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With his Florida teammates rejoicing below him, Chris Leak mounted the stage and acknowledged the blue-and-orange-clad mob chanting beyond the south end zone. In short order he would accept the trophy presented to the MVP of the BCS Championship Game. The 41--14 thumping of Ohio State had finally made an honest man of Leak, who as a cocksure high school senior in January 2003 stood before television cameras vowing his allegiance to Florida and predicting a kind of Gator Golden Age of multiple SEC and national championships. Three years later, exactly none of those titles had come to pass.
Even though Leak had thrown for 11,000 yards and 87 touchdowns entering Monday night's game, he had never fully captured the heart of Gator Nation. But then he took the field in the biggest game of his life and put on a show that sent a message to a national TV audience at the expense of his Buckeyes counterpart, a dazed and confused Troy Smith: This is how it's done.
Leak's performance--25 for 36 for 213 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions--was a masterpiece of equitable distribution. He completed passes to six receivers; handed off, pitched or otherwise dispatched the ball to four rushers; and kept the Buckeyes' defense off-balance all night.
More stunning than Ohio State's failure to stop (or even slow) Florida was the woeful showing by Smith, who completed 4 of 14 passes for 35 yards, with an interception and a fumble. He might as well have had his 25-pound Heisman Trophy tucked under his jersey for all the success he had escaping Gators defensive ends Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss, who combined for five sacks.
How could that happen? How could a team that had looked so bulletproof through an unbeaten regular season--ranked No. 1 since season's start and the winner of 19 straight games--be made to look so pedestrian on the brink of its second national title in five years?
It wasn't that complicated, Gators senior linebacker Brian Crum explained after the game: "This is a fast-ass team."
Thanks to the double-hosting model conceived by the solons of the BCS, Monday night's matchup was played at the same site--University of Phoenix Stadium--where one week earlier Boise State had staged its trickeration-intensive upset of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. (Apparently those same wise men consulted the Department of Redundancy Department to come up with the ungainly title: Tostitos Bowl Championship Series National Championship.) Florida's victory confirmed that this five-month-old, barrel-cactus-shaped dome in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale is indeed a friendly place for underdogs and imaginative, risk-taking offenses.
Riding shotgun in a TBCSNC-supplied SUV on his way to practice last Friday, Meyer tipped his hand ever so slightly, acknowledging that at least one matchup would not favor his Gators--his offensive line against the Buckeyes' vaunted defensive front four. "That's their strength," Meyer said. "Just running right at 'em--I don't think we can do that."
In truth the prospect of not being able to establish an inside running game wasn't a concern of Florida's second-year coach, who in a career that includes recent stops at Bowling Green and Utah never has been big on conventional methods for gaining yards. That his top rusher gained only 630 yards in the regular season and the second- and third-leading ground gainers were a pair of true freshmen who didn't play running back (wideout Percy Harvin and quarterback Tim Tebow) was testament to the absence of a top-shelf feature back. It also speaks to the resourcefulness and cunning of Meyer, whose objective has always been to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers--whoever they are and by any means necessary.