Gators stifle OU's explosive offense to win second title in three years
The title is Florida's third school history and second in three years
As usual, juniors Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin paced the Gators offense
Now the debate begins anew as to which team deserves the AP poll's No. 1 spot
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- All season long, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow said he'd rather win a national title than a second-consecutive Heisman Trophy. He played that way, too, sacrificing huge personal statistics to run a ruthlessly efficient offense with multiple stars. On Dec. 13, Heisman voters fulfilled the first half of Tebow's prophecy by choosing Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford as the nation's "most outstanding player." Thursday at Dolphin Stadium, Tebow fulfilled the second half.
With Bradford piloting the opposing offense, Tebow overcame two first-half interceptions to lead the Gators (13-1) to a 24-14 win and their second Bowl Championship Series title in three seasons. For Tebow, receiver Percy Harvin and linebacker Brandon Spikes -- role players on the 2006 team who grew into the heart and soul of the 2008 squad -- the second title was far sweeter.
"It's more special than '06," said Harvin, who said he will wait a few days and consult coaches and family members before deciding whether he will enter the NFL draft. "This year, we were actually the main people."
For Bradford, who became the fourth-consecutive reigning Heisman winner to lose his successive bowl game, the loss was a bittersweet end to a magical season. On their way to winning the Big 12 title in the most competitive season in the conference's 12-year history, the Sooners averaged 54 points a game. But Thursday night, Oklahoma (12-2) just couldn't solve Florida's defense.
Bradford still threw for 256 yards and two touchdowns, but the Sooners stalled at crucial junctures. In the first half, they were stuffed twice inside the Florida six-yard-line, and in the fourth quarter, Bradford watched as Florida safety Ahmad Black ripped the ball away from receiver Juaquin Iglesias. The interception set up the touchdown drive that allowed the Gators to put the game out of reach.
On that drive, Tebow (109 rushing yards, 231 passing yards, two passing touchdowns, two interceptions) converted plays of third-and-12 and third-and-six. He finished the drive with his trademark "jump pass" -- a play in which he fakes a run into the line, steps back, leaps and throws over the defense -- for a seven-yard touchdown pass to David Nelson.
"I promised the guys that I would go out and play with all my heart," Tebow said. "I was so motivated tonight. ... I can't put it into words. It was just an incredible night."
In the Sooners' locker room, players sat with bowed heads. Since winning the national title in 2000, Oklahoma has lost its last five BCS bowl games and its last three BCS title games. Thursday, the Sooners held Florida's prolific offense to less than half its season scoring average, and Oklahoma players believed they would come back until the Gators slammed the door with Tebow's last touchdown pass.
"We didn't end up finishing like we talked about all week," Sooners defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "We said we had to finish, and we just didn't."
The title is Florida's third in school history and second since coach Urban Meyer arrived prior to the 2005 season. Two years ago, Florida thrashed heavily favored Ohio State, 41-14, to win its first title of the BCS era. Florida's first national title came under Steve Spurrier in 1996; Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops was the Gators' defensive coordinator that season.
The nucleus of this Florida team arrived in 2006. The jewels of the recruiting class were Tebow and Harvin, who also played a critical role Thursday. Harvin stayed in Gainesville through Christmas to rehab the sprained right ankle he suffered Nov. 29 against Florida State. He missed Florida's win against Alabama in the SEC championship game, and he didn't return to full-speed practice until earlier this week. Monday, he pronounced himself 90 percent healthy. Ninety percent of Harvin was enough. The junior from Virginia Beach, Va., carried nine times for 122 yards and caught five passes for 49 yards. He took a direct snap around the right side for a two-yard touchdown that gave Florida a 14-7 lead late in the third quarter. Harvin now has scored in the past 15 games he has played.
"Our trainers, Anthony Pass and Kyle Johnston, have done a great job getting him ready, but the guy that did it is Percy. ... He went straight through, took a day-and-a-half off in the entire time after that injury occurred," Meyer said. "That was one of the gutsiest performances I've been around."
After Harvin's touchdown, the Sooners seemed as if they would strike back as quickly as they did in the first half -- they needed just 2:13 in the second quarter to answer Louis Murphy's 20-yard touchdown catch with a six-yard Jermaine Gresham TD grab -- but Oklahoma's drive stalled when Florida linebacker Ryan Stamper dragged down Sooners tailback Chris Brown in the backfield on third-and-one from the 28. On the next play, Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap blocked a Jimmy Stevens field-goal attempt.
After a Florida drive stalled, Bradford marched the Sooners 77 yards in 2:36. He hit Gresham for a nine-yard gain on third-and-eight from the 20, and the Sooners -- known for their up-tempo style -- really began to hurry. Before the Gators could align their defense, center Jon Cooper snapped the ball to Bradford, who dumped the ball to Gresham for an 11-yard score.
On Florida's next possession, Harvin ran for gains of 52 and 12 yards on consecutive plays. The stadium fell silent for a moment when Harvin stayed down after the 12-yard run. About a minute later, Florida fans unleashed a hail of boos when a video replay showed Oklahoma safety Nic Harris yanking Harvin's legs upward after tackling him. Harvin popped up and returned to action a play later, but the Gators wouldn't reach the end zone. Jonathan Phillips kicked a 27-yard field goal to give Florida a 17-14 lead with 10:45 left in the fourth quarter.
Tebow and Bradford didn't light up the scoreboard early, going against all predictions during the five-week run-up to Thursday's game. Tebow, who threw only two interceptions in 174 pass attempts this season, had two passes intercepted in the first half. Bradford, who averaged 343.4 passing yards a game this season, moved Oklahoma down the field, but couldn't find the end zone as frequently as he did during the season. One second-quarter drive ended when Florida's Torrey Davis stuffed Oklahoma's Brown on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. The Sooners' final drive of the half ended when Florida safety Major Wright intercepted a Bradford pass that had bounced off the hands of Oklahoma receiver Juaquin Iglesias, Florida safety Black and Florida linebacker Ryan Stamper.
"They made the plays they needed to make," Iglesias said. "We didn't."
Friday, the debate will begin anew as to which team is the true national champion. Texas, which beat Oklahoma during the regular season and capped a 12-1 season with a Fiesta Bowl win against Ohio State, wants a share. So does USC, which went 12-1 and closed its season by thoroughly beating Penn State in the Rose Bowl. And don't forget Utah, the only undefeated team in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision. The Utes went 13-0, wrapping up their season last week with a decisive win against Alabama. In fact, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham will hold a conference call Friday to make his team's case for a title.
But on a balmy Thursday night in South Florida, the Gators were the lone team left standing.
"We beat the No. 1 team in the nation two games in a row," Florida's Nelson said. "We beat the preseason No. 1 [Georgia]. We beat the defending national champs [LSU]. We've answered all questions."
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