Gators' Championship Drive Right On Track
Mick ElliottTALLAHASSEE - Florida State was history, a 45-15 victim Saturday evening, and the Florida Gators - with a combination of talent and chemistry that has been steadily building like an avalanche - stood together on the wet, sloppy turf of Doak Campbell Stadium. They were posing for pictures, acknowledging fans and singing a heartfelt (if off-key) rendition of the school fight song.
Published: November 30, 2008
Published: November 30, 2008
"It was a great moment," quarterback Tim Tebow said. "The last quarter of the game, just being able to look around and see what was happening."
That would be something really big.
Rain, mud, and especially the underdog Seminoles could not halt Florida's season of purpose, one that has progressed to 11-1 with a meeting Saturday against Alabama in the SEC title game.
Versatile, hard-hitting and oozing with confidence, the Gators not only conquered the Seminoles, but also the elements - heavy rain that left the field slow, slick and hazardous. A sign of the tough conditions came early when, as the FSU Marching Chiefs performed before the game, the entire tuba section went down in a pile on the slippery field.
That left Tebow the one with all the brass.
"I've always loved playing in the rain, ever since I was a little kid, so I didn't mind it too much," last year's Heisman Trophy winner said. "Playing in the rain brings out more of the physical presence. I think of the game more as a toughness factor.
"You go out there and play and have fun and roll around in the mud a little bit. I enjoy it."
The do-everything Florida quarterback was not a player but a force. He threw for three touchdowns - strikes of 7 and 24 yards to tight end Aaron Hernandez and 23 to wideout Louis Murphy. He carried 4 yards for a score.
When it was over, the Gators had piled up 502 yards - 317 rushing and 185 passing - in bad conditions to win their fifth in a row against the No. 23 Seminoles (8-4) and make a bold statement for their BCS consideration.
Florida freshman Chris Rainey rushed for 97 yards, including a 67-yard run, on eight carries. Fellow freshman Jeff Demps carried nine times for 89, and Tebow added 80 on 16 attempts.
"That game surprised me, because I didn't think they would beat us like that here," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "They beat us good last year, and they did the same thing today, on our field. That surprised me. I thought we could make it closer."
There was no Florida washout.
"That's as hard as we've played," UF coach Urban Meyer said. "The environment, the weather - there were all kinds of things that were supposedly equalizers. That's as proud of a football team as I've ever been, right there.
"I was really concerned, because a big part of our game is speed, and I sat out there and just stared at that field as it started getting about two or three inches deep of water. I didn't want to throw it. But offensive coordinator Dan Mullen kept saying to me we'll just run the offense, because I panicked and was going to say single-wing all the way. But he said we can manage this thing, and he did and Tim did."
Florida was in charge from the start, but the Gators didn't want to get too comfortable. Despite being pummeled in the opening half, Florida State managed to remain a pest, trailing 28-9 at the half.
Florida could hardly have dominated more convincingly in the early going. The Gators had 312 yards compared to 109 for FSU at halftime.
Still, FSU seemed insistent on hanging around.
The Gators took the opening kickoff and marched 65 yards in nine plays for a touchdown, with Percy Harvin taking a direct snap at the 9 and running for the score.
FSU answered with Michael Ray Garvin returning the kickoff 63 yards to the Florida 24. The Seminoles netted 5 yards on three plays, and place-kicker Graham Gano converted a 37-yard field goal.
To end the first quarter, Florida completed a seven-play, 84-yard drive when Tebow threw to Hernandez for a 7-yard touchdown and a 14-3 lead. After forcing the Seminoles to punt, Florida's Demps lost a fumble - recovered by Neefy Moffett at the 14.
FSU lost 4 yards on the possession, but Gano was good with a 36-yard kick.
Florida's next possession produced a 10-play, 86-yard march, with Tebow scoring on a 4-yard run to make it 21-6.
Florida State took possession at its 40 following a poor Gators kickoff, and Gano hit his third field goal from 32 yards with 2:04 left in the half.
"We knew going into this game that we had to score touchdowns rather than field goals," FSU quarterback Christian Ponder said. "When you're playing a good team you have to take every opportunity you can, and we didn't."
And that's when reality caught up with the Seminoles.
With the intermittent showers in torrential mode, Tebow needed just 1:03 to march the Gators 76 yards, again finding Hernandez in the end zone.
If Florida's 28-9 halftime lead wasn't enough to frame the inevitable, the first play of the third quarter did.
That's when Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes intercepted a Ponder pass and returned it 26 yards to the FSU 20. Three plays later, Tebow hit Murphy in the right corner to make it 35-9.
"They score so many points so fast that everybody gets out of their game plan," Bowden said. "They get three touchdowns ahead of you and you're just trying to catch up."
Reporter Mick Elliott can be reached at (813) 281-2534.