When Oklahoma and Florida meet Jan. 8 in Miami’s Dolphin Stadium to decide the FedEx BCS National Championship Game, many eyes should be focused on the Florida defense. If the Sooners are able to establish a running game against a solid Gators defensive front, it could be a long day for Florida. Slowing down the Oklahoma running game would change the complexion of the game.
IN THIS CORNER …
Oklahoma has scored more total points (702) and averaged more points per game (54) than any offense according to Bowl Subdivision/Division I-A records dating back to 1937. The Sooners changed the pace of their offense in 2008 by implementing a no-huddle system.
The results have been staggering. Oklahoma averages 80 offensive plays per game. The Sooners have scored 456 of their 702 points (65 percent) in the first two quarters of the game. They are nationally ranked in many offensive categories: red zone offense (No. 1), pass efficiency (No.1), total offense (No. 3), rushing offense (No. 18), passing offense (No. 3), first downs (No. 3) and third-down efficiency (No. 7).
The Sooners enter the game with 20 seniors who will be concluding their collegiate careers. Four of those seniors start on the offensive line which boasts a combined two-deep of 200 starts.
The offensive front has done a spectacular job protecting Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Sam Bradford, who has only been sacked 11 times, fourth fewest in the nation. The Sooners ran for 2,672 yards and averaged 205.5 yards per game in 2008. Running back Chris Brown (5-11, 210) averaged 85.4 yards per game, while No. 3 rusher Mossis Madu (6-0, 196) averaged 35.6 yards. The Sooners will be without their second-leading rusher DeMarco Murray, who will miss the game due to a partial rupture of his hamstring tendon.
Oklahoma offensive line coach James Patton has a competition among his offensive linemen that rewards the one who flattens the most opposing players. The award is called the “DOG” – “Defenders on the Ground.” Patton acknowledges the winners by hanging their photos in the film room for everyone to see.
Let’s take a look at the interior linemen from left tackle to right tackle:
Left tackle: Senior Phil Loadholt (6-8, 337) is a two-year starter. He was a two-time All-American at Garden City Community College in Kansas. Loadholt was named to the third team Associated Press All-America team. He has long arms and absolutely dominates against ends which don’t possess above-average speed and quickness. There are two knocks on Loadholt, however. One is he plays too high at times because of his 6-8 height. The other is that he is too heavy and lacks the quickness to dominate quicker ends. His lack of quickness is probably a contributing factor for getting flagged for illegal-procedure penalties.
Left guard: Senior Duke Robinson (6-5, 335) has started for three years and played a key role as a true freshman when he played in 10 games. Robinson is a two-time, first-team All-American. Robinson is a highly aggressive go-getter rated by many NFL draft analysts as the top offensive guard prospect in the country. Some feel he could make the move to right tackle and succeed. Robinson has good speed and quickness for an offensive guard his size.
Center: Senior Jon Cooper (6-3, 290) is a three-year starter. Despite being selected just second-team All-Big 12 by the coaches, Cooper was named the Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year. Cooper does not have the massive physical attributes of Loadholt and Robinson but he has good footwork and technique. Cooper’s stock has risen in the eyes of some NFL general managers and personnel directors.
Right guard: Senior Brandon Walker (6-3, 284) has been a three-year starter at the position. He transferred to Norman from Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. Walker was a 2008 honorable mention All-Big 12 selection. Walker was critical of the offensive line’s lack of intensity earlier this season. He acknowledged that the line wasn’t as physical and failed to finish assignments, particularly run blocking. The Sooners were much improved by the end of the season.
Right tackle: Trent Williams (6-5, 308) is the only junior on the offensive line. Williams is a 2½-year starter for the Sooners. Williams is being courted by the current Oklahoma staff to return for his senior season. Should he opt to return for his senior year, Williams would finish his Oklahoma career as one of the top right tackles in the country.
IN THE ORANGE AND BLUE SHORTS:
Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong and his staff will have to get substitutes on the field in a hurry without getting caught out of sync or with 12 players on the field. The Sooners have picked up yardage courtesy of flags thrown on opponents who failed to efficiently substitute.
Florida’s defense perfectly counters Oklahoma’s first-half offensive production. The Gators have allowed only 51 total points in the first half, an average of just under four points per game in the first 30 minutes of play.
Let’s look at Florida’s defensive front:
Defensive end: Junior Jermaine Cunningham (6-3, 250) is the Gators’ second-leading sack and tackles for loss player. He was a second-team selection on the Associated Press All-Southeastern Conference team. Cunningham is developing under the tutelage of line coach Dan McCarney, who helped South Florida’s George Selvie become one of the best defensive ends in the nation. When he plays with high energy each and every play, Cunningham can be a difference-maker.
Nose tackle: Lawrence Marsh (6-5, 305) has 25 tackles, including 5.5 tackles for loss and three quarterback sacks. A redshirt sophomore, Marsh has been solid for McCarney and the Gators. He has held his own against first-team All-American Antoine Caldwell and former Rimington Award winner Jonathan Luigs, not to mention some of the top offensive guards in the SEC.
