Sooners Get Defensive About Their Team's Perceived Shortcomings

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009

MIAMI -- Bowl officials directed the Oklahoma Sooners to the team bus after a media session at Dolphin Stadium this week, but nearly all of the players got sidetracked, stopping to admire the massive crystal football trophy on display.

At least a dozen pulled out digital recorders and cameras, and player after player posed for pictures with the glittering hardware that will be awarded to the winner of Thursday night's BCS national championship game between the second-ranked Sooners and No. 1 Florida Gators.

"This is the one we want," Oklahoma defensive back Nic Harris said into his camera's microphone, maneuvering around the trophy to capture every angle. "Thursday, we're going to get it."

If the Sooners manage to get it, it would bring an end to what has been a rough week at times for the nation's top-ranked team in the BCS ratings, an offensive powerhouse that occasionally has been nitpicked, ridiculed and overlooked, particularly defensively.

"We're going to play with an edge," Harris said, "for the simple fact that nobody has given our defense any respect."

The Sooners' defense, which ranked tied for 58th in points allowed and 99th in passing yards allowed this season, has become something of a punch line, and the lack of appreciation hasn't stopped there. Florida is considered the fastest team in the nation, while Oklahoma is considered . . . slower. The questions about Florida's otherworldly speed grew so constant that at one point Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford felt compelled to stick up for his squad by noting, somewhat absurdly, "It's not like we have bad athletes; we have good athletes."

Despite having won the Heisman Trophy, college football's biggest award, Bradford can't match the cult-hero status of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who won the Heisman last season. Bradford wandered around New York's Times Square in a baseball cap the day after the Heisman ceremony and went completely unrecognized. Tebow, meantime, can't go to a shopping mall without getting mobbed.

"I call him Superman all the time," Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes said about Tebow.

Even Oklahoma's fans are expected to be outnumbered given the far-reaching tentacles of Gator Nation and the fact that Oklahoma sits in the middle of the country -- though some Florida players didn't seem precisely sure where. ("They got a lot of tornadoes, right?" Florida safety Ahmad Black said when asked what he knew about the state.) Even Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops worries his team will face a hostile, pro-Florida crowd.

Stoops went so far Monday as to ask for help from local Gator haters from the University of Miami and Florida State: "I'm calling on all of the Hurricane and Seminoles fans that are down here to root for us," he said.

The fact that Stoops, a former Florida assistant, reached out to the former enemy speaks to the stakes of the game, which will crown a national champion despite insistence from other teams around the country -- namely Utah, Texas and Southern California -- that they, in fact, deserve to be No. 1.

With a pair of Heisman winners leading units that together have averaged 99.2 points per game, the game seems certain to provide splendid theater. Bradford has thrown for an average of 343.4 yards per game, leading a no-huddle, hurry-up offense installed this year that churns out yardage and worries Florida's defenders. Oklahoma's opponents have struggled to get in position between plays, let alone keep up with the Sooners once the ball is snapped.

"We're going to give up some points," Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said, "but we can't give up 60 points."

Florida's defense, at least, enters the game with pedigree of its own, having allowed only an average of 12.8 points, fourth best in the nation.

"It will be difficult for them when they see the speed of our defense," Spikes said. "I feel like this game will be really physical for them."

Tebow, who stands 6 feet 3 and weighs 240 pounds, is as versatile as he is big. He has run for an average of just more than 43 yards per game and passed for nearly 200. A signature move is his "jump pass," in which he approaches the line and leaps like a shooting guard, double-pumping before sending what looks very much like a jump shot to a receiver.

But it is Tebow's running ability that Bradford admits he covets.

"I wish I was 240 and could run over people," he said.

Bradford's pregame routine might serve him well. He admitted Monday he reads the Bible before every game, always including the story of David and Goliath. Asked if he considered himself, going into Thursday's game, a bit like David, he had a succinct response: "No."

Said Bradford: "We have so many different weapons, it makes my job so easy. I can look left, I can look right and I can look behind me, and there's playmakers. It's kind of like a quarterback's dream."

Both defenses would like to turn the night into a nightmare, but even Stoops seemed uncertain about whether his squad could be a truly defensive force. The Sooners' players pointed out that they have faced high-powered offenses in the Big 12, and surrendered points after games have been put out of reach, but questions remain.

"Florida has played really good defense," Stoops said. "We've been inconsistent."

Oklahoma defensive end Jeremy Beal seemed to think he had a bit more confidence. Maybe.

"People say we can't play defense," he said, "but I think we know we can play defense."

At least Oklahoma, which has won 10 or more games for three straight seasons but lost in the last two Fiesta Bowls, has tried to do all of the right things in preparation. Players say they have avoided South Beach. They have vowed not to treat this trip like a vacation, despite being exposed to some of the lures of South Florida.

"The women we've seen are extremely beautiful," Harris said. "Coach told us, 'Hands off,' so we've been pretty much holding each other."

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