It had the look of one of those games from last year when the Florida Gators dug themselves a huge hole starting with the opening kickoff, but unlike last year when bad starts were usually indicators of a poor performance the rest of the way, Florida righted itself early on and turned in a strong finish Saturday night at The Swamp against Southern Mississippi.
Florida received the opening kickoff and instead of good field position, something that Coach Urban Meyer has been preaching every day in the preseason, the Gators were in the shadow of their own goal post. Jemalle Cornelius was upended at the nine, nothing close to where Meyer wanted the offense to start.
As if bad starting field position wasn’t bad, Florida turned the ball over on its third offensive play. That’s another no-no in the Meyer book. He stands at his pulpit and preaches ball protection every day just like he preaches good field position through the kickoff return game.
The kickoff return particularly irked him.
“There is no chance that anybody can work harder on that than we do,” he said. “We’re going to go back Monday and do it again.”
And then came the interception and that was followed three plays later by a Southern Mississippi touchdown. In less than two and a half minutes, the Gators were down 7-0 and to a pretty good football team.
“I’m very disappointed with the way the game started,” said Meyer. “That’s not Florida football.”
Unlike last year when bad starts usually led to bad finishes, the Gators never let Southern Miss close to the end zone again and the Gators never again turned the ball over.
“We had a couple of games start like that last year and we failed to win them,” said Meyer. “Maybe we’re getting a little bit tougher to dig ourselves out of the hole. The positive is that we dug ourselves out and from that point we took care of the ball. We played hard.”
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Meyer was aglow with the performance of freshman Percy Harvin, who wowed the crowd with his speed and moves, leaving no doubt why he was the nation’s most highly recruited high school football player last year.
“As you can see he’s one of our most electric if not our most electric player,” said Meyer. “He’s a stop and start guy. He’s got great speed and we’re going to try to get him the ball.”
Harvin carried the football four times for 58 yards with a long gain of 23 yards and he had three catches for 33 yards with a long gain of 17. He had at least one 10-yard play in three of Florida’s five scoring drives.
Meyer said that Harvin might even see the ball some as the quarterback.
“There’s times he might play quarterback, the same with [true freshman Jarred] Fayson,” said Meyer. “We want to try to get the ball to the playmakers.”
Harvin said he’s never played quarterback before but he’s willing to try.
“I guess it would be to run the option because I can’t really throw,” he said.
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Florida played 10 true freshmen in the game. Harvin was the only freshman to start either on offense or defense, but several others got significant playing time.
Freshmen linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dustin Doe each had two tackles. Doe had a bone-jarring hit on a kickoff while playing for Florida’s special teams. Freshman defensive end Jermaine Cunningham had a tackle and freshman corner Markihe Anderson had an assist on a tackle.
The other freshmen that saw the field were quarterback Tim Tebow, cornerback Jacques Rickerson, defensive tackle Brandon Antwine, wide receiver Jarred Fayson and offensive guard Marcus Gilbert.
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Meyer said that Tebow was a little bit rusty because he missed some practice during the week with a virus and a high temperature. He indicated that Tebow should see more significant playing time next Saturday when the Gators play host to Central Florida.
“I would like to play him a little more,” said Meyer, who said that if Tebow practices well, “he will be in there [against UCF] in the first half.”
Tebow was in for one series, getting a touchdown on a one yard run on a nearly busted play. He called the wrong formation and then took a bad snap and turned it into a touchdown when he ran over a tackler and somehow got the football over the goal line.
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The Gators honored the 1996 National Championship team in pre-game ceremonies. The loudest applause for the players was saved for Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel.
After Wuerffel was announced, the video boards showed about 30-40 seconds of film of Coach Steve Spurrier, now the head coach at the University of South Carolina. When the film ended, and the announcer said “Coach Steve Spurrier” the crowd erupted in a long, loud ovation, the kind that you would expect for Florida’s first Heisman Trophy winner and winningest coach in history.
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Chris Leak finished the game with 21 completions in 30 attempts for 248 yards and three touchdowns.
The 21 completions moved him to 684 for his career, third best in school history behind Shane Matthews (722) and Wuerffel (708). The 30 pass attempts gave him 1,123 for his career and moved him within four of third place, held by John Reaves. Matthews, with 1,202, is the career leader in that category.
The three touchdown passes bring Leak to 68 for his career. He’s fourth on the all-time list and now just six behind Matthews. Grossman is second with 77 and Wuerffel has 114.
The nine catches for 123 yards and one touchdown by Baker improved his career numbers to 100 catches, 1,439 yards and 12 touchdowns. Baker is within 26 catches of Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony, who share 10th place on the all-time Florida list.
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Prominent on the Florida recruit bench were the Lakeland six — Maurkice and Michael Pouncey, Chris Rainey, Paul Wilson and Steve Wilks. Also at the game was Jacksonville Jackson defensive end D’Angelo McCray, formerly a Florida commitment.
Junior offensive lineman Michael Brewster of Orlando Edgewater was also at the game as was Fort Meade offensive tackle Micah Grimes.
Also among the faces in the crowd were basketball recruits Nick Calathes and Chandler Parsons of Lake Howell. Calathes just returned from the Five Star camp where he was named the most outstanding player and the best playmaker.