Championship Aspirations Take A Big Hit

AUBURN, ALA. — Florida’s national championship dreams were burning brightly on third and three at the Auburn six in the fourth quarter Saturday night. Six yards away was the goal line and the touchdown that could give the Gators a Houdini escape on this electric Saturday night. No touchdown? No problem. Chris Hetland’s season-long field goal jinx had been broken earlier in the night.

It all looked so good and so promising but this was a cruel night, the kind where promises melted into disappointment far too often. There was no touchdown and no fourth down for a go-ahead field goal. The Gators rolled Leak to the left, something that had worked successfully earlier on the drive that began at the Florida 10, but Quentin Groves beat his block and took dead aim at Leak who needed to unload the ball into the fifth row of the end zone. There was a split second of hesitation, though, and by the time Leak tried to throw it away he was in Groves’ grasp. The ball spilled onto the turf where Auburn’s Tray Blackman scooped it up and returned it to the 38.

For all practical purposes, that was game, set, match. Never mind that the Gators got the ball back two more times. For all practical purposes, this game ended on that play. Auburn got another field goal and Florida turned it over two more times, the second a fumble that Patrick Lee ran into the end zone on the final desperation play of the game to provide the 27-17 final margin.

For a team that had dodged four red-zone bullets and hadn’t given up an offensive touchdown to the Tigers all night, the Gators needed that one play so desperately, not only to keep alive run the table aspirations but to send Leak out with the legacy that he has craved for so long. Four years, three offensive coordinators, too many losses and no championships are the ongoing legacy for the kid from Charlotte that came to Gainesville promising he would never have a girlfriend until the Gators won a national championship.

He’s got a girlfriend as well he should but he still doesn’t have the championship. Saturday night’s loss to Auburn is no guarantee that he’ll end his career empty-handed but there’s no question that the championship dreams took a severe hit.

It’s not fair to blame Leak alone for the loss. He had plenty of company in the mistakes department including more than a few from Florida’s usually reliable special teams but his mistake is the one that’s most visible. If he makes the play he erases all the other mistakes. If he just throws the ball away, a field goal gives Florida a chance.

A senior quarterback in search of a lasting legacy can’t make that kind of mistake. It did look like Leak’s arm was moving forward and Coach Urban Meyer did challenge the play but the way things were going on this night, you knew in your heart that the play would stand as called on the field. It was almost anticlimactic when the referee said there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the fumble.

“We challenged it because we thought it was an incomplete pass,” said an obviously subdued Urban Meyer. “We will go back and watch it on TV but obviously there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the call on the field. We’ll have to live with the call and we have to get better.”

Leak said, “I felt like my arm was coming forward but that’s how those calls go sometimes.”

The calls didn’t go Florida’s way. The bounces didn’t go Florida’s way. A lot of stuff didn’t go Florida’s way and yet the Gators were still in a position to win a game that they held Auburn without a single offensive touchdown. The fact that Florida was so close made the final far-away outcome that much more of a bitter broken promise.

The way the Gators have played the second half in all their SEC games made you think that the 17-11 lead Florida carried into the halftime locker would be plenty good enough. The Gators had allowed only one touchdown and three field goals in the second half of the six previous games so you had to feel that the defense would rebound from a topsy-turvy first half with some serious second half shutdown.

And it wasn’t that the defense was bad in the first half, either. Auburn got into the red zone four times but only had three John Vaughn field goals to show for it and to show what kind of night it was, the one time the Gators forced a turnover in the red zone, it came back to bite them on the butt. With the Gators ahead 10-3 in the second quarter, Florida forced a fumble that Derrick Harvey recovered on the Florida three. On the change of possession, Leak rolled to his right in the end zone and flipped a little pass out to Billy Latsko for an apparent easy seven yards and breathing room, but the play was nullified because Jim Tartt was called for holding in the end zone resulting in a safety and possession for Auburn with 10:14 remaining in the half.

The Tigers used the field position jump start after the ensuing free kick to march down the field to the red zone. Predictably, the Tigers stalled out and predictably, Vaughn delivered another field goal to make it a respectable 10-8 with 4:58 remaining.

Over the next 48 seconds of the game, the Gators showed that the promise of a wide open spread option attack is for real. It was a three-play, 80-yard, all freshman scoring drive that got a little help from a late hit. The lightning bolt that is Percy Harvin got 14 yards on a sweep around left end and 15 yards were tacked on for an out of bounds hit. On the next play, Harvin gave a real glimpse of the future of Florida football.

The play started with Harvin lined up at tailback taking a handoff for a sweep not unlike the play before. Harvin headed right with a convoy of three pulling linemen but a couple of Auburn defenders busted through and made contact. Somehow, Harvin bounced backward, reversed his field, eluded a tackler and then dipped, ducked and dodged his way to the left sideline where he finally got knocked out of bounds at the Auburn 16.

That set the stage for Tim Tebow’s first appearance of the game. Everybody in the house expected him to run and he didn’t disappoint. He ripped through a would-be tackler at the 12 and the rest of the way was clear sailing into the end zone. Chris Hetland’s extra point made it 17-8 with 4:10 remaining in the half.

That touchdown gave the Gators the promise of momentum, but once again, this was a night of broken promises. Auburn took the ensuring kickoff and drove it right down the Gators’ throat, right into the red zone one more time for the all too familiar ending of a Vaughn field goal. Still, it was 17-11 and since the Gators were getting the ball back to start the second half, this looked like the LSU game last week and the Alabama game the week before.

Only this time, the promise of momentum was only that — a promise. There was nothing substantial to back it up. The Gators were forced to punt on the first drive of the second half and the special teams dropped a costly bomb. Punter Eric Wilbur dropped the snap and by the time he recovered and tried to get a kick away, several Auburn players smothered the ball. Tre Smith snatched it up at the 15 and sprinted into the end zone for the touchdown that proved to be the game-decider with 10:51 remaining in the third quarter.

“Our special teams screwed up,” said Meyer. “We made a lot of crucial errors and our special teams did not play well tonight.”

But even with all the screw-ups, the Gators still had that one chance to win it at the Auburn six. It came down to that one play — a touchdown wins it and the Leak quest for a championship legacy lives another week. No TD means a fourth down chipshot field goal and while that has no guarantees, it would have given Florida the lead and it would have forced Auburn to come from behind.

There was no touchdown, however, nor was there a field goal. There was only one more disappointing loss in a stadium where there have been plenty of disappointing losses over the years. Steve Spurrier’s shot at a second national title ended here at this stadium the last time the Gators played here five years ago.

Spurrier already had one national championship and six SEC titles, though. Chris Leak still doesn’t have the national title or an SEC. Figure the national title hopes need a miracle of Moses proportions. An SEC, however is do-able just that the Gators have no room for error now. They still control their own destiny but there is no more wiggle room. Instead of playing the role of the unbeaten front runner, they’ll have to play it out as a team that has no more bullets to dodge.

This is a loss that you can’t pin solely on Leak — there were far too many contributors on this night — but it is failure to make a play when Florida needed it the most that will be remembered more than any other. For a guy that’s done everything right and done whatever has been asked of him the past four years he deserves a better fate but that is life in the SEC. Nothing is guaranteed and for so many, it’s downright cruel. Leak still has a shot at redemption in the next three SEC games but if he slips just once, he will remember that third down play he didn’t make at Auburn forever.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.