Commentary

Gators don't need Tebow to be Superman for offense to be superb

Originally Published: October 11, 2008
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was far from Superman against LSU on Saturday night.

College football's reigning Heisman Trophy winner completed only 14 passes, ran for 22 yards and even went an entire game without attempting one of those jump passes that have helped make him so famous.

Yet the Gators still won by more than four touchdowns.

Although Tebow didn't carry No. 11 Florida's offense on his back, the Gators blasted defending national champion LSU 51-21 in front of a sold-out crowd of 90,684 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Florida handed the No. 4 Tigers their worst loss under coach Les Miles and dealt a major blow to LSU's chances of defending its BCS national championship.

"We heard the talk all week," Tebow said. "I think you try not to listen to stuff and what everyone is saying. But I think if you can use it as a positive, you use it.

"I think we came into this game with a little chip on our shoulders. We heard about how great they were up front and how we couldn't block them. We heard how good their defense was and how we couldn't stop [LSU tailback] Charles Scott. We've got a few scholarships on our team, too."

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRETim Tebow's numbers weren't extraordinary, but they didn't have to be with Florida's offense hitting on all cylinders against LSU.
That the Gators blistered the Tigers without relying on Tebow so much might be a sign of trouble for the rest of the teams in the SEC. Last season, the Gators were far removed from Tailback U. when it came to offense. In fact, Florida was more like Tebow U.

As a sophomore, Tebow rushed for 895 yards and made an SEC-record 23 touchdown runs. He also set an SEC record for quarterbacks by running 210 times. By the end of the 2007 season, Tebow was tired and worn down. And, quite frankly, the Gators weren't that good: They finished 9-4 the season after winning the 2007 BCS national championship.

The Gators were too predictable on offense, and their coaches didn't trust many players besides Tebow. So the quarterback had to learn to trust his teammates to make big plays, too, according to Gators offensive coordinator Dan Mullen.

But earlier this season, Florida's offense wasn't playing well. And Tebow's production -- both running and passing -- was down. The Gators couldn't run the ball between the tackles. Junior receiver Percy Harvin, one of the fastest players in college football, was hurt.

Then, the Gators lost at home to Ole Miss 31-30 on Sept. 27. After an extra-point attempt was blocked, the Gators tried to pick up a first down on fourth-and-1 late in the game. Tebow was stuffed for no gain, and Florida turned over the ball.

"I don't know if 'slump' is the word," Mullen said Saturday. "Tim's been in such a mode of feeling that he has to do so much. You know what? Tim does a tremendous job. There's no bigger competitor than Tim Tebow. He's going to try harder and harder. He'll be in the office tomorrow trying harder. That's Tim."

Gators coach Urban Meyer and Mullen are determined to run Tebow less often this season to save him for the games that matter most. The coaches want other Florida players to emerge as playmakers.

The Gators have found them in Harvin and freshman running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. Against LSU, Rainey and Demps combined to run 21 times for 195 yards. Demps, a 176-pound native of Okahumpka, Fla., ran for a 42-yard touchdown to put the Gators ahead 34-14 with 1:02 left in the third.

It was Demps' fourth scoring run of 30 yards or more this season.

"We take a lot of pride in [being fast]," Demps said.

As fast as Demps looked on the turf of the Swamp, Harvin might be even faster when he's healthy. The junior from Virginia Beach, Va., caught a 70-yard touchdown pass from Tebow on the game's third play from scrimmage. Tigers safety Danny McCray jumped to intercept the pass but tipped the ball into Harvin's hands. Harvin ran down the left sideline to give the Gators a quick 7-0 lead.

[+] EnlargePercy Harvin
Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIREThe Gators welcomed back the speed and big-play ability of Percy Harvin that was on display against the Tigers.
"I knew once he jumped, he mistimed it," Harvin said. "I wanted to make sure I didn't miss it, too."

Harvin, who was bothered by a heel injury earlier this season and a sprained ankle this week, added a 7-yard touchdown catch late in the first quarter to give Florida a 17-0 lead.

"We've got a lot of playmakers," Harvin said. "I think sometimes we've got too many playmakers, and Coach doesn't know who to get the ball to. We've just got to spread it around."

But as much as the Gators would like depend on players other than Tebow, they still rely on him when it matters most. LSU cut Florida's lead to 20-14 after quarterback Andrew Hatch scored on a 3-yard run on the opening possession of the second half, and the Gators needed to answer to keep the Tigers out of reach.

With 7:13 to go in the third quarter, Florida faced third-and-3 at the Florida 40. Tebow took the snap and ran 4 yards for a first down. Tebow ran 2 yards for a touchdown five plays later.

"That was a dynamic Tebow [play]," Meyer said. "There was a lot of discussion on the headset. It was a good call by [Mullen]. We were going to throw it, but we'd thrown it on third down so much. Sometimes you get into a rut doing that."

Especially when you have a player like Tebow who can do everything a coach asks him to do.

"It's great for him to get this performance under his belt, just relax, be the leader and be the energizing Tim Tebow that we need him to be," Mullen said.

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

Mark Schlabach | email

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