Gators Spring Leak; ‘Bama Sinks

Dead in the water, a foot in the grave, whatever you want to call it,
that’s where the Florida Gators were midway through the second quarter
of Saturday’s Southeastern Conference showdown game with the Alabama
Crimson Tide at The Swamp. Favored by a couple of touchdowns, the Gators
were down 10-0, going absolutely nowhere and on the verge of being blown
out in their own house.

They were backed up at their own five, facing second and 10 after Chris Leak rolled right and one-hopped a throw to Jemalle Cornelius rather than take the ten or more yards that the Alabama defense was giving him. They dared him to run on that play and instead of taking the ten or more positive yards of open space in front of him, he threw it just like they knew he would.

Second and ten against a Joe Kines-coached defense when you are backed up so close that the fans in your end zone can almost reach out and touch is a recipe for disaster, and given what the Gators had produced so far on offense, nobody would have been surprised if Florida turned this one into a not ready for prime time disaster. That’s what the Gators did last year in Tuscaloosa and they did it again in Baton Rouge and Columbia. But not this year. Not this day.

There was no panic even if the situation was no more than one more bad play away from desperation time. But instead of giving up or giving in, the Gators followed the Leak’s lead. He regrouped, got the Gators going for a first down and took charge of the situation. He literally took the team on his senior shoulders. He was 1-5 going into that second down play. He went 13-15 the rest of the way including 3-4 on what might become known as THE drive, the one that turned this potential disaster into a 28-13 victory for 5-0 and fifth-ranked Florida.

And if there is one single play that made THE drive possible, it’s one that Leak made with his legs. You expect Leak to throw pretty spirals and make plays with his arm. You don’t expect him to run a quarterback draw 45 yards to the Alabama three. The only folks more shocked than the 90,671 fans sardined into The Swamp were the Alabama defenders that got caught with their drawers down. They were in an all-out blitz designed to overwhelm the right side of the Florida line.

Only problem is, Leak went left and suddenly he had green space in front of him. Lots and lots of green space.

“The offensive line did a great job of blocking their front seven guys,” said Leak. “I just found a crease and broke through. The downfield blocking by our wide receivers was great, also. In college football you don’t see that much open space sometimes so when you get the opportunity with that much space you have to take advantage of it.”

Leak was run down at the Alabama three and a couple of plays later, the human battering ram, also known as freshman quarterback Tim Tebow, blasted into the end zone from two yards out with 1:49 remaining in the half. Instead of down and out and ready to die, the Gators were very much alive.

“We were dead in the water,” said Florida Coach Urban Meyer, who exacted a measure of revenge for last year’s 31-3 hammering the Gators took up in Tuscaloosa. “Someone asked me out on the field if you had to say what was the turning point [it was] to take the ball 95 yards against that defense. The way Chris mixed it up and played was excellent and to have that nice run …. how far did Chris run on that? Chris Leak ran 45 yards … there you go. It was a beautiful 45 yards. It was a designed play, a Q draw and he did a nice play of checking protection to it.”

From that point on, Chris Leak pretty much owned Alabama. He was 10-11 in the second half with touchdown passes of 16 yards to Bubba Caldwell that put Florida ahead for good with 2:39 remaining in the third quarter and 21 yards to Dallas Baker with 6:47 left in the game that boosted the Gators to a 21-13 lead.

Reggie Nelson ran an interception of a John Parker Wilson pass back 70 yards for a touchdown with 4:19 left to put the final touches on a win that seemed so improbable back in the first quarter.

If you watched the first quarter and half of the second, you saw a team that looked like a lost ball in the tall grass. Were those Gators wearing the throwback jerseys from the 1967 season and throwback helmets from 1966 or were these alien look-alikes? The Florida offense looked like it had been snoozing since 1966, the year Steve Spurrier won the Heisman. The defense didn’t give up a touchdown but it sure had the crowd thinking that it was capable of giving up an 80-yarder on just about any play.

Florida kept trying to establish the running game in the first 23 minutes of the game and all it produced was two first downs. When the Gators tried to pass, either the receivers were on the wrong route or Leak couldn’t get the ball to them on time.

“The first quarter was awful,” said Meyer. “We came out with the intent of trying to run the football against them. They played a three-down front and tried to drop eight a lot of times in coverage and we tried to come out and pound the ball without too much success obviously.”

What held the Gators together was a defense that wouldn’t fall apart even though Alabama kept putting on the pressure. Alabama made a lot of offensive noise but its only touchdown of the game was the result of miscommunication between Leak and center Steve Rissler. Bama had two Jamie Christenson field goals to show for the rest of the game.

Bama got its touchdown when Rissler snapped the ball unexpectedly to Leak as he was resetting the formation. Rissler drilled Leak between the numbers as he was looking to the right. The ball bounced forward where Alabama middle linebacker Prince Hall scooped it up off the turf and sprinted 50 yards for the game’s first score with 2:47 remaining in the first quarter.

