Deconstructing Florida's national championship-sealing jump pass
Leading 17-14, Florida put the game on the shoulders of receiver David Nelson
Nelson has gone from struggling freshman to junior with Urban Meyer's trust
Nelson caught the four-yard pass from Tim Tebow, giving Florid a 10-point lead
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- With less than four minutes to play in Thursday night's BCS title game, Florida wide receiver David Nelson heard one of his coaches calling for the "Mustang" package. "I got this knot in my stomach," he told me after the game. "There's only one play we run out of Mustang."
That play is Trey Left, 341 Stop Bend X Fake, better known to Florida fans as the jump pass they've now seen Tim Tebow execute, with retro panache, three times in three years. This season's presented itself at an excruciatingly tense moment: Nursing a precarious 17-14 lead over top-ranked Oklahoma, the Gators had driven to the Sooners' four-yard-line, where they faced second-and-goal. Just before he jogged onto the field, Nelson glanced at his head coach, Urban Meyer, who made this simple request: "Go win the game for us."
Nelson is a rangy, fourth-year junior who had the look, earlier in his career, of a recruiting mistake. He was a hotshot recruit out of Wichita Falls, Texas, who verbally committed to Notre Dame, then changed his mind after the firing of Ty Willingham. Among the Domer faithful who took umbrage was Regis Philbin, who called the teenager out on the air, saying, "Big mistake for you, kid."
Nelson arrived in Gainesville with a robust sense of entitlement recalls Meyer. "The fact was, he was not very good."
But freshmen become sophomores, and Nelson eventually found a clue. Determined to get on the field somehow, some way, he flung himself into special teams play, and began to take fierce pride in his downfield blocking. Finally, this season, he started getting meaningful minutes, started earning Meyer's trust. When Percy Harvin was forced to sit out the SEC title game, Nelson got the start -- a bit of news he couldn't resist immediately texting his mother.
Then came third-and-goal late in the second quarter against Alabama. Nelson crammed three moves into a seven-yard route, got separation, then got mobbed by teammates after scoring his fourth touchdown of the season.
Thursday's game harkened back to the SEC championship, in my mind, in that both battles strayed so far from the script. Vegas's over-under for Florida-OU was 70: fifty-six minutes in, the two teams had combined for 31 points. Brilliant though he often was -- I was continually stunned by Sam Bradford's accuracy -- the Heisman-winner found the sledding against Florida far more difficult than in, say, Columbia or Waco or Stillwater. OU's defense, meanwhile, exhibiting the advanced stages of Tebow Fatigue (they were deeply weary of hearing his praises sung), was far more stout than expected. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables cooked up a terrific game plan; Tebow was clearly out of sync in the first half in Dolphin Stadium.
The Sooners brought much more pressure than they'd shown all season. They lined up in fronts they had not shown, on downs they had not shown them. "It was messing up our blocking schemes," Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio explained, "and our play checks were bad."
The Gators adjusted wisely at halftime. As Harvin put it, "They were blitzing the outside backers, taking away the option and our outside runs." In the third quarter, "we started running counters, cutting it up between the tackles, and there was nobody home."
Florida's second touchdown was the result of a 13-play, 75-yard-drive. Tebow carried the ball on seven of those snaps, picking up 48 bruising, yards. Here, at last, was his opportunity to pump his fist, exhort the masses and otherwise channel William Wallace. It was dramatic, and entertaining, but hardly surprising. What was surprising -- shocking, really -- was the fact that, with four minutes to play, the Sooners were stuck on 14 points, an even 40 below their season average. Between the 20s, they were hell on wheels, with running back Chris Brown tearing off big chunks of yardage, and tight end Jermaine Gresham looking like Tony Gonzalez Jr. Eventually, however, they would arrive in the red zone, where some Gator inevitably stepped up and made a play.
The point being, even as the game clock went under five minutes, Florida's three-point lead wasn't remotely safe. Meyer desperately needed seven points here, and been holding a play in reserve all season to get it.
The call that came in from the sidelines on that second-and-goal brought things full circle. It was time for Tebow's annual, Nagurski-esque jump pass -- the play, you may recall, that highlighted his breakout game against LSU two years earlier.
"The jump pass is perfect for Tebow," Adazzio enthuses. "He sells the power run, and just sucks those linebackers up ..."
This Gainesville version of it -- Trey Left, 341 Stop Bend X Fake -- goes out of its way to telegraph power. Bow your backs, boys, it promises. We're coming straight at you! Meyer sent an extra tackle onto the field, moving left tackle Phil Trautwein out to tight end. The 6-foot-2, 290-pound Javier Estopinan, whom the roster insists is a defensive end, rumbled onto the field as a fullback.
To whom to throw the ball? The coaches debated this point, Meyer later recalled, for at least two hours. Sending Harvin wide would arouse too much suspicion. "Louis Murphy is a guy we trust, but he had a knee injury," said Meyer, who briefly reminded me of Robert DeNiro's Jack Byrnes explaining the "circle of trust" in Meet the Parents. "David Nelson had earned the trust."
In the dressing room at Dolphin Stadium, Nelson talked me through his route. To sell the run, he comes off the ball attacking the defender, pantomiming what is called a "stalk block" before cutting hard to his right. Nelson, who goes 6-foot-5, 215, got maybe a half step on linebacker Keenan Clayton, a converted safety who actually defended the play very well.
Diving, Clayton came close to swatting the ball down. But Tebow drilled it into a very narrow aperture indeed; he's always been remarkably accurate with his short and intermediate throws. Fully extended, Nelson speared the ball and kept on running to the sideline, where he celebrated with strangers before embracing No. 15.
"David Nelson continues to amaze," says Meyer, who clearly takes immense pride in the distance the native Texan has covered in four years. The freshman without a clue has become the upperclassmen specializing in touchdowns that clinch championships.
Standing on the field after taking his turn holding the crystal trophy, Nelson was asked if he thought Regis might have been watching. "I don't know," he replied, flashing a big smile. "But I'd be happy to send him a tape."