDerrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss took over the BCS title game two years ago,combining for five sacks. This season Florida lacks that world-class speed offthe edge. Sophomore Carlos Dunlop, a 6'6" freak of nature who two years agowas returning kickoffs in high school, will be a consistent force someday, buthe isn't there yet. While his front four is not "the most intimidatinggroup," Strong acknowledges, "what they do exceptionally well is playas a unit, each understanding his strengths and limitations."

In that way theyreflect a Florida defense devoid of superstars and one season removed fromdreadfulness. Following the '06 national title season, four juniors left forthe NFL. "All from the defense," points out coach Urban Meyer. "Weknew there would be a void. The guys who came back were saying, 'Hey, we playFlorida defense.' Well, no you don't. You were a backup. You're playingsomething, and I'm not sure what it was, but it wasn't Floridadefense."

The Gatorsfinished the 2007 season 98th in pass defense, 41st in total defense, first inmortification. They hurled themselves into off-season workouts. At Meyer'surging, they spent more time together off the field as well. They're moreaccountable to the program and to each other. On Mondays, the team's off day,the defense meets for video sessions led by linebackers Brandon Spikes and RyanStamper.

While the unit isyoung, the guys on it "have grown up," says Meyer, who agrees that theidentity of this defense differs from that of his national championship unit in'06—"and not in a negative way. We're kind of an all-for-one, one-for-alltype outfit."

They aretight-knit and loose, cracking up last week when Meyer interrupted practice fora series of impromptu sprints between graduate assistants—who provedconclusively that Florida's vaunted team speed does not carry over to itscoaching staff. The mood was less cheerful at the end of the workout, whendefensive linemen and linebackers were held back for extra sprints and grassdrills. By honing their fitness to a razor's edge during the 33-day breakbetween games, the front seven are preparing to ...

... Beat theclock.
That is, they're expecting to stay on the field for more snaps than usual,rather than risk being caught in a substitution and getting flagged for toomany men on the field, à la TCU. Says Baylor's Pawelek, "It's almost worthit to simplify your game plan and simplify your substitution package so you canget the call in, get set and be ready to play. Communication becomes even moreimportant ... making sure everyone is playing the same defense. Even if it'snot the coach's first choice, if you're all playing the same defense, you'll beall right."

This tracks withwhat Florida safeties coach Chuck Heater has been telling his guys: "Evenif we've got the wrong call in, make sure everybody has the same wrong call.Everybody playing the wrong defense is better than everybody playing adifferent defense."

Normally, awindow for defensive substitution opens whenever the offense shuttles inpersonnel groups. But Wilson, the Oklahoma offensive coordinator, has slammedshut that window by luring to Norman such hybrid athletes as Gresham (6'6",261), Brody Eldridge (6'5", 265) and Matt Clapp (6'3", 234). "Thoseguys are so athletic," says Gators strong safety Ahmad Black, "they canbe driving the ball on you with different personnel groups but with the samepeople on the field." To neutralize the Sooners, a defense will need to...

... Bust theCluster.
If the OU roster is to be believed, Gresham and Eldridge are tight ends andClapp is a fullback. Those labels mean little to Wilson, who delights inplugging them into any number of positions and configurations. In the renownedCluster formation they're all aligned on the same side of the field—runningpass routes on one play, blocking on a sweep on the next. Same bodies,different personnel requirements. No opportunities for the D to substitute.

"Theiruniqueness is that they can run the spread with three tight ends," saysCincinnati coach Brian Kelly, whose Orange Bowl--bound Bearcats kept it closein Norman (trailing Oklahoma 28--20 midway through the third quarter beforesuccumbing 52--26). "Usually when a team has two or three tight ends outthere, you can keep your base defense on the field. [But Gresham, Eldridge andClapp] are just as capable of playing wide receiver as they are at lining up asan attached tight end. If you nickel out [bringing in an extra defensive back],they'll put one of those guys at fullback and run downhill power atyou."

FROM THE timethey started their BCS championship game preparation on Dec. 8, Meyer and hisdefensive coaches have drilled into their charges the importance of beingsupremely fit and prepared for a quick snap. Yet, sitting in his office lastThursday, the gimlet-eyed Gator in chief was thinking more about Oklahoma'splayers than its ballyhooed spread.

"Yes, theirscheme's really good, but you win with personnel. We'll get lined up,"Meyer promised. "What I'm telling our coaches is, 'Let's make sure we'refundamentally sound when we do, or they'll beat us to death.'"

"Their uniqueness is that they can run the spreadwith THREE TIGHT ENDS," Kelly says of the Sooners.

Is the Gator Defense IMMOVABLE?

40 BRANDON HICKS
Linebacker
Has shone since replacing injured starter A.J. Jones in mid-November.

90 LAWRENCE MARSH
Nosetackle
"Our most improved player up front," Strong says of the surprisingsophomore.

16 A.J. JONES
Linebacker
All-SEC Freshman selection a year ago, he backs up—and pushes—Hicks.

92 TERRON SANDERS
Defensive Tackle
Consistent play by Sanders and Marsh settled and fortified an injury-wrackedfront.

94 JUSTIN TRATTOU
Defensive End
Smart, relentless player slides to the nose on obvious passing downs.

51 BRANDON SPIKES
Linebacker
Unquestioned leader of whom Strong says, "As Spikes goes, so goes ourdefense."

8 CARLOS DUNLAP
Defensive End
Long-armed speed rusher came off the bench to lead SEC in sacks, with nine.

32 DUSTIN DOE
Linebacker
Smart, hard-hitting reserve who, Strong says, "made Stamper a betterplayer."

41 RYAN STAMPER
Linebacker
Respected for his work ethic, he became a full-time starter in earlyOctober.

10 WILL HILL
Safety
A punishing hitter, the freshman reserve has a knack for getting home onblitzes.

49 JERMAINE CUNNINGHAM
Defensive End
The junior with five sacks has been "our most consistent pass rusher,"says Strong.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckSTRONG FOUNDATION Oklahoma's success on offense starts with a rock-solid line that opened holes for a pair of 1,000-yard rushers and allowed only nine sacks of Sam Bradford: right tackle Trent Williams (71) and (from left) right guard Brandon Walker, center Jon Cooper, left guard Duke Robinson and left tackle Phil Loadholt.PHOTOBILL FRAKESCHASING SAM Pressuring Bradford will be the job of Florida's much-improved front seven, plus four key players off the bench.PHOTOBOB ROSATO (GRESHAM)TRIPLE THREAT Gresham (18), Eldridge (83) and Clapp (34) confuse defenses because they don't play traditional roles.PHOTOJAMES D. SMITH/ICON SMI (ELDRIDGE)[See caption above]PHOTOJ.P. WILSON/ICON SMI (CLAPP)[See caption above]