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Get Used To It
January 19, 2009
Youthful Florida stuffed Oklahoma to win its second BCS title in three years, and with a coach who's winning the recruiting battles in his talent-rich state, the Gators have built a program to last
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January 19, 2009

Get Used To It

Youthful Florida stuffed Oklahoma to win its second BCS title in three years, and with a coach who's winning the recruiting battles in his talent-rich state, the Gators have built a program to last

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HE PULLED the grass-stained jersey over his head, wincing as he did so, then removed an ice bag from his tender right shoulder. Before Tim Tebow hit the showers, roughly an hour after leading Florida to its second BCS national championship in three years, the Gators quarterback remembered to peel the black stickers with white lettering from under his eyes. � Maybe that's why he threw two interceptions, a bystander suggested—because he changed the Bible verse printed on the eye black. After plugging Philippians 4:13 on his ruggedly handsome mug for many of Florida's games this season, Tebow called a scriptural audible before taking the field against Oklahoma last Thursday night, opting to go with John 3:16.

Smiling, he did not deign to address that possibility. Pressing the stickers to the base of the plaque he'd just been awarded as the game's offensive MVP—Tebow passed for 231 yards and ran for another 109 in Florida's 24--14 win over the Sooners—he said, "Think we could put these on eBay?" He wasn't serious.

Nor was the shoulder injury he aggravated during the 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that gave Florida a 14--7 lead in the third quarter and might as well have been called The Tim Tebow Show. The linebacker-sized, 21-year-old junior, who on Monday underwent surgery to remove a bone spur from the shoulder, kept the ball on six of those snaps, bucking and bulling through Oklahoma defenders for 48 yards, moving the chains, pumping his fists and otherwise channeling William Wallace. While it was dramatic and entertaining, the performance was not out of the ordinary. In each of Florida's biggest wins this season—LSU, Georgia, at Florida State, plus the SEC title game triumph over Alabama—there was a point when Tebow had to pick up the team and carry it on his broad back.

The difference last Thursday in Dolphin Stadium was that Tebow's lousy first half was the primary reason the Gators needed a lift in the second. The Sooners' defense came out showing him new alignments and more pressure than they had brought all season, intercepting Tebow twice in the game's first 23 minutes. "I was a little irritated with myself," said Tebow, who had only two picks in the 13 games before the BCS final. "The coverages they showed me—I should've read them better. But the key thing is to not let it faze you. We kept fighting, and the team kept believing."

AS TOUGH as number 15 was, Tebow didn't have to dig as deep as Percy Harvin, the junior multipurpose threat who slashed his way to 171 all-purpose yards and a touchdown despite playing with a hairline fracture in his right ankle. On the first play from scrimmage after Oklahoma had tied the score at 14 early in the fourth quarter, Harvin ripped off a 52-yard run to the Sooners' 26-yard line, then dashed another 12 yards on the next play. That set up Jonathan Phillips's 27-yard field goal, giving Florida a lead it would never relinquish, and certified that there was much more to the Gators' offense, much more to the SEC champions, than their 2007 Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback.

After all, it wasn't Tebow's assignment to slow the most prolific college offense of the last century. Gators haters will find no joy in the fact that eight underclassmen started on the defense that humbled Oklahoma's point-a-minute juggernaut. Using a sort of rope-a-dope strategy, Florida at times yielded big chunks of yardage between the 20s but then stood its ground near the goal line, holding 2008 Heisman winner Sam Bradford and the Sooners 40 points below their season average.

The Gators were youngest in the secondary, with sophomores at strong safety ( Ahmad Black), free safety (Major Wright) and one cornerback spot ( Joe Haden); lockdown corner Janoris Jenkins, the latest in a proud line of stars from Pahokee ( Fla.) High, is a freshman. It was Wright who sent Oklahoma a message on the game's third play, closing like a bullet train to level wideout Manuel Johnson, who had no prayer of hanging on to the ball and, come to think of it, was barely a factor the rest of the night.

Bradford would come back to Johnson on the penultimate play of the first half. The pass never got there, but it did have an interesting journey. The game was tied at seven, and the Sooners were desperate to score after having failed to convert a fourth-and-goal from Florida's one-yard line on their previous possession. This time, on first-and-goal at the six with 10 seconds left, Bradford's pass to Johnson was deflected by Haden, batted upward by Black (who dug the ball off the turf like a libero in volleyball) and into the hands of linebacker Ryan Stamper, who was relieved of the ball by Wright for the interception.

That's where the Sooners lost the national championship: On consecutive drives inside the seven-yard line they did not score a point.

But Florida still needed what coach Urban Meyer called the biggest play of the game from the team's smallest defender, the 5'9" Black. With the Sooners driving for a go-ahead touchdown with about 10 minutes to play, wideout Juaquin Iglesias flashed open on a skinny post. Bradford's throw hit him in stride and in the hands. Arriving a nanosecond later was Black, whose struggles at cornerback last season led many to write him off as a recruiting mistake. Transplanted to safety over the summer, he emerged as the team's sharpest ball hawk, pulling down six interceptions. His seventh was a stunner: He wrested the ball from Iglesias at the Gators' 24 in one of most dramatic reversals of fortune in the 11-year history of the BCS.

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