Lucky 7! Gators Win SEC Championship

ATLANTA, GA — Just when the Florida Gators were on the verge of voting themselves off the island Saturday in this high stakes, high risk game of Survivor at the Georgia Dome, Urban Meyer decided to call for a fake punt from the Florida 14-yard line. Championships aren’t normally won by desperate coaches that resort to desperate measures and this call had desperation written all over it.

The choices seemed rather obvious to Meyer whose team was on the verge of total collapse with just under seven minutes remaining in the third quarter. A punt would probably leave his defense defending a short field against an Arkansas team that had erased a 17-0 lead with 21 straight points. Those aren’t good odds, but neither are the odds of pulling off a fake punt deep in your own territory when you’re at the end of the field occupied by a rather boisterous Razorback nation. The fake in this situation is either the gutsy call of a calculating gambler or the last act of a very desperate coach.

Thirty years ago another Florida coach chose gutsy in a similar big-game desperate situation. Douglas Adair Dickey didn’t call for a fake punt but he did elect to go for it on fourth down deep in his own territory. His gamble failed when Georgia stuffed the play for a loss. The Bulldogs rode the momentum of that defensive stand to win the game and the 1976 SEC title. A couple of years after “Fourth and Dumb,” Dickey was unemployed.

Meyer’s job wasn’t on the line Saturday night in the SEC Championship Game when he called the fake punt but if it had failed this might have unseated “Fourth and Dumb” as the worst play call in Florida history. Meyer looks like a genius today because his gamble turned out to be fourth and smart, sparking the Gators to rally from a 21-17 deficit to a 38-28 win that earned Florida its seventh SEC championship, its first since 2000.

Meyer’s gamble not only paid off with the first Southeastern Conference championship of his brief Florida career, but it gives the Gators a shot at crashing the BCS party in Glendale on January 8. Saturday morning, the slot opposite unbeaten, top-ranked Ohio State was all but assured to Southern Cal, but the Trojans hopes came crashing down with a shocking, 13-9, loss to unranked UCLA. That leaves third-ranked Michigan as the only team ahead of the Gators and the Wolverines have already lost to Ohio State and they aren’t conference champions.

Meyer believes those factors should work in Florida’s favor.

“Florida belongs,” he said. “The other team [Michigan] had a shot. We went 12-1 and I think the country wants to see the Southeastern Conference champion against a Big Ten champion [Ohio State]. I think this is what it’s all about.”

Florida was on the verge of belonging somewhere other than a BCS bowl in the third quarter Saturday but the fake punt was just the beginning of a special teams adventure that reversed the third quarter curse that has plagued Florida since the loss at Auburn back in October. As recently as last week the Gators blew a 14-0 lead in the third quarter before rallying in the final period to beat Florida State.

Florida’s 17-0 lead was built on the strength of Chris Hetland breaking out of his year-long slump to kick a 33-yard field goal, his longest of the year; a nine-yard touchdown run on a quarterback draw by Chris Leak, a second quarter score set up by Jarred Fayson’s block of an Arkansas punt; and a 37-yard Leak to Percy Harvin touchdown pass with 4:02 remaining in the half.

Arkansas got back into it just before the half when the Gators’ Reggie Lewis fell down and collided with 6-6 Marcus Monk on a deep pass down the left sideline. As Lewis slid to the turf, Monk gathered the ball in and cruised into the end zone with 1:05 left in the half to breathe life in an Arkansas team that was battered and bruised.

The Gators turned the ball over on two of its first three third quarter possessions and Arkansas scored twice to take the lead at 21-17. Leak’s first pass of the half was picked off by Weston Dacus at the Florida 32. Seven plays later Darren McFadden threw a two-yard touchdown pass to Felix Jones to cut the gap to 17-14. Two possessions later, Leak’s shovel pass to Percy Harvin was intercepted by defensive tackle Antwain Robinson, who returned it 40 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.

Florida got poor field position on the ensuing kickoff and couldn’t move the ball, setting the stage for Meyer to roll the dice in an attempt to halt the Arkansas tidal wave. He admitted he looked at his team and decided that he had to make a bold move or else he wouldn’t be able to face them in the locker room.

“I think if we’re not going to be successful we’re going to shoot everything we’ve got,” said Meyer, who admitted he is a coach that would have “a hard time facing a team if I didn’t believe we shot everything we could to beat that team.”

It’s no coincidence that the greatest gamble of Meyer’s brief career at Florida was made with special teams. Florida has blocked a school-record eight kicks this year and returned a punt for a touchdown, so if there’s one phase of the team he has confidence in, this is it.

