Sunday, January 4, 2004

Sugar Bowl expected to be defensive battle



By BRIAN VERNELLIS
The (Shreveport, La.) Times

NEW ORLEANS - Since arriving at their respective positions, LSU's Nick Saban and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops have constructed football programs centered on backgrounds familiar to them - defense.

Saban has resurrected the LSU program, using the defense to do so, while Stoops has reconstructed the Sooners defense to mirror Oklahoma's dominant teams of the past.

The two coaches and their teams meet in what will likely be a defensive battle for the Bowl Championship Series national championship in the Sugar Bowl Sunday night (8 p.m. ET, ABC).

Each coach has an extensive history working with defenses. Saban worked as defensive coordinator for Michigan State from 1983 to 1987 before jumping to the NFL to serve as defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns from 1991 to 1994.

Stoops was a co-defensive coordinator at Kansas State from 1991 to 1995, turning that program around, then becoming defensive coordinator at Florida from 1996 to 1998.

"It was interesting because Nick and I were together with (USC coach Pete Carroll) at the awards shows and when we all sat down for an interview, I think it was Pete who said that three defensive coaches were sitting there together, all in the top three," Stoops said.

"So all of those people who think you need to hire an offensive coordinator, we're not doing too bad. Defensive guys can get it done, too."

Defensive guys as determined and goal-oriented as Saban and Stoops can definitely get it done. Both are highly respectful of the others' defense, seeing how defense just maybe the determining factor in Sunday's game.

"They are a very quick reacting defense and very quick up front with a lot of movements," Saban said. "Their linebackers jump over and play recognize probably as well as anyone we've played.

"Their secondary is very fast to react to run-pass and very good at supporting. That's the thing that concerns me the most is handling their quickness, staying with our blocks and being able to keep enough balance in the game to slow down the secondary."

It's fallen upon offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher to find some way to not only dent the Sooners' nearly impenetrable defense, but actually score some points. Kansas State proved it could be done, beating Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game.

"Usually there is a weakness here or there, but not with Oklahoma," Fisher said. "Their guys are sound all across the board. They are tremendously well-coached in how they bounce to the ball, the way they spill the ball to the unblocked defender and run-pass recognition."

Led by players like defensive tackle Tommie Harris, linebacker Teddy Lehman and cornerback Derrick Strait, Oklahoma led the nation in total defense, surrendering 255.6 yards per game. The pass defense allowed only 145.9 yards. It also ranked third in the nation in scoring defense.

The nation's top scoring defense was LSU, which gave up 10.8 points a game. The starting defense didn't give up a touchdown until the final home game of the season against Arkansas.

"I've been a secondary coach all my life, but I know the best defenses and those defenses that play the best, everything starts with your players inside," Stoops said. "The better teams have players in there that cause blocking problems, pressure and can create turnovers.

"Guys up front, they don't often get the statistics, but nothing happens without your interior defensive line playing well. When your entire defense plays well, you know that they are."

The game, and the national championship for that matter, will come down to the amount of pressure either team can put on the quarterback. LSU has thrived in that area, leading the SEC in sacks this season with 39 and continuously employing that approach week after week.

Like the Tigers, Oklahoma has utilized their own blitz packages with great effect; Oklahoma finished third in the Big 12 with 40 sacks.

Though the Sooners enter the game after letting the Big 12 Championship slip through their fingers, Saban believes that game was an anomaly.

"I really don't think what happened in the last game will have a lot to do with what happens in this game," he said. "Whichever team can maintain who they are and play the best football that they've played, which is keeping balance in who you are and understanding who you are and not thinking because you won a championship or lost the last game that any of that changes. That's going to be the most important thing in being able to go out and play well."

No. 2 LSU (12-1) vs. No. 3 Oklahoma (12-1)

Where: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans.

When: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC.

What's at stake: The Bowl Championship Series national title.

Danny Sheridan line: Oklahoma by 5 1/2.

Jeff Sagarin power ratings: Oklahoma 95.62, LSU 94.64.

Last meeting: 1950 Sugar Bowl; Oklahoma won 35-0.

