By RALPH MANCINI
January 8, 2009 * 8:15 * FOX
Coach Bob Stoops and his Oklahoma Sooners will be marching into Miami’s Dolphin Stadium to capture the program’s eighth national championship, but to do so they must rein in a high-powered Florida squad known as the “fastest team in America.” Both offenses can light up the scoreboard in the blink of an eye. While Urban Meyer’s crew leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring (45.2 ppg) and total offense (442.4 ypg), the Sam Bradford-led Sooners are a point-a-minute machine that has produced 18 scoring drives of 60 seconds or less during the regular season and is riding a five-game streak in which their offense has scored 60 or more points.
When Boomer Sooner Has the Ball
Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford has the perfect blend of size, arm strength, accuracy and on-field intelligence. The 6’4” signal caller completed 68 percent of his passes in 2008 for 4,464 yards with a ridiculous 48-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. But for all his throwing skills, Bradford’s ability to move in the pocket and side step pressure make him nearly impossible to contain. The 21-year-old’s job is made that much easier by his fearsome group of bodyguards led by mammoth left tackle Phil Loadholt. The 6’8”, 338-pounder regularly engulfs defenders with his long arms and powerful hands that also allow him to steamroll all those who dare cross his path. Playing alongside Loadholt is guard Duke Robinson, who at 6’5, 335 lbs. is a road grater in the running game, but is also versatile enough to move over to tackle if necessary. Robinson’s athleticism as a pull blocker and the quickness with which he fires off the line make him arguably the best player at his position. Center Jon Cooper may not be as big as his gargantuan line-mates, but the Colorado native always plays with a high motor and has tremendous foot speed, which allows him to perform as an effective drive blocker. Oklahoma’s 1,000-yard rushing duo of DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown was instrumental in supporting Bradford this season with consistent production that took some pressure off the quarterback. Brown may not be as flashy as his backfield partner, but he often uses his balance and good feet to get around tacklers and run to daylight. Despite his lack of bulk, the 190-lb. back is very reliable as a short-yardage runner. The fast and agile Murray, on the other hand, won’t be seeing any action versus Florida due to a partially ruptured hamstring that will reportedly take months to heal. All purpose back Mossis Madu will be filling in for the hobbled star. The unheralded backup showed his wares by rushing for 115 yards and three scores in the Big 12 Championship game versus Missouri. In addition to being able to make people miss, Madu is an excellent receiver that can also line up in the slot, as well as return kicks. Juaquin Iglesias, Manuel Johnson, Ryan Broyles and Quentin Chaney make up OU’s top-notch receiving corps. Iglesias, in particular, is especially quick off the line of scrimmage. The senior wide out combines his silky-smooth route running with the willingness to make catches in traffic. Defensive backs often fall prey to Iglesias’ head nods and quick double moves. Tight end Jermaine Gresham’s size, speed and penchant for hauling in spectacular catches make covering the 6’6” tight end a Herculean task.
Florida’s cohesive all-for-one and one-for-all defense uses a straight-up 4-3 scheme that primarily relies on individuals winning one-on-one match-ups up front. While there’s no one standout along the defensive line, the 6’6” Carlos Dunlap is a freakish competitor with long arms and 4.7 speed that he uses to disengage from blockers and run down plays from the backside. A bit of consistency is all that’s preventing Dunlap from being one of the elite defensive ends in college football. Playing opposite the sophomore is defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, who also gets off the line very quickly and confounds blockers by changing directions very well. Some added bulk to his 250-lb. frame should help this pass rusher overpower offensive linemen, not just outmaneuver them. Interior linemen Terron Sanders and the much-improved Lawrence Marsh have helped hold down the fort versus the run despite injury to the front four. Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes sets the tone for the Gator defense with his toughness and instincts, which often put him in the right position to disrupt the opposition. While the 6’3”, 245-lb. Spikes is a bigger linebacker that can drop back into coverage, it’s his ability to inspire his teammates and urge them to work harder that makes him a special athlete. Brandon Hicks is a hard-hitting linebacker with blazing speed. The workout warrior took over for the injured A.J. Jones in mid-November and forced South Carolina into two first-quarter interceptions during Florida’s 56-6 whitewash of Steve Spurrier’s group. Red-shirt junior Ryan Stamper is versatile enough to play all three linebacker positions and is an all-out hustler. Backup Dustin Doe keeps Stamper on his toes with his athleticism and aggressive pursuit of ball carriers. Strong safety Ahmad Black is a whiz at reading quarterbacks, as evidenced by his six interceptions. Free safety Major Wright is a heat-seeking missile, always ready to deliver the knockout blow, while over at corner, freshman Janoris Jenkins is a confident, if not cocky, impact player with superior anticipatory skills.
