JOE HADEN showed up for a recent film session looking a bit bleary-eyed. "Had my final in architectural history at 7:30 this morning," explained the 19-year-old Florida cornerback, who then grumbled about needing some z's. Haden will need to catch up on his sleep by Jan. 8. He is one of seven sophomores starting on a Gators defense whose mission that night in the BCS championship game in Miami will be to outplay the most prolific, explosive and impatient offense in college football history. With Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback Sam Bradford directing coordinator Kevin Wilson's souped-up, hurry-up, mismatch-making, record-breaking offense, Oklahoma (12--1) racked up 702 points this season, the most by a major college team since Minnesota scored 725 in ... 1904.
Five minutes after cuing up video from Oklahoma's 35--10 win over TCU on Sept. 27, Haden was wide awake. The Sooners had his full attention. Bottled up at his own nine-yard line 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 Ethel on the chocolate-factory assembly line. "Check it out," says Haden, as Oklahoma snaps the ball before TCU is remotely ready. "They got dudes looking at the sideline, dudes running off the field. Even the camera guy wasn'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 second substitution infraction in four snaps, and senior safety Steven Coleman can be seen slapping his thigh pads in exasperation.
Haden doesn't blame him. "Those coaches can't be changing personnel and trying to get subs in when the ball's about to be hiked," he says.
TCU coach Gary Patterson pleads no contest. Highly regarded for his defensive acumen—his team ranked second in the country in total defense in 2008—Patterson was determined to shuttle personnel groups on and off the field that night, the narrow window to do so between snaps be damned. "As soon as I quit trying to be a guru," Patterson said last week, "we played a lot better."
It's true. Only the 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's other 12 games—and forced the Sooners to punt a season-high nine times while holding them to 25 yards rushing.
How do you stop these 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, but we're going to win our share."
Such wins have been rare in '08. When Oklahoma isn't dissecting you with the pass (356.5 yards a game), it's gashing you with the run (205.5). One of the reasons these guys have moved the ball so well is because they held on to it better than anyone in the country, committing nine turnovers, a Division I-A low. That total included Bradford'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 the Sooners scored more than 60 points in their last five games. "And the game before that," points out Gators defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, "they scored 58."
How, then, does Florida (12--1) put the brakes on this point-a-minute machine, which engineered 18 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 in Norman. Befitting a man who favors all-black ensembles, Patterson could not have been more basic with his first key. Quite simply, Florida must ...
... Make the OU offense one-dimensional.
"If you want to stay in the game," Patterson says, "you cannot allow them to run the football." The Sooners' two lowest rushing totals by far 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 run this season than the Gators, who gave up a respectable 105.3 yards per game.
While Bradford picked apart the Longhorns' secondary in the first half, he came under increasing pressure from ill-tempered bookend pass rushers Brian Orakpo and Sergio Kindle, who combined for three sacks and subjected Bradford to crash-test-dummy treatment on numerous other occasions. Texas owed much of its comeback victory to its ability to ...