Percy Harvin’s adjustment to college football lasted exactly one series Saturday night. He caught a three-yard pass for a first down the first time he touched the ball and on the next play he stopped on a pass route which caused Chris Leak to throw his first interception of the season. On those first two plays, he looked like a kid who lost his helmet stripe just three weeks ago.
From that point on, however, Percy Harvin looked like he’d been playing for the Florida Gators for years. The freshman from Virginia Beach accounted for 91 yards in his debut against Southern Mississippi in The Swamp, gaining 58 yards on four carries and catching three passes for 33 yards to help the Gators to a 34-7 win over the Golden Eagles before a crowd of 90,043 at The Swamp.
Harvin was the guy with the extra gear, a make them miss type that the Gators didn’t have last year and his influence in the offense was felt early and often. On three of Florida’s five scoring drives, Harvin had a play of 10-yards or more. He was fast. He was elusive. He was the extra factor in the Florida offense that took the pressure off the senior passing combination of Chris Leak to Dallas Baker.
When he was standing in the tunnel just before the Gators took the field, Harvin wasn’t so sure he’d be able to do much of anything.
“I’m staring and thinking good gracious we’re about to run out there and next thing you’re hearing ‘Here come the Gators’ and oh my gosh, we got to run out there and my head was spinning in all kinds of directions,” said Harvin. “I had to pee but in that tunnel everybody was bouncing around and I was in shock. Then they said let’s go and I just ran out there.”
He thought he was prepared for the big time. He had played in state championship games in high school and ran in national track meets, plus he had been to The Swamp for a game-day visit. But nothing really prepared him for the reality.
“I never played in anything like that,” he said. “I played in state championships and national track meets but nothing was ever like that. I came to the Tennessee game last year but just being on the field is a lot different than being in the crowd.”
Harvin’s highlight reel performance combined with the Leak to Baker show made it a successful, although not truly efficient night for the Florida offense.
“We could have done so much better,” said Baker. “We played kind of bad really. I think the defense played great. They gave us plenty of opportunities to move the ball and to score. We have too many weapons to play like we played tonight.”
After giving up that touchdown on the opening drive, the Gators blanked Southern Miss the rest of the way. Florida held the Golden Eagles to 295 total yards while picking off three passes and the Gators defense was not at full speed as defensive tackle Marcus Thomas was held out for disciplinary reasons as was senior tackle Steven Harris.
“That’s a decision I made,” said Coach Urban Meyer, now 6-0 in season openers as a head coach. “We have a certain expectation level of what we expect of our team. To play football at Florida you have to do certain things and Marcus didn’t live up to that so he didn’t deserve to play tonight. If they do not fulfill the expectations we have they will not play.”
Meyer said that he expects Thomas to be back in action next week although there is no timetable set for the return of Harris. Without the two big tackles in the center of the line, the Florida defense didn’t get its normal push up the middle that collapses the pocket and that helped Southern Miss keep Jarvis Moss and Ray McDonald out of the backfield most of the night.
Southern Miss couldn’t keep Leak and Baker from connecting, however. Leak and Baker hooked up nine times for 123 yards and one touchdown. For the night, Leak was 21-30 for 248 yards and three touchdowns. He was intercepted but that wasn’t his fault.
On the third play of the game, Leak threw to the spot that Harvin should have been but Harvin stopped on the route instead of cutting to the inside. Instead of a catch in the seam that could have gone a long way, Harvin was standing flat footed when Southern Miss corner Brandon Sumrall pulled in a gift pick. Three plays later Southern Miss had a 7-0 lead on a Martevious Young pass to Damion Carter with 12:37 remaining in the game.
When he came off the field, Harvin said he told Leak “Man I messed up” but instead of scolding the freshman, Leak offered some calming words.
“I know that as a freshman he’s just getting his first game reps in,” said Leak. “I told him to just stay relaxed, keep your composure and just finish your routes.”
A couple of series later, Harvin got a chance to redeem himself, taking an inside reverse 11 yards for a first down that got the Florida offense going on an eight play, 87-yard scoring drive that featured five plays of 10 or more yards.
