Commentary

Gators, Tebow clear another hurdle

Originally Published: October 31, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Georgia ran onto the field at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on Saturday wearing black helmets and black pants, looking a lot like Grambling State.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTim Tebow eclipsed Herschel Walker as the SEC's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns in Florida's win over Georgia.

No. 1 Florida, as it typically does each season, made the Bulldogs play like an overmatched FCS opponent, too.

Georgia once again proved to be just what the defending BCS national champions needed, as the Gators turned in their most complete performance in more than a month in a 41-17 rout of the Bulldogs.

"That was one of the best 'team' wins we've had at Florida," Gators coach Urban Meyer said. "I'm really proud of the way [the offense] came out shooting in the first half, and the defense played well the whole game."

Florida beat Georgia for the 17th time in the past 20 seasons, and except for a few minutes in the first half, the 2009 edition of this border war was never close. The Gators won their 18th game in a row, dating back to last season, and played well enough to stay No. 1 in the BCS standings for another week.

"I think this game started us in a little bit of a new direction," Florida quarterback Tim Tebow said.

Tebow, whose play had been spotty in three games since suffering a concussion at Kentucky on Sept. 26, threw two touchdowns and ran for two more. Tebow's 23-yard touchdown run with 1:32 to go in the first half was the 50th of his career, breaking former Georgia running back Herschel Walker's SEC record for career touchdown runs. It was a stark contrast from his performance in last week's 29-19 win over Mississippi State, when he threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in what was one of the worst performances of his career.

"I think it was a hard week because we were frustrated," Tebow said. "We knew we could play a lot better and we weren't reaching our potential. We can still get a lot better."

The Gators came into the game hoping to correct their woes in the red zone. They had scored touchdowns on only two of their last 15 trips inside opponents' 20-yard line and scored touchdowns on only seven of 25 red zone possessions against SEC opponents. Their red zone problems were magnified in a 23-20 victory over Arkansas on Oct. 17, when the Gators had to come from behind in the fourth quarter to win. Florida had only one red zone opportunity against Georgia on Saturday, with Tebow scoring on a 5-yard run on an option play.

[+] EnlargeRiley Cooper
AP Photo/Stephen MortonRiley Cooper caught two touchdown passes in the Gators' win over Georgia.

"I know everybody thinks it's easy, but it's not," Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio said. "You're going to have your ebbs and flows and you've got to stay steady in the boat. You've got to keep faith and have trust in each other, and we have that on this team. That's why we came back to beat Arkansas. It wasn't our finest moment, but we had the resolve to come back and win."

Florida's three other offensive touchdowns against Georgia came on big plays. Tebow threw touchdown passes of 22 and 29 yards to Riley Cooper (the second coming on a spectacular one-handed grab), and then Tebow ran untouched for 23 yards to break Walker's record.

"It's even a little breathtaking," Tebow said. "I'm going to be mentioned in the same breath with Herschel Walker?"

Florida's defense did the rest. The Gators intercepted four passes, including backup quarterback Logan Gray's pass that was returned 5 yards for a touchdown by senior linebacker Brandon Spikes for the Gators' final points of the game. Georgia quarterback Joe Cox completed 11 of 20 passes for 165 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. The Bulldogs finished with only 286 yards, the sixth time in eight games this season Florida has allowed its opponent fewer than 300 yards of total offense.

"The whole thing comes with pressure," Florida defensive end Jermaine Cunningham said. "We couldn't get to [Cox] early, but once we got pressure on him, he started making bad throws and mistakes."

Georgia's "blackout" flopped for the second time in as many seasons. Last year, the Bulldogs wore black jerseys while playing Alabama at home. The Crimson Tide led 31-0 at the half in a 41-30 victory.

Georgia coach Mark Richt didn't even tell his players about the wardrobe change against Florida until minutes before the game. If only their costumes had masked their porous defense and mistake-prone offense.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Spikes
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFlorida's defense held Georgia to 286 yards of total offense while forcing four turnovers.

After the Bulldogs changed into black helmets (the first time they've ever worn them in school history) and black pants after warm-ups, Florida drove 80 yards for a touchdown on its opening drive and led 14-0 at the end of the first quarter.

"After the Alabama game, we felt like we should shelve them for a while," Richt said. "When you go down 14-0, you feel like maybe not a lot came out of it."

Only another embarrassing loss to Florida for the Bulldogs. Since Georgia beat the Gators 42-30 in 2007, Florida has won the last two meetings by a combined score of 90-27.

"I don't think it's an indictment of the program," Richt said. "It's an indictment of what we've done this year."

Making matters worse for the Bulldogs this season, Tebow broke the long-standing record of their greatest player. But what's more important to Tebow than breaking Walker's record is leading the Gators to their third BCS national championship in four seasons. Florida cleared another obstacle on Saturday to move closer toward that goal. It has only two SEC games left -- Nov. 7 at home against Vanderbilt and at South Carolina on Nov. 14 -- before closing the regular season with nonconference games against Florida International and Florida State at home.

If Florida stays on its path, it will probably play No. 2 Alabama in the Dec. 5 SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. A trip to another BCS National Championship Game could be on the line, too.

"I tell the seniors you start the season with 12 marbles and take one out after every game," Meyer said. "I told them to cherish every one of them."

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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