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Much-improved Florida Gators defense faces biggest challenge in Oklahoma Sooners

FORT LAUDERDALE — The butterflies in Charlie Strong's stomach and the restless nights are pretty much the norm right now, but under the circumstances, it's understandable.

This time last year, the Florida defensive coordinator was in Gainesville having just closed out a 9-4 season with a 41-35 loss to Michigan at the Capital One Bowl in Orlando.

His defense, which struggled all season, was abysmal in that Jan. 1 game. "A year ago, we just weren't very good," he said.

Now, No. 1 Florida is preparing to play No. 2 Oklahoma in the BCS title game, and the defense has been a big part of its success. Thursday night's game, however, will test the defense like it has never been tested before.

"It's as good an offense as we've faced," Strong said. "It's a great challenge."

Oklahoma has the nation's third-ranked offense (54 points per game) and sophomore quarterback Sam Bradford is the Heisman Trophy winner who has a potent running attack that gives the offense power and balance.

"Our defense has played well, they've got a great offense so you're anxious for that moment to be able to see how it matches up and compares," Florida assistant defensive coordinator/safeties coach Chuck Heater said. '' … You're about as good as your last game. We've done well for 13. But it only takes one play to move you in a bad direction."

And if any team can move the Gators in a bad situation, it's OU.

The Sooners are averaging 562 yards in total offense and score 95 percent of the time from the red zone. Bradford has passed for 4,464 yards and 48 touchdowns. Florida is averaging nearly three sacks, but the Sooners have given up just 11 all season.

"This guy, we're going to have to pressure him, because if he gets into a rhythm, it's going to be hard for us," junior linebacker Brandon Spikes said.

"Their offensive line is very athletic, they don't let too many people hit him. We've got dynamic pass rushers though, so I'm pretty sure we'll get to him a few times."

Unlike 2006 when the Gators were loaded with veterans and future NFL players, the All-American Spikes is the only superstar on defense. It's a collective group that has bonded to become a strong unit — aided by the addition of veteran coaches Dan McCarney (defensive line) and Vance Bedford (cornerbacks).

Oklahoma has scored 60 or more in its previous five games and has had more than 500 yards 10 times this season. The Gators, 45th nationally in 2007 in scoring defense, are now fifth nationally (12.5 points per game). And they went from 41st to No. 8 in total defense. TCU is No. 1 in total defense and Oklahoma scored 35 on the Frogs, but Florida insists the Sooners are in for a surprise.

"It's a challenge for them to come against us, honestly, because they haven't seen a defense like us, with the speed, the physical play, knowing our assignments and flying around," UF sophomore cornerback Joe Haden said. "They probably played some good defenses, but our defense is definitely one of the top."

None of Florida's opponents finished the season ranked among the top 20 nationally in total offense. But don't try to tell OU offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson that the Gators can't handle the Sooners.

"They play great against everyone every week," he said. "They can pressure from the field, from the boundary, a lot of challenges, they make you compete. … It's a great challenge."

Along with slowing Bradford and stopping the running game, Florida must deal with Oklahoma's up-tempo, no-huddle style offense that poses a serious problem for a UF team that likes to constantly rotate on the defensive line.

"Take a timeout, you can substitute," McCarney said. "Other than that, you've got to be real careful (substituting)."

Spikes is quick to point out the old adage that defense wins championships. He believes that will be true Thursday night.

"Our offense is really explosive, their offense is explosive," he said.

"It's going to come down to who's defense is the best."

Which explains the butterflies in Strong's stomach.

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

Much-improved Florida Gators defense faces biggest challenge in Oklahoma Sooners 01/04/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 5, 2009 4:21pm]
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