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Original Issue

Sooner Boomers

Near-perfect execution by a crunching defense clinched an unbeaten, untied, unbelievable season for Oklahoma

What was Carol Stoops whispering to her husband? Was she wishing him luck? Reminding him to floss? Knowing she wouldn't speak to him for about 12 hours, she'd staked him out on Wednesday morning in the back of a banquet room at the Oklahoma team hotel in Miami Beach. When the meeting broke, Bob Stoops lagged behind to share an embrace with his wife.

"We're going to win," said Carol, her eyes welling with tears. "I know it."

"I know it too," said Bob, the Sooners' coach. "It's our destiny."

To other people, the only thing that seemed preordained going into the Orange Bowl, which pitted Oklahoma against heavily favored Florida State in a battle for the national championship, was that the game would be marked by a ton of offense. The 11-1 Seminoles had averaged 42.4 points and a nation's best 549.0 yards per game going into this season finale against the 12-0 Sooners, who had averaged 39.0 and 429.3. After practice four days before the game, Stoops had listened patiently to a litany of reasons his team would struggle against Florida State, then cut off a reporter and said, "Hey, we have some athletes too, you know."

Now the world knows. With an audacious, ingenious defensive game plan that utterly befuddled Chris Weinke, the Seminoles' Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Oklahoma held powerful Florida State to one measly safety in a 13-2 victory that earned the Sooners their seventh national title.

God bless the Sooners, for by winning they spared America an off-season of bickering over Miami and Florida State, who likely would have been co-national champions had Oklahoma lost.

Hurricanes fan: "We beat you in the regular season, so we're the real national champs."

Seminoles fan: "Yeah, but Washington beat you, so by your logic, the Huskies are Number 1!"

That debate, mercifully, is moot. The Sooners, who entered the Orange Bowl as 11-point underdogs, are the undisputed champions, having pulled off perhaps the most stunning postseason victory since Penn State picked off Vinny Testaverde five times to beat Miami in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. That Florida State was listed as such a heavy favorite didn't offend the Oklahoma players as much as make them feel comfortable, for the Sooners hadn't been favored in most of their other big games this season. "If the oddsmakers decided who won," said Stoops two days before the Orange Bowl, "we'd be 7-4."

While Oklahoma sought merely to win the game, the Seminoles, who had won last year's championship, had grander ambitions. They spoke of a desire to make history, of becoming the first Florida State team to win back-to-back national titles. They craved recognition, in the words of linebacker Tommy Polley, as "one of the best teams in the history of college football." Instead, they ended up losers, a result that surprised Stoops less than anyone else on earth.

A quick story about the Sooners' coach. In order to goose attendance at the exhibition opener of the Sooners' softball team last February, Stoops was invited to take batting practice. He faced Jennifer Stewart, an All-America lefthander who would lead Oklahoma to the 2000 NCAA title. Stewart was throwing gas. To the crowd's amusement, Stoops couldn't do much with her first 10 pitches, whiffing on some, dribbling others toward the mound. Instead of leaving the batter's box when his turn was over, he turned to softball coach Patty Gasso and said, "I want 10 more cuts." Whereupon he started making solid contact. "I took her to the fence," Stoops says with a smile.

This anecdote isn't meant to illustrate the 40-year-old Stoops's athleticism--he was a four-year starter and two-time All-Big Ten safety at Iowa from 1979 through '82--or the erosion thereof. It's intended to highlight Stoops's distinguishing characteristic, a rock-solid belief in himself, which has infected everyone else in the Oklahoma football program. Stoops has exuded this confidence throughout the two years it has taken him to transform the Sooners from the moribund mess he inherited in December 1998 to national champions. It was on display when reporters last week asked him how on earth his players could hope to match up with the team speed of the Seminoles. "No one has described us as slow, either," he responded.

Don't think the Sooners didn't take heart in the fact that before taking over at Oklahoma, Stoops had served three years as defensive coordinator at Florida. The suffocating pressure defense he installed in Gainesville, the so-called Stun 'N' Done, complemented the Gators' Fun 'N' Gun offense and helped Florida win the 1996 national title. The Gators' victim in the championship game? Florida State, which fell 19 points short of its season scoring average in that 52-20 defeat. While preparing for the Orange Bowl, Stoops and his staff took some comfort knowing that the Seminoles had changed their offensive schemes precious little over the last four years.

Then again, four years ago Weinke was in his sixth season of riding the bus as a minor leaguer in the Toronto Blue Jays' organization, not in his third year of directing one of the most prolific offenses in Florida State's history. Sitting in a makeshift film room at the Fontainebleau Hilton Hotel in Miami Beach the day before the game, Mike Stoops--Bob's little brother and co-defensive coordinator--spent yet another worried hour studying video of the 28-year-old Weinke, who'd occupied Mike's thoughts and haunted his sleep for a month. As Weinke completed pass after pass on tape, Stoops sighed and said, "I wish he'd gone in the NFL draft last year."

