Let's not kid ourselves. If Oklahoma doesn't contain quarterback Chris Weinke and the rest of the Florida State passing attack, it won't matter whether Sooners quarterback Josh Heupel has recovered from the inflamed bursa in his left elbow, which hampered his passing in the last month of the season. " Oklahoma hasn't played a team that runs and passes as well as Florida State," says North Carolina State coach Chuck Amato, a former Seminoles assistant whose Wolfpack lost 58-14 to Florida State.
On the other hand, if anyone knows how to slow down the Seminoles, it's Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who as defensive coordinator at Florida from 1996 to '98 went 2-2 against Florida State (the teams played twice in '96). In his second season at Oklahoma, Stoops has guided the Sooners to the Top 10 in nearly every significant defensive category, including second in pass-efficiency defense. Coaches in the Big 12 as well as Seminoles offensive coordinator Mark Richt echo one another in describing Oklahoma's defense: The Sooners don't make mistakes. They tackle well. They disguise what they're doing better than most teams.
"One thing about Coach Stoops," Richt says, "he's not afraid to play certain coverages on any down and distance. So many coaches are predictable. Coach Stoops isn't. On third-and-long situations against Kansas State in the Big 12 title game, he played four coverages. In such a situation the Sooners will show a two-deep umbrella, and then they'll do all kinds of things. Either safety will come up, or a corner will blitz, or they'll play two-deep, three-deep."
Like the best baseball defenses, Oklahoma is strong up the middle, especially at linebacker, where Rocky Calmus and Torrance Marshall finished one-two on the team in tackles. At 6'1", 300 pounds, left tackle Ryan Fisher is built like a Hummer and is about as easy to push. "One play against Kansas State, the center hits him and the guard double-teams him," Florida State center Jarad Moon says of Fisher. "They're in pretty good position, shoulder-to-shoulder. Fisher splits right through them and tackles the running back a yard deep in the backfield. You have to be quick to get in that seam. Once you're in there, you have to be strong [to get through it]."
Though Richt compares the Sooners' defensive scheme to Florida's, Oklahoma co-defensive coordinator Mike Stoops (Bob's younger brother) likens his team's defensive philosophy to that of the Seminoles'. "We're going to challenge you on early downs and show you a lot of looks on the late downs," he says. "We're going to make you throw it by having everybody stopping the run."
Miami used a similar plan in its 27-24 defeat of Florida State on Oct. 7. Greg Schiano, who was the Hurricanes' defensive coordinator before leaving in early December to become the coach at Rutgers, says he picked his poison. "If they can run and pass, you've got a problem," he says of the Seminoles. "You have to turn it into a one-dimensional game. We forced them to throw. We stopped the run, and we won third down."
Weinke, who played against Miami with a sprained left ankle, threw for 496 yards and three touchdowns in that game. However, Florida State rushed for only 69 yards on 27 carries. Tailback Travis Minor finished with 36 yards on 12 carries. The Seminoles attempted six runs on third down and gained a total of seven yards.
Miami could afford to focus on the run because it has one of the best secondaries in the nation. The Sooners have another, thanks to safeties J.T. Thatcher and Roy Williams. Though Thatcher, the free safety, has received more publicity for his eight interceptions, the third most in the nation, it's strong safety Williams whom opposing coaches bring up without prompting. "A linebacker-type hitter," Richt says of Williams, a 6-foot, 221-pound sophomore. Williams and Thatcher both play closer to the line of scrimmage than is typical for either position. "Even though an interception is very good," says Williams, who has two this season, one of which he returned 35 yards for a touchdown, "I'd rather have a tackle. Tackling is an art."
Florida State senior wideout Marvin (Snoop) Minnis spoke mysteriously in mid-December of having seen "vulnerabilities" in the Sooners' defense but declined to be specific. However, when asked about Williams and Thatcher crowding the line of scrimmage, he started giggling. "That's part of the vulnerabilities," he said. "When a team plays its safety up, it leaves the cornerback on an island. That's an advantage for the offense."
Before this season the 6'1", 185-pound Minnis had made only 52 catches in his career, largely because Weinke had other outstanding receivers, including Peter Warrick. Minnis seethed all summer over being questioned about whether he could replace Warrick. He has channeled that anger into his play, finishing with 1,340 receiving yards, the second-highest total ever at Florida State, and II touchdowns on 63 catches. "I remember thinking after the third or fourth game, Has he always been this good?" Richt says.