Notable: Of the 28 bowls, this features the best combined records of participants, 24-2. ... The Tigers are 4-7 all-time in Sugar Bowls, Oklahoma 4-1. ... LSU won the Southeastern Conference title; Oklahoma lost in the Big 12 championship game.

LSU

When LSU has the ball: Offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher says he will script the first 15 plays as he usually does, though that could change depending on situational specifics. To be successful against the nation's No. 1 defense, the Tigers and QB Matt Mauck must spread the ball among the usual playmakers - RB Justin Vincent and WRs Michael Clayton, Devery Henderson and Skyler Green. A big night from Green on punt returns would be a huge help in providing solid field position. LSU has to have balance, stay out of negative plays, win the down-and-distance battle and exercise patience because big plays might not be plentiful. The Tigers have to peck away, and when the opportunity presents itself to make a big play, it has to be made. Those opportunities figure to be few against an Oklahoma defense whose players cleaned up on awards and features T Tommie Harris (Lombardi), LB Teddy Lehman (Butkus and Bednarik), DB Derrick Strait (Nagurski and Thorpe) and a depth chart full of all-Big-12 honorees. The Sooners defense is itching to make amends for its poor performance against Kansas State. If Oklahoma can force an early turnover or two, it could deflate the pro-LSU crowd.

LSU's intangibles: Could things have worked out any better for the Tigers? After spending the whole season looking up at the top two positions in the Bowl Championship Series standings, LSU moved into the No. 2 spot the day the final standings were released, less than 24 hours after winning the Southeastern Conference title. A team that was off the national radar screen for a good part of the year while Oklahoma, Miami (Fla.), Southern California and Ohio State got a ton of publicity, LSU is eager to prove it has arrived as an elite program. The Tigers have won seven in a row, including critical victories against Mississippi, Arkansas and Georgia in the last three games to lock up the SEC crown. Best of all, this is essentially a home game for LSU, with New Orleans overrun by tens of thousands of Tigers fans, providing lots of good mojo. The crowd noise at Tiger Stadium often is deafening, and even if there will be fewer LSU fans in the Superdome than on a typical Saturday in Baton Rouge, the closed environment could make things sound just about as loud. Don't forget, Oklahoma was beaten badly by Kansas State in a similar "neutral" field game four weeks ago in Kansas City, Mo.

Oklahoma

When Oklahoma has the ball: The Sooners led Division I-A at 45.1 points a game (and set a school season record with 587) but will have to solve an LSU unit that's tops in scoring defense (10.8 a game). Heisman Trophy winner Jason White threw for more than 4,000 yards with 40 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. Mark Clayton is the go-to receiver with 1,393 yards and 15 TDs, but eight other players had TD catches. OU runs a lot of what LSU calls "loose" plays - screens, quick pitches and short tosses that spread the field - to isolate their skill players and give them room to turn modest gains into game-breakers. The Sooners must make the LSU defense respect the run, which means Kejuan Jones and Renaldo Works have to produce more than the 72 yards OU has averaged in its last three games. Oklahoma will also have to solve a defense long on speed and aggressiveness with the added threat of a complex array of blitzes. In particular, the Sooners must handle All-American Chad Lavalais, centerpiece of an LSU front line that averages 6-4, 293.

OU intangibles: Oklahoma will play with a definite attitude created by those who harp the Sooners don't belong in the championship game despite a 12-win season. As defensive lineman Tommie Harris put it, they lose one game and everyone treats them like they're Prairie View. Oklahoma will also benefit from Bob Stoops' success in big games: He has led OU to victory in the Orange, Cotton and Rose Bowls the last three years (allowing a total of 19 points) and won the national title in 2000 against Florida State, another team playing on home turf. Ten Sooners who earned rings in that game will play Sunday. Trey DiCarlo is 19-for-22 on field goals, critical in any close contest. He is part of a standout set of special teams. Antonio Perkins returned four punts for TDs this season, and Mark Bradley had a 100-yard kickoff return. The Sooners allowed an average of only 3.5 yards on punt returns. Lastly, Stoops isn't afraid to take risks if he thinks the reward is great enough. He called for Blake Ferguson to throw the first pass of his career on a fake punt that keyed a 20-13 win at Alabama.




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