Defensive tackle: Terron Sanders (6-2, 300) has evolved into a dependable player who can be counted on by the Florida staff to play his role. The redshirt sophomore has four tackles for loss. Sanders and Marsh have stood firm when so many doubted they would develop into anything more than busts.
Defensive end: True sophomores Justin Trattou (6-3, 265) and Carlos Dunlap (6-6, 290) have played well opposite Cunningham. Trattou has an intense motor and athleticism, which allow him to move inside on the nose when Florida is looking for the speed rush to get pressure on the quarterback. Dunlap leads the Gators in sacks (9), tackles for loss (12) and quarterback hurries (6) despite coming off the bench. Can the Gators beat the Oklahoma hurry-up offense and utilize the speed and quickness of both Trattou and Dunlap?
Middle linebacker: Junior Brandon Spikes (6-3, 245) is the Gators’ spiritual and fiery emotional leader. He sets the tone for the day with bone-jarring hits, aggression and relentless desire to get to the football. He is equally dangerous defending the pass as he is the run. Spikes is a tirst-team All-American and was one of only two unanimous selections to the All-SEC team. He leads the Gators in tackles with 87 and is second on the squad with four interceptions. Spikes is also second with four quarterback hurries.
Strongside linebacker: Sophomore Brandon Hicks (6-2, 225) is one of the most athletically gifted athletes on the Florida roster. Hicks fights starter A.J. Jones for the position each week in practice. The sophomore has 32 tackles on the season. Hicks has been solid against the run and gets off blocks to make plays. He is improving in coverage.
Weakside linebacker: Redshirt junior Ryan Stamper (6-2, 232) has been invaluable to the Florida staff. He can play each of the three linebacker positions and has steadily improved throughout the season. Stamper has fought off two-year starter Dustin Doe for the position. Stamper is a solid leader for the unit, too.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
Against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, Florida started Marsh (NG), Sanders (DT), Justin Trattou (DE) and Jermaine Cunningham (DE) on the starting defensive line. Defensive coordinator Charlie Strong had outside linebacker Brandon Hicks standing on the outside shoulder of the tight end. On the first play, the Crimson Tide drove Marsh and Sanders back 2½-yards but Cunningham crashed inside and made the tackle on Alabama running back Glen Coffee.
Alabama lined up power right and the Gators lined up with Marsh, Sanders, Trattou and Cunningham once again. However, the Crimson Tide offensive line wasn’t able to get a push off the line of scrimmage on second down as Stamper and Spikes crept to the line of scrimmage just before the snap. They smacked Coffee to the surface after a very short gain.
The Gators were able to utilize Spikes, Hicks and Stamper outside and get pressure on the Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson. They had success against Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith and will have success against Oklahoma as well.
The Crimson Tide spread out often on third down and Florida lined up with Trattou inside on the nose, Carlos Dunlap at defensive tackle and Spikes outside. Only Cunningham remained in his normal position at right defensive end. Get used to this lineup against Oklahoma as Florida will once again use its linebackers to make plays should the Sooners decide to run the football.
Florida used safety Ahmad Black in the middle of the field to take away those routes. Black was able to read and react to the quarterback. Bradford and Oklahoma used the middle of the field often this season. It will interesting to see if the Sooners can manage similar success against an outstanding defense.
Sure, the Gators defense gave up a few yards to Alabama in the second and third quarter but still did a good job defending the Crimson Tide running attack. But Wilson was unable to win the game against a solid Florida secondary. Bradford will prove a much more difficult competitor, but he will have to do so against the best secondary that he has faced all season.
Do you believe in the Heisman jinx? I don’t but what I do believe is that winning the Heisman Trophy makes you a target of the opposition. A good defense will sell out as a unit to prove that the Heisman Trophy winner can’t beat them.
In fact, three of the last four Heisman Trophy winners whose teams then played for the BCS National Championship played on the losing team in those matchups.
In 2006, the Heisman was won by Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith but his Buckeyes lost to Florida, 41-14, in the BCS title game hosted by the Fiesta Bowl at Glendale, Ariz. In 2005, USC’s Reggie Bush won the Heisman Trophy but the Trojans fell to Heisman runner-up Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns, 41-38, in the BCS title game in the Rose Bowl.
In 2004, USC quarterback Matt Leinart won the Heisman Trophy and then led the Trojans to the national title with a 55-19 victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. The quarterback for the Sooners, Jason White, had won the Heisman in 2003 but then lost in the BCS title game at the Sugar Bowl to Louisiana State, 21-14.
Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford averages 343.4 passing yards per game and has thrown 48 touchdown passes against only six interceptions, while completing 68.3 percent of his passes (302 of 442). He is going up against a Florida defense which has the second-ranked pass-efficiency defense in the country. The Gators also rank nationally in scoring defense (No. 5), red zone defense (No. 6), total defense (No. 9), and first down defense (No. 13). Florida is among the nation’s leaders in turnovers with 33 on the season.
On paper, the BCS National Championship Game looks as if it could be one of the greatest battles in college football history. It will all start up front where Florida must contain the Sooners running game and force Bradford to play without the luxury of an outstanding running game.