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Posted: Saturday December 6, 2008 10:56PM; Updated: Sunday December 7, 2008 12:03AM
Bill Trocchi Bill Trocchi >
INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Once-maligned Gators defense rises to ultimate challenge

Story Highlights

The Gators defense took the brunt of criticism for the four-loss season in 2007

Florida stifled Alabama's final two drives, allowing six yards and collecting one INT

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Jermaine Cunningham's key sack with 8:15 left set the tone for the Gators' final stand.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

ATLANTA -- Florida safety Ahmad Black texted linebacker Brandon Spikes on the bus en route to the Georgia Dome for Saturday's SEC championship. You are the leader, and I'm following you.

Florida's defense had watched a special on Ravens All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis earlier that day, and Lewis had talked about taking soldiers to war. He would lead, and the others would follow. Spikes got the message, even before Black reinforced it.

So when Florida retook the lead 24-20 in the fourth quarter, the middle linebacker whom Urban Meyer said Friday underwent the biggest one-year transformation he's ever seen, knew now was his time to lead.

"I got everybody together on the sideline. It was time for a little meeting," Spikes said, standing amid the confetti that fell from the roof after Florida's 31-20 victory. "I said, 'They talked about (the defense being weak) last year and now it is our time to win a championship.'"

And the defense did just that, finally standing up to an Alabama offense that pounded its way to within a quarter of the SEC title. On first down, the Gators forced an incompletion. On second down, Glen Coffee was tripped up for a gain of just two after piling up 110 yards to that point. And on third down, Florida DE Jermaine Cunningham came up with the first sack of the day of John Parker Wilson to force the punt.

"That sack was the play of the night," said linebacker Ryan Stamper. "We just knew we had to come out and make a stand."

And when that stand was made, and Alabama was forced to punt it back to Tim Tebow and the Gators offense, the momentum was in the blue-and-orange half of the Georgia Dome and never left. Tebow led the Gators down the field for another touchdown, and Florida's defense went out and truly sealed it three plays later on a Joe Haden interception. Cunningham and Spikes pressured Wilson on the play, and the Tide's undefeated season was over.

On the sideline, Black grabbed a whiteboard and quickly wrote 'SEC Champs', becoming the first one to declare the game over despite the two-plus minutes that remained on the clock. Cunningham was accepting hugs from anyone in blue and orange, and the defense had to do nothing but watch Tebow finish it off before the indoor fireworks exploded.

Meyer had tried to dispel the notion prior to the game that the Alabama-Florida matchup was one of toughness vs. finesse, feeling his team is just as tough as any, despite having one of the fastest teams in America. After shutting down a power running team with the game on the line, and scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns against a top defense, Meyer couldn't help but gush about the guts his team showed.

"The foundating of our program is built on toughness," he said. "It starts with mat drills in February and ends with fourth-quarter wins in the SEC championship game. We are a very tough program."

Tebow, of course, steals the headlines for his heroics on the field and his integrity off it. Last year's Heisman winner threw three touchdowns on Saturday, was named the game's MVP and would have personally thanked every last Gator fan in attendance if he wasn't finally shoo-ed to the locker room after the game. But for all the touchdowns, the Heisman and the goodwill, Florida lost four games in 2007, and that was pinned mostly on the defense.

"Last year, our defense wasn't the best," Cunningham said. "We tried to work all summer to prove the Florida Gators have a defense."

With the SEC championship game on the line, the Gators proved it.

 
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