It meant a lot to Harvin that the Florida coaching staff wanted him in the game and wanted the ball in his hands after that first big mistake.
“On the second play we threw an interception and they [coaches] could have easily sat me down and said I wasn’t ready,” said Harvin. “They came right back to me and that showed me that the coaches have a lot of faith in me so I’m going to keep working harder and harder.”
On that first scoring drive, Leak completed passes of 29 yards to Baker and 12 yards to Cornelius Ingram and tailback Kestahn Moore ripped off a 13-yard run to set up a 21-yard touchdown pass from Leak to Baker on the last play of the first quarter.
On the scoring play, Baker ran the wrong route as Leak was scrambling to his left to avoid the Southern Miss pass rush. Once Leak got outside the containment, he spotted Baker and hit him on the numbers with a scoring strike.
“I kind of ran the wrong route,” said Baker. “I was supposed to run a speed post. I was trying to make a big play. I ran my route and noticed they were in a zone so I just backed up into the back of the zone and Chris just found me.”
Reggie Nelson gave Florida great field position at the Southern Miss 36 for its second scoring drive with a 21-yard punt return that he came ever so close to taking the distance. On third and one from the Golden Eagles 27, Harvin took an inside reverse around the left side and down the sideline for 23 yards to the Southern Miss four.
“I should have scored on that,” said Harvin. “I was looking upfield instead of to the side. I would love to have that one back, but of course, you can’t get a play back.”
Two plays later, DeShawn Wynn powered his way into the end zone from three yards out to put the Gators ahead for good with 6:02 left in the first half. Wynn didn’t play the rest of the game. The senior tailback suffered a neck stinger and with Markus Manson out with a deep thigh bruise, the Gators were forced to go the rest of the way with Kestahn Moore as the only healthy tailback.
Coach Urban Meyer considered putting in true freshman Mon Williams toward the end of the game but decided against it. However, he said that Williams will be made game ready this week.
“I think we’re going to play Mon Williams,” said Meyer. “We almost did it then but I didn’t want to burn the redshirt on one play.”
Florida increased its lead to 21-7 in the third quarter on an eight play, 71-yard drive on which Leak completed five of his six passes including three to Baker. The touchdown came on a perfectly thrown 29-yard pass from Leak to senior wide receiver Jemalle Cornelius with 3:32 remaining in the quarter.
The Gator defense took the game in its hands on the next two Southern Miss possessions, ending one on a Reggie Nelson interception in the end zone and the second on an interception of a tipped pass by Reggie Lewis that he returned 35 yards to the Golden Eagle six.
That set the stage for the first appearance as a Gator by freshman quarterback Tim Tebow. With chants of “Let’s go Tebow” echoing throughout The Swamp, Tebow managed to manufacture a touchdown. Tebow got the cadence wrong on the first play which resulted in a false start and ended the third quarter. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Tebow almost bobbled the handoff but Moore controlled it and powered his way to the one. On the next play, Tebow managed to control a bad snap, then sprinted to his left, powered his way through a tackle and lunged the ball into the end zone for his first touchdown as a Gator.
“It was a designed run,” said Meyer. “It was a bad snap and poor Tim called the wrong formation. He willed his way into the end zone. He’s going to will his way into the end zone a bunch around here. He’s going to be great.”
Harvin jump started Florida’s final touchdown drive when he gathered in a Leak pass on third down and turned it into a 17-yard gain. On the next play, Leak and Baker hooked up on a 28-yard gain and followed that up with an 11-yard connection. Harvin made a couple of jukes to dodge and dart his way to the Southern Miss 16 and then Leak finished out the scoring with a 16-yard pass to Moore.
For Harvin, starting his college football career with a game like this was an answered prayer. There was a series of problems in Virginia that ended his high school basketball season early and kept him from defending his five gold medals at the state track meet. Just playing again was a relief and doing well let him know that everything is going to be okay.
“Just to be here with a new beginning is a blessing and I can’t do anything except thank God,” said Harvin. “I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to play for this coaching staff. I’m happy to be a Florida Gator.”