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A quick story about the Sooners' coach. In order to goose attendance at the exhibition opener of OSU's 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 into national champions. It was on display when reporters asked him last week 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 that 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 Atrews 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 off the mitts of 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. 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.