Apparently, the “living bye week” against Western Carolina did nothing to stop the flow of the Florida Gators’ 2006 season. If you’re an artist, that’s bad news, but if you’re a football team, it’s great news. Sloppy, inconsistent and mistake-plagued, the Gators–behind a resilient Chris Leak and a resolute defense–once again won a very big football game.
It gets hard to find a fresh angle on a team that essentially plays the same kind of game every week. All you can say about this Florida team–inelegant and inefficient though it may be–is that it is a winning team. Once again, a Gator offense had a hard time establishing a power running game in a sixty-minute struggle where avoiding basic blunders often proved to be a herculean task. But just as surely, that same offense once again found the magic, moxie and muscle memory to produce pivotal pigskin plays in manhood-making motivational moments.
In looking back on this game and assessing its place in the lore of this heated rivalry, the only thing historians–20, 25, 30 years from now–will remember is that Chris Leak, for all the struggles of his offense, marched his team smartly downfield for the winning score in the fourth quarter. What made the drive special goes beyond the obvious: sure, the drive won the game and beat the hated Seminoles, but what one must take care to appreciate about the drive is that it came precisely when all the momentum was wearing Garnet and Gold.
A successful college football season is built not on weekly perfection–with 20-year-olds, that’s simply unattainable. No, a great Autumnal odyssey rests on the foundation of an untaught but equally unmistakable ability to make key plays in huge situations. It’s not what you do that matters in college football; it’s when you do it. Florida State did well to tie the game at 14 with two straight touchdowns in the second half; Florida, though, was able to answer that 14-point run with a go-ahead score that took the life out of Doak Campbell Stadium. While the Noles have had a lot of practice at scoring touchdowns to tie games or trim 10-point deficits to three, the Gators have become well versed in the art of scoring touchdowns to take leads: Chris Leak and Florida’s offense did the deed at Tennessee, found a finishing kick against Alabama, and surmounted South Carolina with a ballsy touchdown drive in the final stanza as well. These Gators rarely score touchdowns with rat-a-tat-tat rapidity, but just as surely, they do get these touchdowns when the moment demands them, and that’s why Florida’s 11-1 and the Noles–good at tying games but not winning them–find themselves in a deep, dark ditch.
More than half the battle in college football is the battle waged between the ears of every hormone-addled player: can a young human being, under intense pressure before a raucous throng, put the repetitions and lessons of practice to good use when the crushing crucible of a fourth-quarter fistfight reaches its climactic emotional crescendo? Florida–and especially its offense–has the discouraging habit of soft-pedaling things when the Gators find themselves in a relatively comfortable position. But that negative trend is more than eclipsed by this team’s ability, under Chris Leak’s leadership, to produce a tipping-point touchdown when the game is on the line. Florida isn’t an aesthetically artful team, but the 2006 Gators have clearly mastered the art of being great when they have to be. That tells you all you need to know about a ballclub that has now beaten Florida State three years running.