When the Gators Have the Ball
Florida’s athleticism at multiple positions gives them the upper hand over most defenses, and it all starts with quarterback Tim Tebow--the perfect fit for Urban Meyer’s spread-option attack. The sturdy passer is a dual threat who can pound the ball between the tackles like a fullback, or put the ball in the hands of one of his many playmakers. Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey and Percy Harvin are all blessed with mesmerizing speed and all three can catch the ball, as well as run it out of a variety of formations. Freshman running backs Demps and Rainey, in particular, have been the driving force behind Florida, averaging 263.6 rushing yards per game and 6.6 yards per carry. Harvin is technically a wide out, but he can also be seen lining up at quarterback. The 5’11” speed merchant is a dynamic weapon who specializes in making defenders miss, and is very dangerous in the red-zone. Louis Murphy is Robin to Harvin’s Batman at wide receiver with his ability to use his own speed on both downfield routes and shallow gadget plays. Complementary wide out Deonte Thompson can also flash track-star velocity when given the opportunity and his acceleration off the ball is hard to contain. One component who’s frequently overlooked is Bristol, Connecticut’s own Aaron Hernandez, who ranked third on the team in receptions with 29 this season. The solid tight end combines an aggressive demeanor with the ability to produce big yardage after the catch. The Gator offensive line features the superb run blocking of the Pouncey twins, Maurkice and Michael, at center and guard. Maurkice is a drive-blocking center who explodes out of his breaks. He usually takes his defender out of the play when he keeps a solid base and keeps his feet moving. Maurkice’s brother, Mike, also packs a punch by moving his adversaries off the ball. New Jersey native Phil Trautwein is an excellent technician at left tackle.
Oklahoma’s strategy on defense will be to create pre-snap confusion and force Tebow to throw more often than he wants to. In order to accomplish that feat, the Sooners will need to apply constant pressure with similarly-built defensive ends Frank Alexander and Jeremy Beal. Alexander has proven to be lethal at times off the edge, while the 6’3”, 253-lb. Beal is the team sack leader (8.5), who defensive coordinator Brent Venables often employs as a chess piece by lining him up in a three-point stance, as well as dropping him in underneath coverage. End Auston English should also be active in this year’s title game with numerous reports indicating that he has fully recovered from a mid-season knee injury. English is arguably OU’s fastest lineman. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is the glue of the unit with the way he ties up blockers and frees up teammates. The sophomore combines with nose tackle Adrian Taylor to push the pocket and disrupt offenses all game long. McCoy is always drawing comparisons to former Sooner interior lineman Tommie Harris, who was probably the best, if not quickest, OU player of all time at his position. Oklahoma’s linebackers may not be as big as they’ve been in the past, but they more then compensate for that with quickness and playmaking ability. Austin Box has done yeoman’s work in his replacement of injured middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds. The former quarterback is smart enough to read the play in front of him, and quick enough to cover plenty of ground defending the run. Box sprained his knee late in the season, but is expected to play. If he doesn’t, the hard-hitting 250-lb. Mike Balogun will take his place. Weakside linebacker Travis Lewis is the most athletic OU performer at the position. The 235-lb. former running back is extremely quick to the ball, a fundamentally sound tackler, and reliable in pass coverage. The 6’3” Nic Harris headlines the secondary due to his hitting prowess and on-field smarts which allow him to constantly be around the ball. Corner Dominique Franks joins the senior safety as being a difference-making performer. The sophomore has shutdown or contained some of the best receivers in the country this year. OU’s ability to generate pressure with its front four has also played a role in preventing the Sooner secondary from getting torched too often.
In a battle of high-flying offenses, Florida’s firepower will prove to be too much for OU to keep under wraps. With a healthy Harvin in the fold, the 65th ranked Sooner defense is no match for Urban Meyer’s spread-option attack. OU has allowed 5.06 yards a play and a total of 42 touchdowns to the opposition this season and will be hard pressed to hold the Gators to under 40 points. In addition, Florida holds a sizable edge in the special teams department as top-ten team in punt returns and net punting. Combine all of that with the supernatural powers of Tebow, and the Blue and Orange will bring home their second national title in three seasons.
Prediction: Florida 48 Oklahoma 33
Photo Credit: College Press Box, OU Athletics Department, SEC Sports Media
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
By RALPH MANCINI