The Gators dug themselves an immediate hole after the Alabama touchdown when Brandon James was knocked down at the 10 on the ensuing kickoff. Leak missed Cornelius, who was wide open on first down and on third down he was sacked for a six yard loss back to the Florida eight. Florida punted, giving Alabama good field position at the UF 44 and two plays later plus a half the distance penalty against the Gators set the Tide up with a first and goal at the seven.

This was too reminiscent of last year’s game in Tuscaloosa when the Crimson Tide bolted out to a 17-0 lead at the half but instead of giving in, the Florida defense toughened up, holding Bama to a 21-yard Christenson field goal. A 14-0 Alabama lead and this game takes on a whole new dynamic. Even 10-0 was dicey but Leak led the Gators on THE drive and suddenly, Florida was off the mat and looking like a team that could win, not like the team that looked destined to lose in the first 23 minutes.

That end of the half momentum carried over into the second half. The Gators missed a field goal on their first drive of the half, but after the defense bent a little and forced a punt, the Gators got the ball back at their own 20. Leak went 4-4 on the drive, hitting Cornelius on back-to-back gains of 22 and 26 yards off play action fakes to set up the go-ahead touchdown, a play that couldn’t have happened last year in Tuscaloosa.

The touchdown was a short little bubble screen out to Caldwell who started left where he juked Jeffrey Dykes right out of his shoes and then finished down the right sideline where he outsprinted three Bama defenders to the five where he went airborne and into the end zone. What made the play possible was that Leak and Caldwell both saw what the defense was doing and Leak adjusted his throw and Caldwell adjusted his route.

“It was a third down and long (actually second and 14) but it was a sight adjust that they gave a certain blitz to us,” said Meyer. “He flipped it to Bubba and Bubba recognized it and Chris recognized it. We could not have done that a year ago. That was an adjustment to a defensive play. That shows you how far we have as far as a receiver and a quarterback recognizing, adjusting to it and executing it.”

Alabama answered with its only sustained offensive drive of the day, eight straight successful plays that put the Crimson Tide on the Florida 14 with a first down. Once again, however, the Gators toughened up and kept Alabama out of the end zone. All the Tide could show for its effort was another Christenson field goal, this one from 26 yards out that cut Florida’s lead to 14-13 with 12:47 left in the game.

The touchdown that gave the Gators breathing room came after Ryan Smith’s second interception of the day and even this change of possession didn’t come easily. Smith made the pick but Alabama’s Keith Brown stripped him of the ball. Reggie Nelson beat two Alabama players to the loose ball, recovering at the Alabama 24. Two plays and an Alabama pass interference later, Leak threw a high dart in the end zone that the 6-3 Baker caught after outleaping Alabama’s 5-10 Ramzee Robinson. When Chris Hetland kicked the extra point, the Gators led 21-13 with 6:47 left in the game.

From there the defense took over. Nelson had his interception return for a touchdown, aided by a pair of key blocks by Earl Everett and on Bama’s final possession John Parker Wilson was sacked on fourth down at the Alabama five by Joe Cohen and Jarvis Moss.

For a game that started so poorly, the Gators came on strong and got the win in rather conivincing fashion. Maybe it wasn’t a masterpiece but Meyer refused to call the win ugly.

“There is not an ugly win at University of Florida,” he said. “There never will be. We won the game last week and we had 500 plus yards. We won this game but didn’t have 500 yards. We played great defense. This is a team game. You want to talk about our kickoff coverage? We had had one bad one. Our punt team did excellent. There’s no ugly wins. Are we averaging 500 yards a game offense? No. In this conference I don’t think that can be done right now. We’re going to certainly. We’re going to try to get 500 yards next week but we’re playing a very good defense as well. That was not an ugly win. It was a great team win. All three phases excelled when they had to to win that game.”

GAME NOTES: Prior to the game, the Gators unveiled the first names on the Ring of Honor — Emmitt Smith, Jack Youngblood, Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel. Florida’s crowd gave Spurrier, now the head coach at South Carolina a standing ovation. Spurrier thanked Coach Ray Graves for giving “a hillbilly boy from East Tennessee a chance” … Leak’s two touchdown passes give him 79 for his career, moving him past Rex Grossman for second place on the all-time list. Wuerffel is first with 114 … Tailback DeShawn Wynn suffered a twisted knee on the first possession of the second half. Wynn will be re-evaluated on Sunday and it may not be until Monday before the full extent of the injury is known. Wynn had 40 yards on 12 carries and caught one pass for 15 yards … Florida gave up only 83 rushing yards … The Gators had three sacks while Alabama had only one … Florida’s game with LSU next week in The Swamp will be nationally televised on CBS at 3:30 p.m.

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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.