Thursday, January 8, 2009

Florida 24, Oklahoma 14

Never have I been so happy to be so wrong about so much.

I predicted a shootout between two high-octane offenses, a back-and-forth affair where the only team that could make a stop would pull out the win. I thought UF would eviscerate Oklahoma's defense. I thought the Gators would stifle Oklahoma's running game and force the Sooners into a one-dimensional attack.

The defenses largely prevailed. The Sooners had success running the ball. Florida's offense was stuck in neutral much of the game. And none of it matters, because Percy Harvin, Tim Tebow and a few key players on Florida's defense dragged the Gators to their third national championship.

Some of the stats are pretty: the Gators gained 480 yards, 249 rushing. But Oklahoma successfuly stifled Florida's offense for most of the day. The defensive line frequently overwhelmed Florida's protection schemes, and at times it seemed a repeat of the early stages of the Miami game.

But the UF defense, facing one of the greatest offenses in the history of college football, came up with three plays that will live in Gator lore:

1. After Tebow threw his second interception of the game midway through the second quarter with the score tied 7-7, Oklahoma turned to running back Chris Brown. He broke a 17-yard run to the Florida nine-yard line. A five-yard rush on first and goal took Oklahoma to the UF four-yard line. Brown rushed for three yards on second down. On third and goal Brown was stopped for no gain. Oklahoma eschewed the field goal and tried once more on fourth down to plow Brown into the endzone. But Torrey Davis, who's been a pain in Urban Meyer's side since coming to Gainesville in 2007, burst through the offensive line and tackled Brown for a loss of two yards.

2. Oklahoma took over at its own 20-yard line with 2:32 to go. The Sooners drove down the field with relative ease, Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford and his receivers picking apart UF's defense. With 10 seconds to go in the half, Oklahoma faced first and goal from the Florida six. Bradford tried to fire a pass into tight coverage. Joe Haden made a fantastic play, diving in front of the receiver and tipping the ball into the air. After Ahmad Black, Lawrence Marsh, Major Wright, Lito Shepherd, Jevon Kearse and Erin Andrews batted the ball around for a few minutes, Wright finally snagged the interception. The Gators would go into halftime tied at seven.

3. Florida led, 17-14, with 10:45 to go. Bradford completed a long pass to Brown, who followed it with a short rush to the 50-yard line. On second down, Bradford found Iglesias streaking down the middle of the field. Bradford's pass led Iglesias just a little too much; Iglesias briefly held the ball with his fingertips. But Ahmad Black came flying in, stole the ball and held onto it as he fell to the ground.

Black laid the groundwork, and then Tebow took over. On third and 12 from his own 35, Tebow rolled out and hit Riley Cooper across the middle for a 17-yard gain. Two plays later, Tebow fired an absolute bullet to David Nelson for 29 yards. It was an extraordinary pass, an NFL throw that he lasered just over the outstretched arm of a linebacker and just in front of a defensive back speeding toward Nelson.

From that point on Tebow and his offense simply bulldozed the Sooners. The Gators converted a third and six on a shovel pass to Aaron Hernandez, who's become well-nigh unstoppable on that play. He would cap off the drive, naturally, with his patented jump pass to Nelson.

Tebow finished 18 of 30 for 231 yards and two touchdowns, though he did double his season interception total with two picks. He was also Florida's second-leading rusher, picking up 109 yards on 22 carries.

Florida's leading rusher was, of course, Percy Harvin, who deserves a laurel wreath for his performance tonight. He played without the extraordinary burst and acceleration that normally defines him, but he retained enough raw speed and athletic ability to burst through the Sooners' defense for a 52-yard gain in the fourth quarter. It set up what turned out to be the game-winning field goal.

It's early to be talking about this, but Urban Meyer is staring a dynasty in the face. Florida will almost certainly lose Harvin and linebacker Brandon Spikes to the draft, but if Tebow elects to stick around for his senior year, Florida will be a unanimous pre-season number one in 2009. Even if Tebow leaves, Meyer will retain a core of talented, experienced players. The offense will lose both tackles to graduation, as well as wide receiver Louis Murphy, but the defense is bereft of seniors. As long as Meyer keeps plugging in top 1o recruiting classes, he'll have the kind of players needed to consistently compete for championships.

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