Florida states case by winning toughest conference
Posted: Sunday December 3, 2006 12:43AM; Updated: Sunday December 3, 2006 12:43AM
Gators wide receiver Percy Harvin accepts the most valuable player award from SEC commissioner Mike Slive after Florida's win.
Paul Abell/US PRESSWIRE
ATLANTA -- Whether Florida will have the opportunity to face Ohio State for the national championship is now up for debate - and it will be argued ad nauseam leading up to unveiling of the final BCS rankings Sunday, and for months after - but this much is clear: the Gators are the champions of the nation's toughest conference.
Florida stated its case for a spot in Glendale, Ariz., with an impressive 38-28 victory over Arkansas at the Georgia Dome on Saturday night. The Gators showed their offense wasn't stuck in first gear, piling up 396 total yards, and the defense held Arkansas' dynamic running back duo of Darren McFadden (21 carries, 73 yards) and Felix Jones (13, 57) in check.
You want style points? How about a gutsy fake punt from the Florida 15-yard-line with the Gators trailing 21-17 in the third quarter? The gamble worked as punter Eric Wilbur flipped the ball to Jemalle Cornelius, who went out the left end for 17 yards and a first down. Or the Gators' Percy Harvin, who showed why he's unquestionably the best freshman in the nation by showcasing his explosiveness with 167 total yards, including a breakaway 67-yard touchdown run.
For weeks coach Urban Meyer has been politicking for a shot at the national title, but on this night Florida let its play speak for itself - well, almost. "Florida belongs," Meyer said. "The other team had a shot. We went 12-1, and I think the county wants to see the Southeastern Conference champion against a Big Ten champion. I think that's what this is all about."
As word of USC's loss to UCLA circulated throughout the Gators' locker room at halftime, Meyer tried to downplay the significance of the result. He knew if his team wasn't focused, Arkansas would knock Florida all the way back to the Capital One Bowl. And the Razorbacks gave the Gators all they could handle in the second half.
In a wild third quarter, which featured fantastic plays, baffling blunders and tremendous athleticism, Florida nearly gave the game away before snatching it back again. After a Chris Leak interception led to a McFadden touchdown pass to cut the Gators' advantage to 17-14, Arkansas took its first and only lead when 6-foot-3, 253-pound defensive end Antwain Robinson intercepted a Leak shovel pass and returned it 40 yards to put the Razorbacks up 21-17.
Then on the ensuing drive, Florida was stopped in its tracks and the momentum had clearly swung until Meyer gained it back with the high-risk fake punt. "If we were not going to be successful I was going to make sure to shoot everything we've got," Meyer said. "We needed to do something and I was confident. It's a play we've probably run a thousand times in practice over the last two years and we had a senior punter flipping to a senior playmaker. It was big for us."
Five plays later, Florida was facing a much more manageable fourth-and-1 from its own 41 and called timeout to discuss what to do. Go for broke? Nope. Meyer decided to punt and Wilbur launched a 54-yard rocket and the Hogs' Reggie Fish reached back and fumbled into the end zone. Wondy Pierre-Louis recovered and just like that Florida was back up, 24-21. Sometimes it's better to be lucky.
"I was all set to go for it, but [co-defensive coordinator] Greg Mattison talked me out of it. He said, 'It's early.' So we punted it and it worked out exactly how I planned it," Meyer said with a smile.
That was all the luck the Gators would need as they regained control and didn't panic when Jones threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Cedric Washington to cut the deficit to 31-28 with 12:29 remaining. The Gators calmly answered with a five-yard touchdown pass from Andre Caldwell, the third TD throw from a non-quarterback in the game.
For Florida it was a display of experience and youth. Just when it looked like Leak was going to give the game away, he buckled down and regained his composure. "I've been though the ringer and I've learned that you have to have a short memory," said Leak, who surpassed Danny Wuerffel's mark of 10,875 career yards to become the Gators all-time leading passer and also threw his 100th career TD pass. "My teammates were confident in me and I knew we could turn things around."
And then there was Harvin, a one-man highlight reel who can change a game in a millisecond. As Florida celebrated on the field after the victory, freshman Jamar Hornsby turned to Harvin and said: "This isn't the last time we're going to be here. We're going to be back here next year and the next year and the year after that."
Indeed, Florida's future is bright and whatever happens in the BCS the Gators can say they won the nation's toughest conference - on the field.