As Saban pointed out, the Gators present unique problems on third-and-short because of "their ability to run the ball with the quarterback out of empty." Translation: Even when they line up with no backs, they're lining up with one of the country's best and nastiest short-yardage specialists—the 6'3", 240-pound Tebow. On third-and-four at the Alabama 32 with the score knotted at 10, Tebow jolted a pair of defensive backs backward on a five-yard gain. Five plays later, on third-and-goal from the five, the Gators lined up with three wideouts to the right side. The innermost receiver was Nelson, the transplanted Texan whose college career hadn't panned out the way he had planned.
An All-American at Wichita Falls ( Texas) Rider High, he first committed to Notre Dame. After Ty Willingham was fired in late 2004, Nelson decommitted, earning the ire of Regis Philbin, a Fighting Irish alum who called Nelson out on the air, pointing to the camera and admonishing, "Big mistake for you, kid."
Nelson had many occasions over the next few years to wonder if Regis was right. "He didn't expect to get his shot right away," says Belcoff, "but he didn't expect it to take as long as it did." A special teams demon and diligent downfield blocker, Nelson finally started to get meaningful minutes in this, his fourth season. Then came third-and-goal late in the second quarter against Alabama, when he crammed three moves into a seven-yard route, got separation, then got mobbed by teammates after scoring his fourth touchdown of the season.
JUST AS Nelson cops to drawing motivation from a talk show host, Gator after Gator took umbrage last week at being typecast as the "finesse" team to Alabama's "tough" guys. These guys are plenty tough. They have to be to survive Meyer's notorious "circle of life" drill, an early-August, weed-out-the-weak ordeal in which an offensive and defensive player square off.
When Alabama ran the ball down the Gators' gullet for most of the third quarter, it wasn't because Florida isn't tough. It was because 1) junior Glen Coffee (112 yards on 21 carries) is a terrific between-the-tackles rusher; 2) the Tide's offensive line has five future NFL players; and 3) Florida's defensive front was fairly average—by Gators standards—before it lost Matt Patchan and Brandon Antwine to injuries in the last two regular-season games.
"Yeah, we're a couple guys down," junior middle linebacker Brandon Spikes allowed three days before the game. "And we got a couple other guys nicked up. But we won't miss a beat."
As the spiritual leader of the defense, Spikes has to say that. But the Gators missed quite a few beats on the Tide's two third-quarter drives. The first, a 15-play, 91-yard procession, concluded with freshman Mark Ingram's two-yard touchdown plunge. The next covered 65 yards in 10 plays and led to the field goal that gave the Tide a 20--17 lead.
Fiery and emotional at other times, Tebow was now the picture of concentrated calm as he led what Meyer first described as "the drive of the year," then upgraded to "one of the greatest" in school history. It went 62 yards in 11 plays. On third-and-five at the ' Bama nine, Tebow was "a little shocked," he later admitted, at the call that came in from offensive coordinator Dan Mullen. It was inspired. Tebow had been pitching the ball on the option all night. Showing option again, with the defensive end leaning outside, this time Tebow flipped a shovel pass inside to tight end Aaron Hernandez, who got six yards. Two plays later Demps (53 yards on 14 carries) scored on an option to the left.
Suddenly, mystifyingly, a Florida defense that had looked gassed and ragged slammed the door on Alabama, which gained one yard in the fourth quarter. The Joker stemmed the Tide. Leading 24--20, Florida went with its Joker package—three down linemen, as opposed to the usual four. Sophomore end Carlos Dunlap lined up inside and pinned his ears back on a third-and-eight from the Tide 43. When Dunlap broke to the outside, cat-quick end Jermaine Cunningham, who'd lined up a shade outside him, came slicing off his right buttock, racking up Florida's only sack of John Parker Wilson.
It was the stop that stanched the bleeding—"Exactly what we needed," recounted a drained Charlie Strong, Florida's defensive coordinator. "Our guys dug deep. They played their way out of a bad situation."