Commentary

Trademark dominant fourth quarter elevates Tebow, Gators

Originally Published: January 8, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Give the Florida Gators a team they can dominate, and they will mesmerize you with their speed and athletic gifts. Make them work, however, and the Gators will call on the heart and guts that have become the indelible trademark of Urban Meyer's best teams.

That's why, for the second time in three seasons, Meyer finished the season cradling a crystal football.

No. 2 Florida defeated No. 1 Oklahoma 24-14 in the FedEx BCS Championship Game on Thursday night before 78,458 at Dolphin Stadium. After a sloppy first half that raised hopes among fans of Utah, USC and Texas, the Gators won with defense and a dominant fourth quarter fueled by the human can of Red Bull that is junior quarterback Tim Tebow.

Stymied by an aggressive Sooners defense in the first half, Tebow rallied the Gators by calling on his best offensive player -- Tim Tebow. He finished with 231 yards and two touchdowns passing, and 109 yards on 22 rushes. Not bad for the fourth-best quarterback in the Big 12, as Oklahoma cornerback Dominique Franks tagged Tebow this week.

"We didn't execute offensively as I wanted to for the whole game," Tebow said, "but what I'm so proud of is my teammates came out here and battled for four quarters and played with so much heart, so I'm so proud of them."

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
James Lang/US PresswireTim Tebow was all smiles about Florida's effort and the outcome of the title game.

Tebow could have meant the defense, which held Oklahoma 40 points and 199 yards below its season average. The Sooners finished with 363 yards and the haunting memory of two drives inside the Gators' 10-yard-line without scoring.

Tebow might have been referring to Percy Harvin, who said after the game the high ankle sprain he suffered against Florida State on Nov. 29 included a hairline fracture. Nevertheless, his 52-yard dash on the first play from scrimmage after Oklahoma tied the game 14-14 in the fourth quarter immediately switched the momentum back to the Gators, and for good.

"I could run but I couldn't quite push off and get that gear I needed," said Harvin, who finished with 122 yards and a touchdown on only nine carries, and added 49 yards on five catches. "But I was able to make some plays to help my team win. You keep faith, and you keep pushing and pushing, it's amazing what can happen for you."

Or Tebow could have been referring to strong safety Ahmad Black, who, four plays after the Gators had taken a 17-14 lead, snatched a deep pass out of the hands of Sooners wideout Juaquin Iglesias at the Gators' 24.

[+] EnlargeAhmad Black
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesAhmad Black's interception helped seal the Gators' victory over OU.
"If my toes are on his toes, I got the right to make the play," Black said. "…I was on him. I put my hands on the ball and grabbed it. He touched it. I guess he wasn't strong enough." Black grinned.

"No, I just pulled it out."

Tebow marched Florida 76 yards for the clinching touchdown, and he scored it with a cherry on top. Offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, in his farewell performance before leaving to become head coach of Mississippi State, called the jump pass. Two years ago, Tebow threw a jump pass for a touchdown against LSU, an early chapter in the Tebow legend.

With 3:07 to play, from the Oklahoma 3-yard-line, Tebow took the snap, started as if he would crash through the left side of the line, then leaped and flipped a pass to 6-foot-5 junior David Nelson. Though Florida never trailed, it was not until Nelson caught the pass that the Gators led by more than seven points.

Sam Bradford, the Oklahoma quarterback who stopped Tebow's bid to win a second consecutive Heisman Trophy, played well by almost any standard but the one he set for himself this season. Bradford completed 26-of-41 for 256 yards and two touchdowns, both to tight end Jermaine Gresham.

But the sophomore will long remember the interception he threw right before halftime that prevented the Sooners from taking a lead. With the score tied 7-7 on third-and-10 from the Florida 17 and less than 20 seconds remaining, Bradford completed an 11-yard pass to Gresham. Oklahoma used its last timeout.

[+] EnlargeDavid Nelson
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesDavid Nelson's catch punctuated a dominant fourth quarter and sealed the Gators' win.
Every quarterback knows you look for a receiver, and if he's not open, you throw it away. Bradford knew it. But when he saw a smidgen of daylight between wideout Manuel Johnson and corner Joe Haden at the 1, Bradford couldn't stop himself.

The ball bounced off Johnson, Haden and another Gator before free safety Major Wright came away with the interception at the 3.

"I tried to force one in there, but I probably should have just thrown it in the back of the end zone and taken the three points," Bradford said after the game.

No field goal, no halftime lead, and thank goodness, only one more play left in the first half. As the years pass, and the memories fade, few will remember how this game began. The first half may have been watched with delight in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Austin, but it looked pretty scruffy in South Florida. The Sooners and the Gators both made mistakes uncharacteristic of the brand of football that earned their trips here.

Nothing looked more out of place than the zeroes on the scoreboard after the first quarter.

Blame the rust from a 33-day layoff. But give the defenses some credit, as well.

"They brought a lot of pressure, which wasn't what they had done for 13 games," Florida offensive line coach Steve Addazio said. "…It was a little different schematically than what we anticipated."

The odds of Tebow, who threw two interceptions in 268 attempts this season, matching that pick total in the first half were large, but no larger than the chance that Oklahoma could drive inside in the Florida 10 twice and come away with no points.

This was Oklahoma, an offense that had scored on 76 of 80 trips into the red zone. That's a .950 batting average.

[+] EnlargeChris Brown
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesTorrey Davis stopped Chris Brown on fourth down to ignite a Gator celebration.
The first whiff came on the heels of Tebow's second interception. On a zone blitz, tackle Gerald McCoy dropped into coverage and Tebow threw the ball right to him at the Florida 26. The Sooners needed only three plays to get to the 1-yard-line, third-and-goal. Chris Brown failed to gain. On fourth down, backup nose tackle Torrey Davis, who plays on the goal-line defense, knifed past All-Big 12 center Jon Cooper to tackle Brown for a 2-yard loss.

"That was my only play in the first half," Davis said. "When I did get it, I made it."

"He kept his feet alive," defensive line coach Dan McCarney said of Davis. "If you're going to win championships, you never know where that next big play is coming from. A lot of guys have to contribute, and that was a huge play at the time."

As much as that hurt, the other red-zone failure, Bradford's first interception, devastated the Sooners.

"We played awfully well for a good part of the game," said Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, now 1-3 in BCS Championship Games and loser of five straight BCS bowls. "…It doesn't take much to lose a tight game like it was."

Over the course of its first 12 games, Florida displayed its sheer physical talent. The Gators had more speed on the outside and more strength on the line of scrimmage. They won big.

In their last two games, however, the Gators won with all that stuff you earn in the weight room and the sand pit and the stifling heat of a Gainesville summer. Florida won the SEC championship game 31-20 over Alabama by scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter while holding the Crimson Tide to a total of 1 yard.

And on Thursday night, Florida did it again.

"I've been a coach now 23-some years," Meyer said. "and I've had to rank this [team] either 1 or 1-A as far as quality of people, as far as work ethic … I love them, I'm proud of them, and they're national champs."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com