The play called for punter Eric Wilbur to start right as if he was going to do the same kind of rugby kick used so successfully last week against FSU. Wilbur took the snap, headed right and then flipped the ball to Jemalle Cornelius who was coming on the reverse. Cornelius got a great block on the edge from fullback Billy Latsko and by the time Arkansas hemmed him in on the sideline, the Gators had a first down at the 32.

“I had a lot of confidence in the guy carrying the ball — Jemalle Cornelius,” said Meyer. “That play has been practiced a couple thousand times in the last two years. I had great confidence in the guys executing — a senior punter flipping it to a senior receiver with Billy Latsko, a senior leading the blocking for him. I was pretty confident.”

Four plays later, the Gators were facing fourth and one at their own 42 but this time Meyer thought about it, but didn’t gamble on fooling the Razorbacks twice. Meyer was thinking about going for it but he was talked out of it by co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.

“He kept saying ‘It’s early, a lot of football left … let’s pin them in there and play some great defense’ which most of the time we have,” said Meyer. “Obviously I listened to my assistant coach and we punted down there and a good thing happened.”

Wilbur launched his best punt of the night, a towering spiral that Arkansas returner Reggie Fish couldn’t handle at the Razorbacks’ five. The ball kicked into the end zone and Fish was beaten to the loose ball by Florida freshman Wondy Pierre-Louis, who scored his first touchdown as a Florida Gator. Hetland’s extra point gave the Gators a 24-21 lead, temporarily silencing the boisterous Arkansas crowd.

“I can’t believe I got a touchdown,” said Pierre-Louis, a native of Haiti. “My mother was here to see me play and I got a touchdown. I just ran hard like I always do on a punt and when I saw the ball, I got it. This was for my mother. To do this for her … I can’t describe how happy I am.”

Harvin extended the lead to 31-21 on Florida’s next possession, just the second play of the fourth quarter. Florida ran a motion counter play with Harvin who made one tackler miss as he blew through a hole into the Arkansas secondary and then outraced the Razorbacks 67 yards into the end zone with 14:22 left for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.

“I did the easy part,” said Harvin, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player after rushing for 105 yards and catching passes for another 62. “It was good blocking by the five up front so we knew once I made my man miss there wasn’t anybody back in the secondary.”

Arkansas wouldn’t go down without a fight, however. The Razorbacks cut the Florida lead to 31-28 on a wide receiver throwback. Cedric Washington took a lateral from Casey Dick then rolled to his right and threw back to the other side of the field to a wide open Felix Jones for a 29-yard touchdown with 12:29 left in the game.

That was the Razorbacks’ last stand, however. Florida answered with an 80-yard drive on which Leak completed passes of 29 yards to Bubba Caldwell and 28 and nine yards to Cornelius Ingram. The touchdown came on a wide receiver reverse where Caldwell had the option to run or pass. He drew two Arkansas defenders to him then threw to tight end Tate Casey in the end zone for a five-yard touchdown pass with 9:04 left.

In the final nine minutes of the game, the Gators stopped Arkansas twice with interceptions, one by Reggie Nelson and the other by Ryan Smith in the end zone, sealing Florida’s twelfth win of the season. The Gators have won 12 games only two other times (1995-96) in school history and they will have a chance to set the all-time standard when their bowl is announced Sunday evening.

Florida’s 12 wins have come by a variety of ways. Special teams and big plays made the difference in the win over Arkansas, but along the way the Gators have had to reinvent themselves almost on a weekly basis. Saturday’s win was the closest Florida has come in a long time to the kind of stylish win that impresses voters.

Meyer said he’ll take substance over style any day.

“I’m not too concerned with style points,” said Meyer. “I’m more concerned about 21 seniors playing their hearts out and finding a way to win 12 games with the number one most difficult schedule in America.”

Now Meyer has to wait and see if the Gators get voted off the BCS championship island for the Sugar Bowl or if they get a chance to face Ohio State for the national championship in Glendale. He thinks Florida’s performance Saturday should earn his team the right to play for a national title but he’s well aware that it all comes down to a vote to see who stays on the island or who gets voted off.

“There are a lot of people making a lot of decisions out there and this is a big one,” he said. “We’re going to tell a group of young men that just went 12-1 in the most difficult schedule against six ranked opponents that they don’t have a chance to play for a national championship? I’m going to need help with that one.

“I have great respect for college football. I’m a fan of college football. I think the country is a fan of college football and I’m glad they got to watch a great college football game tonight. I have great confidence that the University of Florida is going to get that opportunity … I really do.”

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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.