COLLEGE FOOTBALL: BOWL WEEK : BEYOND THE BOZ : Dante Jones Doesn’t Talk Quite So Much, but Oklahoma’s Defense Still No. 1
Dante Jones appeared on the Orange Bowl field Monday, wearing a gold braid that could be used as a snow chain in wintry climes, and idly suggested that the winner of this season’s game was least likely to be invited to the White House. The man they call Raw Dog--Why? Because he wears a towel that identifies him so--smiled at the assumed Presidential hypocrisy.
“Penn State was invited when they won the national championship and they’re the dirtiest team we played,” the Oklahoma linebacker-presumed rogue sniffed. “But I guess that’s because Penn State’s closer to the White House. I guess.”
In fact, the President would probably rather have a press conference than entertain either Oklahoma or Miami, such are their reputations for rowdiness and spontaneous fun, not to mention their nicknames and fashion accessories.
“Mr. President, Mr. Raw Dog.”
Think about it. One imagines Nancy Reagan getting an eyeful of Jones’ diamond ear stud, or that of Miami’s Irvin Jones, or the fabulous doodads of about 25 other Orange Bowl players, all of whom think fake gold nugget jewelry has a rightful place in Tiffany’s. She’d just say no.
Neither top-ranked Oklahoma nor second-rated Miami would feel or look at home in the oval office, it’s true, but their reputations as the scourge of gentle society are somewhat overblown.
Dante Jones, for all his golden geegaws, has been unable or unwilling to approach the outrageous gimmickry of Brian Bosworth, the man he replaced in last season’s Orange Bowl game. Raw Dog, as far as that goes, is a nickname borne of Jones’ work habits. He got it when he worked two jobs one summer.
Oklahoma’s reputation for big talk has somehow survived way past the fact.
“Who talks now?” Jones wanted to know. “Since Brian left, what have we said?”
Good point. The Sooners were even out-woofed--but not out-played--by Nebraska this season. They will be badly out-barked by Miami this week.
“Our reputation for that was strictly from Brian,” Jones said. “That was just him. He liked to put himself out on a limb and then saw it off.”
What survives the Boz years, besides his penchant for tasteless jewelry, is an intimidating defense, arguably the best in the land.
Oklahoma, No. 1 almost wire to wire, has scored 65 or more points in three games, has been held under 44, its average, in just five. Its dominating offense, behind that baffling wishbone attack, has received most of the attention as a consequence. And yet defense has been the name of their game, just as always. The Sooners are tops in the country in total defense, just as in offense.
It is important to remember, furthermore, when these two undefeated teams play New Year’s Day, that Oklahoma has the nation’s top-rated pass defense for the third year in a row. This is an unlikely statistic, given that the Sooners play in a conference where a forward pass is regarded with a certain suspicion.
“But it’s not a bogus stat,” said Miami wide receiver Michael Irvin, who is not always inclined to praise the opposition (see Bosworth). “It’s there. Look at all those interceptions (25). How could anyone say that’s bogus?”
Miami quarterback Steve Walsh is also respectful of the Oklahoma defense, no matter its shortcomings in games with Miami. “Their defensive backs really move to the ball,” he said. “They break on the ball and on the quarterback’s arm better. They get a lot of interceptions off of tipped passes, which shows how well they move to the ball.”
Because Miami has twice thwarted Oklahoma, largely by use of the forward pass, it has often been thought that the Sooners have a few Achilles’ heels in the defensive backfield. It can be argued that Miami, with its slick passing system, thus holds an edge. The Sooners argue.
“They had Vinny Testaverde,” defensive back David Vickers said. “Nobody else had him. He tore through all kinds of defensive secondaries besides ours.”
Testaverde, who retired from college football as the Heisman Trophy winner last year, did in fact cause the Sooners’ fall from grace in 1986, almost single-armedly.
“How many people beat Testaverde,” argued Oklahoma defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs. “If not for Testaverde’s scrambling . . . “
Well, the implication is obvious. Oklahoma would have matched Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl last season.
Walsh, a sophomore, is not considered in his league, which, face it, is the National Football League. Although Walsh’s statistics are enviable--2,249 yards passing and 19 touchdowns--the highest praise his coach can muster is: “He has played within his abilities.” All Coach Jimmy Johnson asks of Walsh is that he not turn it over.
This may put the game in better perspective then. Miami has lost Testaverde, and Oklahoma has gained experience. The defensive backfield has been a unit the last three years and has acquired an unspoken synergy that shakes even Irvin.
“They’ve been playing college football forever,” Irvin said, shocked. “Really, I think their eligibility is up.”
Irvin, no great respecter of defensive backs, further marvels at the way Vickers, Rickey (Eight Interceptions) Dixon and Lonnie Finch work together.
“Sometimes they send Rickey to cover man-to-man and the others rotate their coverage,” he said, describing a defense that operates on great faith. “I mean you take guys who are with each other that amount of time, they become friends, they know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. There is no substitute for experience.”
This defensive backfield, which has allowed just three touchdowns passing all season--and just four rushing--is a scary unit. But this time it will be facing scary people. Big Eight passing is no way to prepare for Miami, even if Walsh is no Testaverde.
“Yes, it was all Testaverde,” Irvin allowed sarcastically. “Now Testaverde is gone and we don’t know what we’ll do. Maybe the tiny things: catching the ball, for example.”
In other words, the unit must still contend with Irvin, who suffered a down year with just 44 catches for 715 yards and 6 touchdowns. He is no walk on the Miami beach.
Rickey Dixon doesn’t mind defending against him but points out that one must keep his wits about him. Otherwise, Irvin will talk you out of them.
“You probably don’t know what it’s like,” Dixon said of Irvin. “Playing him is like going into a bad neighborhood. He tries to talk you out of the game, just like somebody might talk you out of something in a bad neighborhood. He’ll talk you out of it if you don’t stand for it.”
The Oklahoma defense has heard worse, probably. Like when Bosworth used to rally them. This year it will be the quiet, though brilliant, influence of Raw Dog, who led the team with 118 tackles. Jones won’t say much, or wear anything flashier than his gold necklace--anybody remember the Boz’s shirt at last season’s Orange Bowl?--but he’ll likely get the job done.
And whether his team gets to the White House is of no great importance to him.
“Good guys, bad guys,” he said, mocking the morality play the media has turned an Oklahoma-Miami game into. “Being good guys, if that’s what we are this year, doesn’t help.”
Jones, like the players in front of and behind him, would rather get into Miami’s backfield than Reagan’s White House.