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College football: Sugar Bowl

Title matchup puts the weight on defense

In age of offensive innovation, both coaches apply defensive backgrounds to game plans.

By BOB HARIG
Published January 3, 2004

NEW ORLEANS - It is an era in which wide-open offenses seemingly rule, in which spread formations and other innovations lead to scoreboard-busting point totals.

So programs around the country might take note of the coaches in Sunday's Bowl Championship Series title game in the Sugar Bowl.

Both have defensive backgrounds. Both preach defense first. And both have among the top defensive units in the country.

Is it any surprise that LSU and Oklahoma are playing for a national title?

LSU leads the nation in scoring defense, allowing 10.6 points per game. Oklahoma is No. 1 in total defense, allowing 255.6 yards per game.

Oklahoma's Bob Stoops was a defensive back in college and a defensive coordinator at Kansas State and Florida before getting his first head-coaching job at OU. LSU's Nick Saban was a linebackers and secondary coach at stops including Kent State, Syracuse, West Virginia, Ohio State and Navy. He also was a secondary coach for the NFL's Houston Oilers and defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns before his first head-coaching job at Michigan State.

"Any game you play where you have a strategy where you keep from getting beat first, which means you defend, is probably a pretty sound one," said Saban, in his fourth year at LSU and ninth overall as a head coach.

Led by tackle Chad Lavalais, LSU's aggressive defense features numerous blitzes and disguises. The Tigers have excellent cover cornerbacks in Corey Webster and Travis Daniels, affording the luxury of pressuring the quarterback. The defensive front combined for 26 sacks and 103 quarterback hurries. In 13 games, LSU allowed three rushing touchdowns while holding all but one opponent to fewer than 24 points.

Then there is Oklahoma, which had to clear out space at the athletic complex for the awards brought back to Norman.

There is Tommie Harris, winner of the Lombardi Award (best interior lineman). There is Teddy Lehman, winner of the Butkus Award (best linebacker) and the Bednarik Trophy (best defensive player in the country). And there is Derrick Strait, winner of the Bronco Nagurski (best defensive player) and Jim Thorpe (outstanding defensive back).

It makes you wonder how the Sooners ever allowed 35 points to Kansas State in their Big 12 Championship Game loss, the only time they gave up more than 30.

"We attack the football in stopping the run, and with a variety of looks we can disguise our defense, we can pressure the quarterback and create some confusion," OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "That's our system and our players understand the system, and if you see the way they play, they understand what they're doing out there on the field, and our experience speaks to that."

Venables actually shared the coordinator position with Stoops' brother, Mike, who last month became head coach at Arizona. Mike, naturally, has taken much of his training from Bob, who helped the Florida Gators win a national championship in the Sugar Bowl following the 1996 season.

"I've been a secondary coach all my life, but I know the defenses that play the best, everything starts with your players inside," said Bob Stoops, a former Iowa defensive back who believes his Sooner defense starts up front with Harris, a tackle. "The better teams have players in there that cause blocking problems, pressure and can create turnovers.

"Tommie is in the middle of everything that we do. 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. Numbers don't always tell the whole story."

It was at an ESPN media gathering last month in Orlando where USC coach Pete Carroll, whose team is ranked No. 1 in both polls and likely will share the national championship after winning the Rose Bowl on Thursday, came in contact with Stoops and Saban as they were waiting to be interviewed. All three are former defensive coordinators, a fact not lost on Carroll.

"Look at us all, three defensive guys," Carroll said.

Perhaps he was on to something.

"For a long time, defensive coaches were viewed as being conservative offensively," Saban said. "I don't think you can say that about any of these three coaches. All have a wide-open offense. We play to win and not try to turn the ball over. I think that's important.

"And you learn those things on defense, whether it's being good in the red area or being a good third-down team. When you apply it to both sides of the ball, turnover ratio, quarterback efficiency, goal line, two-minute ... if you're not conservative with offense and play good defense, it's kind of a good combination."

[Last modified January 3, 2004, 01:33:24]


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