Commentary

Gators have plenty of toughness to go with all that speed and flash

Originally Published: December 6, 2008
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- Florida coach Urban Meyer likes to say he wants the fastest team in America, and by god, he just might have it. But the No. 4 Gators didn't win the Southeastern Conference championship game and, in all likelihood, a chance to play for the crystal football because they ran past No. 1 Alabama.

"Our team is a tough team," Florida sophomore cornerback Joe Haden said. "The only reason they look past our toughness is our speed. They said we were a speed team and they were a tough team. We're just as tough. We can still be pretty and fast and tough at the same time."

And better. Don't forget better.

The scoreboard said No. 4 Florida defeated No. 1 Alabama 31-20, but the game played before a record crowd of 75,892 in the Georgia Dome felt more like a WBC championship than an SEC championship. It should have been scored on a 10-point must system for 15 rounds. Through five lead changes and three ties, momentum whipsawed from one sideline to the other.

"That's one of the best college football games I know I've ever been a part of," Meyer said after the game Saturday night. "That was a dogfight. That was toughness. That was check your will and come back and play in the fourth quarter."

As the old joke goes, that Tim Tebow sure is lucky. Every team he is on wins. The junior quarterback burnished his campaign to repeat as Heisman Trophy winner by leading the Gators on touchdown drives of 62 and 65 yards in the fourth quarter.

"There's a special something inside of him," Meyer said, "and I'm not talking about throwing [14-for-22 for 216 yards and 3 touchdowns], I'm not talking about running [17 rushes for 57 yards], I'm talking about the ability to make the level of play of everyone else around him better."

For Alabama to beat Florida, the Crimson Tide would have to play the kind of football they had played to win their first 12 games. That would mean controlling the ball. That would mean playing without errors. That would mean winning third downs on both sides of the ball. And in the fourth quarter, Alabama's dominance and toughness would wear down Florida and produce a victory.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Dale Zanine/US PresswireTim Tebow turned in one of his best performances in a Florida uniform, throwing for 216 yards and 3 TDs.
The Gators? They'd had to play four quarters only once this season. Florida had played one close game and lost it, 31-30, to Ole Miss on Sept. 27.

Let's just say that all that pregame talk didn't go unnoticed by the orange and blue.

"They heard that once or twice. They heard it this morning," Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said of the Gators. "The coaches heard it. The line coaches. The strength coaches. You couldn't help but hear it. And certainly the players had a lot of pride in the game they were going to play. And they played it."

Mullen, standing in the middle of the Gators' locker room, looked down at the sheet of final statistics in his right hand.

"I see a very, very, well-played football game," Mullen said of his offense. "7-of-13 on third down against the No. 1 third-down defense in the country. To me, that was a huge one. Time of possession we had 32 minutes [32:04]. And we outrushed them [142 yards to 136]."

And the Gators did it all without receiver Percy Harvin, who does more to spread the field for Tebow than anyone else on the Gators' offense. Harvin, who suffered a high ankle sprain last week at Florida State, didn't dress. Not for lack of trying.

"An hour before kickoff, he's begging the trainers to find a way to get him on the field," Mullen said.

Mullen begged, too.

"I told the trainers: You pick the best steak house in town, you and your families, I got you -- if Percy can score a touchdown," he said.

"So they countered with, 'Can you put him in at the goal line and let him dive in from 1 yard out?'"

Harvin, Mullen said, will be out for another two weeks. But he is expected to play in the Gators' bowl game. More important, in Harvin's absence, Tebow's three touchdowns went to three different receivers -- Carl Moore, David Nelson and Riley Cooper.

Tebow did not try to pick on a particular corner, but with Alabama's safeties focused on the run game, Tebow found which receivers were being covered one-on-one and put the ball where only they could catch it.

The Alabama offense established a power running game between the tackles. In the third quarter, with the Florida defense drawn in, Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson found freshman wideout Julio Jones time after time. The Crimson Tide held the ball more than 10½ minutes during two scoring drives to go ahead 20-17.

But the second drive, which Leigh Tiffin finished with a 27-yard field goal, decided the game. When Alabama didn't score a touchdown, the momentum switched one final time.

"We kind of ran out of gas in the fourth quarter a little bit in what was a very tough, physical game," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said.

[+] EnlargeRiley Cooper
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesThere was no Percy Harvin, but in his absence, Florida received contributions from the likes of Riley Cooper, among others.
In the fourth quarter alone, Tebow went 5-for-5 for 72 yards and a touchdown. Florida, not Alabama, controlled the ball for nearly 12 minutes.

"We couldn't get off the field," Alabama corner Javier Arenas said. "They wouldn't let us."

Alabama made other mistakes, too. Arenas lost track of where he caught a kickoff and stepped out of bounds at the Tide 4. The Gators forced a punt, took over the ball near midfield and drove for a touchdown right before halftime to lead 17-10.

Two of the Gators' touchdown drives got boosts from Alabama personal fouls.

Even with those errors, Florida needed nearly all 60 minutes to put the Tide away.

"My body was worn out," Gators defensive lineman Carlos Dunlap said. "I knew if I passed out, they would take care of me. I was not coming off the field. Alabama did a good job. They made it tough for us. It was our toughest game this season."

And their best. And college football's best, too. The BCS Championship Game has a hard act to follow.

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

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