Florida Gators plan to keep pressure on Sam Bradford

Going into the 2008 season, Florida coaches were pretty sure the defense would be better. Could it get any worse

But it was the Gators’ secondary that took so much of the abuse from critics a year ago. That was misleading. A major factor for the secondary looking more generous than Santa was opposing quarterbacks having so much time to pick apart the young defensive backs.

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No more.

This season, Florida is averaging almost three sacks a game. More importantly, the pressure has forced opposing quarterbacks to throw 24 interceptions. UF had 11 all last season. Five Gators have at least three interceptions this season.

And they readily thank the defensive front, led by Carlos Dunlap’s eight sacks. Jermaine Cunningham has four.

The Jan. 8 national title game, however, will be the toughest test all season. One of the reasons Oklahoma has scored 60 points or more in five straight games is that Heisman quarterback Sam Bradford’s uniform has stayed relatively clean. The Sooners are giving up just .85 sacks a contest — fourth-best nationally.

If Bradford stays on his feet all night, the Gators will get picked apart. Oklahoma has been successful thanks largely to a huge offensive line.

It includes tackles Phil Loadholt (6-foot-8, 337 pounds) and Trent Williams (6-5, 308), guards Duke Robinson (6-5, 335) and Brandon Walker (6-3, 284) and center Jon Cooper (6-3, 290). Imagine what snack time is for that group.

Florida will counter with incredible athletic ability and speed. Dunlap is the poster child. At 6-6, the Charleston, S.C., native returned kicks for his high school team.

“Honestly … I don’t think we’ve completely arrived yet,” Dunlap said. “I think we have a lot of room to get better. We still have a lot to prove, you can always get better. You are never too good not to get better.”

In the 2006 national title game, a 41-14 win against Ohio State, the Buckeyes also came into the game with a huge offensive front. It was the Gators’ speed rushers who ended up dominating the game with sacks and quarterback pressures. Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey went on to become first-round NFL draft picks.

Oklahoma must be concerned about a repeat, especially from Dunlap and Cunningham. Both can outrun most teams’ tailbacks.

“We’ve seen a big O-line all year (in practice) so we’ll be ready,” Dunlap said. “It’s a big team. We know they’ve got a lot of playmakers. … we’re going to go after (Bradford). We’ve got a good scheme and we’re going to get in his face.”

He says the speed of the Sooners’ offensive front could be a key. If Oklahoma is too slow to block Florida’s fast line, the game could be over in a hurry.