Running game, defense, toughness key Florida win

Originally Published: September 15, 2006
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Florida coach Urban Meyer wouldn't admit it. Neither would Gators offensive coordinator Dan Mullen.

But in front of nearly 107,000 hostile fans at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium on Saturday night, the No. 7 Gators might have forged a new identity in their 21-20 victory over the No. 13 Volunteers.

DeShawn Wynn
Jason Parkhurst-US PRESSWIREDeShawn Wynn powered his way to 104 yards against the Vols.
The Gators are no longer the flashy and explosive bunch running the spread offense that made Meyer a household name at Utah. That was only a nice way of saying Florida was soft and that Meyer's offense wouldn't work in the SEC, where cornerbacks are fast as receivers and linebackers are sometimes as swift as tailbacks.

When the Gators needed their first signature road victory under Meyer -- they beat rivals Georgia, Florida State and Tennessee last season, but none of the wins came in true road settings -- they decided to play the way the rest of the SEC plays: with a back-breaking running game, stingy defense and just enough passing to keep opponents honest.

So against Tennessee, the Gators had the perfect recipe for a 10-point comeback that, for now, puts them in the driver's seat of the SEC East. Senior tailback DeShawn Wynn ran for 104 yards on 22 carries. The Florida defense held the Volunteers to minus-11 rushing yards on 23 attempts, their fewest rushing yards in 168 games that Phillip Fulmer has coached his alma mater, and they sacked Erik Ainge twice and intercepted him two times.

"That was a tough team out there tonight, and they proved it," Meyer said of his Gators, who won their first road game of the season after going 1-3 in opponents' stadiums last year. "I'm not sure you can call them 'not tough' any more than we have in challenging them. We challenged them and they answered it. From last year until this game, we challenged them, we criticized them, we put them in situations that only the tough people can really survive. I'd have to say we're a fairly tough football team."

The Gators certainly survived a tough situation on Saturday night. The Gators fell behind 17-7 with 8:40 left in the third quarter and trailed going into the four quarter. Last season, they never won when they trailed entering the last quarter. Then Tennessee went ahead 20-14 on James Wilhoit's 51-yard field goal with 10:49 to play.

But after getting the football back with just under 11 minutes to play, the Gators showed how tough they can be. Wynn broke off a 26-yard run on their second play to move to the Volunteers' 37.

After Wynn ran for two more yards, the Gators turned to, of all players, their freshman quarterback for some hard running. Tim Tebow, who had earlier lined up at quarterback five times and ran each time -- was ready to run again, and perhaps everybody in the stadium knew it.

Tim Tebow
Jason Parkhurst-US PRESSWIRE Tim Tebow's tough running had the Gators celebrating in Knoxville.
No matter. Tebow ran for three yards on second down. When Leak scrambled and inexplicably slid short of the first down, leaving the Gators with a fourth-and-1 play from the Vols 28, Meyer called timeout. The Gators went back to Tebow, who lined up in the shotgun, took the snap and charged ahead for two yards and a first down.

Two plays later, Leak threw a pass to senior Dallas Baker on a crossing route for a 21-yard touchdown. Kicker Chris Hetland's extra point put Florida ahead 21-20 with 6½ minutes to go.

"Tim Tebow is a tough guy," Meyer said. "Just the way he holds the football in there. That's 230 pounds. We put in our goal-line personnel and shifted out to get two more people out of the box. We ran behind our two best people, after we put [307-pound tackle Jason Watkins] at tight end. We felt we could dent the line of scrimmage. That's a player's play. That's a Tim Tebow play."

Mullen, who coached with Meyer at Notre Dame, Bowling Green and Utah, said he had no hesitation putting Tebow into the game at such an important time.

"I've known about him for two years," Mullen said. "We were in the staff room on Wednesday. We all said, 'If we have a fourth-and-1 to win the game, let's give it to [Tebow] because he'll get it.'"

Leak also showed his toughness in the second half. With less than five minutes to go in the third, Leak was penalized 12 yards for intentional grounding when he tried to throw a pass away while being rushed by linebacker Jared Mayo. But on second-and-22, Leak threw a short pass to tight end Cornelius Ingram, who gained 38 yards to the Tennessee 11.

From there, the Gators turned to Tebow, who ran two times to move to the 4. On third-and-3, Leak threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Baker. Hetland's extra point cut Tennessee's lead to 17-14 with 1:16 left in the third.

"It shows a lot of toughness and a lot of composure when you're coming from behind and able to get a win in a place like this," said Leak, who threw for 199 yards and three touchdowns, completing 8 of 11 attempts in the second half.

Chris Leak
Jason Parkhurst-US PRESSWIREChris Leak passed for 199 yards and three touchdowns.
No Florida player was as tough as Wynn, who had been in and out of Meyer's doghouse for his inability to do more than simply run with the football. In the spread offense, Meyer's backs are required to block, catch passes and run out of a variety of formations. One of the country's most prized recruits out of Cincinnati, Wynn had failed to run for more than 621 yards in each of his first three seasons with the Gators.

But he did a variety of things against Tennessee, most importantly running with authority between the tackles.

"I always knew I'm capable," Wynn said. "I put the game on my shoulders. They over-pursued and I cut back."

Said Meyer of Wynn's performance: "That doesn't happen very often against that defense. It's time he became a tailback, and he did."

The Volunteers hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher since Carnell "Cadillac" Williams ran for 100 against them in the 2004 SEC title game. Florida ran for 121 yards -- the team with the most rushing yards has now won 15 of the last 17 games in the series.

"You're going to have a hard time winning in this league if you can't rush the ball," Fulmer said.

Mullen said the Gators knew they had to run the football effectively to beat Tennessee. So they used more two-tight end formations and jumbo packages, along with the spread. And maybe the Gators now realize they'll have to change their ways to compete for an SEC championship.

"It's all the spread," Mullen said. "I watch West Virginia's offense and they get into all that. It's all about utilizing your personnel. We're going to spread it out and pound it with Tim Tebow. Our philosophy is always going to be to spread people out."

But Meyer doesn't think the Gators have answered all their road questions.

"Not until we go to the next one," Meyer said. "What is it? Auburn? We've got a bunch left."

Meyer knows his team's road to the SEC title game only gets tougher. The Gators still have a trip to Auburn, play Georgia in Jacksonville and travel to Tallahassee for the season-ending rivalry game at Florida State.

The road only gets tougher.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

SPONSORED HEADLINES

ALSO SEE

MORE COLLEGE FOOTBALL HEADLINES

MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM