Once again, Strong's stifling defense guides Florida to BCS title
Just like in 2006 against Ohio State, Florida shut down a high-powered offense
The young Gators defense -- which doesn't start a single senior -- grew all season
The Florida program is quickly starting to resemble Pete Carroll's Trojans
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- As he stood on the confetti-strewn field at Dolphin Stadium late Thursday night, just moments after his team earned its second BCS championship in three seasons, Florida safety Ahmad Black wasn't bragging. If anything, he was still coming to terms with the pivotal role he played in the Gators' 24-14 victory over Oklahoma.
"Now I can lay down tonight and say I picked off the Heisman Trophy winner," he said.
This was a different stadium in a different time zone with an entirely different set of players, but the overriding image of the Gators' latest national championship victory seems all too familiar to anyone who watched the last one against Ohio State.
Oklahoma, the highest-scoring team in modern football history, fresh off a streak of five-straight 60-point outings, scored 14 points Thursday night -- the exact same amount scored by the previously unstoppable Buckeyes two years earlier.
Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford didn't suffer nearly as humbling a night as '06 Heisman winner Troy Smith, who completed just four passes, but Bradford did finish with his third-lowest passing yardage (256) of the season and his first two-interception game since Oklahoma's last loss Oct. 11 against Texas.
The second one came with 9:59 left in the game, with the Gators -- having struggled themselves to score at their usual, prolific pace -- clinging to a three-point lead. On second-and-seven at the 50-yard line, Bradford dropped back and uncorked a deep ball down the middle of the field to receiver Juaquin Iglesias. Bradford had thrown 50 touchdown passes this season, and so many of them had come on plays just like this one, with his offensive line holding the pocket and the 6-foot-4 gunslinger throwing a rocket against the night sky into his wide-open receiver's hands.
This was supposed to be one of those plays, and it almost was, right up to the moment the ball hit the streaking Iglesias' hands in full stride. Only there was Black, appearing as if out of nowhere to collide with Iglesias at the point of impact and rip the ball back into Florida possession.
Bradford stood stunned for a moment before heading to the sideline, as if he'd never seen such a thing in his life. In truth, he hadn't seen it much all season. But this was not Oklahoma State's or Texas Tech's defense. This was SEC champion Florida, whose star linebacker, Brandon Spikes, had spouted off all week how the Sooners hadn't seen a defense like the Gators'.
He was right.
"We held them to 14 points," said linebacker Ryan Stamper. "We showed them how big-time defense is played."
For much of the night, Oklahoma's defense held up quite admirably on its own, causing Tim Tebow to throw as many interceptions in the first half (two) as he had all season. Receiver/running back Percy Harvin did the majority of Florida's offensive damage, racking up 122 rushing yards on nine carries and 49 receiving yards.
But as soon as Black gave the ball back to the Gators' offense, No. 15 led them on one of those consummate, Tebow drives. It included all of his greatest hits -- a lethal pump-fake, one of those ever-sneaky shovel passes and, on the game-sealing four-yard touchdown, one of his famous jump passes to David Nelson.
"They bit down," said Oklahoma running back Chris Brown. "We knew coming into the game it was going to be a four-quarter matchup. They came up with a big second-half interception and lot of other plays."
As always, Tebow stood at the center of the postgame frenzy afterward, unable to walk a step in any direction without someone shoving a microphone in his face or a ticket stub to sign. All the while, the unsung hero of Florida's victory -- of both the Gators' national-title victories under head coach Urban Meyer, actually -- quietly showered and dressed in Florida's cramped coaches locker.
Twice in the past three years, Charlie Strong has orchestrated a defense that slowed down the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in a national-title game. As he put on his shirt and tie, the nation's most renowned defensive coordinator spoke quietly and modestly about his team's accomplishment.
"This team took it as a challenge," said Strong. "They knew they were going against a Heisman winner. They knew they were going against one of the most prolific offenses in history. We told them, 'If you don't play good defense, you're going to get embarrassed.'
"And they held them to 14 points."