Weinke may be wishing the same thing after Wednesday night. So superbly did the Sooners' defenders disguise their coverages, Weinke could not find his rhythm, even while completing 25 of his 51 passes for 274 yards. He also threw two interceptions and coughed up the fumble that led to Oklahoma's only touchdown.

Indeed, the game's key matchup was the Seminoles' formidable passing game versus the Sooners' pass defense. Oklahoma won the battle with execution and trickery. The Sooners went with five and six defensive backs most of the night, daring Florida State to run. (The Seminoles couldn't, mustering only 27 yards on 17 rushes.) Oftentimes, nickelback Ontei Jones would start about five yards from the line of scrimmage, then, just before the snap, sprint back into deep coverage. Jones and free safety J.T. Thatcher would blitz on one play, then fake a blitz on the next. "It seemed like they had radar," said Florida State wideout Antrews Bell after the game. "Everything we tried they were ready for."

Bell and his fellow receivers didn't do Weinke any favors, dropping several balls, including one in the end zone by Robert Morgan with the Sooners clinging to a 6-0 lead in the fourth quarter. Looking on from the Seminoles' sideline, flinching at every muffed ball, was Marvin (Snoop) Minnis, who had caught 63 passes and scored 11 touchdowns for the Seminoles this season. On Dec. 20, four days after walking in Florida State's graduation ceremony and, in theory, receiving his degree, Minnis learned that he'd failed two courses and been declared academically ineligible for the championship game.

"It was a big shock," said a heartsick Minnis four days before the game. "I failed research methods and criminology"--the latter being a particular problem, considering Snoop's major: criminology. "It's not like I didn't go to class or didn't do my work," he said. "I went to class every day and turned in all my papers. But I guess I messed up the exams. It had to be that."

Snoop's absence had the added consequence of preventing the Seminoles from running as much no-huddle offense as they would have liked to. Because that up-tempo style is so taxing on the receivers, said Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt, "you've got to have at least six receivers, and you're better off with eight." With Snoop out and Bell nursing a sore hamstring, the Seminoles were, in effect, down to five.

Even if Minnis had played, Oklahoma's defense would have been up to the challenge. In the final month of the season it had grown accustomed to bailing out the Sooners' sputtering offense. After leading Oklahoma to October victories over Texas, Nebraska and Kansas State, quarterback Josh Heupel cooled considerably. One of his worst outings came at Texas A&M on Nov. 11, when he was flummoxed by the soft umbrella zone that the Aggies unveiled just for him, and threw three interceptions. With the Sooners trailing 31-28 in the waning minutes of that game, Oklahoma middle linebacker Torrance Marshall picked off a pass and ran 41 yards for the winning touchdown.

Watching the game on television in Miami, Hurricanes backup linebacker Sheven Marshall suddenly found himself being cursed by his teammates. They were giving him good-natured grief for being a blood relation of the player (Torrance is Sheven's older brother) whose heroics for the Sooners had preserved Oklahoma's undefeated season--and thus prevented Miami from facing Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Torrance Marshall is as well-traveled as Heupel, whose tortuous journey from his native Aberdeen, S.Dak., to Norman (with two stops in Utah) has been generously documented. Marshall's route from South Florida to a captaincy in Norman was no less circuitous. Unable to make the grades he needed to qualify for a scholarship at Miami, Marshall packed his bags for Kemper Military School and College in Boonville, Mo., where he was required to "square" his food--bringing his fork straight up from his plate, then straight across into his mouth--but permitted to take the most direct route to the ballcarrier. He made 182 tackles in two seasons and in 1997 became the first junior college All-America in Kemper's history. Even after returning to Florida and putting in an extra semester at Miami-Dade Community College, he failed to meet Miami's academic requirements. He then chose Oklahoma over Kansas State. With the Sooners he has proved a perfect complement to stellar weakside linebacker Rocky Calmus.

It was a first quarter interception by Marshall, the Orange Bowl's MVP, that led to Oklahoma's first points, a 27-yard field goal by Tim Duncan. Astoundingly, those were the only points the Sooners would need to clinch their first national crown since 1985.

The game had been over an hour when a sudden downpour forced the celebrating Heupel family off the field. In a tunnel in Pro Player Stadium, Heupel spotted a close friend, Patrick McClung, a minister in Norman. Despite the deluge the two friends walked to midfield and knelt in prayer. Losing the Heisman to Weinke had stung Heupel more than he had let on. All along, however, he had said he would trade that storied doorstop for a national title any day.

Now that the day was upon him, he wept openly, his tears mingling with the rain as he thanked the Almighty for allowing him and the Sooners to fulfill their destiny.