The Great Escape: Gators Hold On To Win

JACKSONVILLE — No, this wasn’t “That 70s Show” although the Florida-Georgia game took on a decidedly 1970s feel to it midway through the third quarter. You would have thought Vince Dooley had left his perch in the All-Tell Stadium press box to take command of the Georgia Bulldogs on the sideline.

From the moment Chris Leak threw the first interception he’s ever thrown against Georgia in four years, Gator Nation started getting one of those here we go again sinking feelings in the collective pits of their stomachs, the kind you always got back when Dooley was Georgia’s coach. Back in those days, particularly in the 1970s, it seemed no Florida lead over Georgia was too big and no game ever safe until the final whistle.

Unlike the Dooley years when Florida always found ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the Gators held on to win Saturday, 21-14, a game that was as much an escape as it was a victory. When the final seconds ticked off the clock, Florida fans were wondering who are these guys? Are they the same team that came from behind in the second half to beat Tennessee, Alabama and LSU or are they too much like the team that missed golden opportunities in a loss at Auburn two weeks ago?

The problem wasn’t the defense. Florida’s defense showed up big time. Unlike the Auburn game where missed tackles were the norm and the Gators failed to turn the Tigers over, Florida’s defenders swarmed. They were sure-handed tacklers and opportunistic, holding Georgia to 215 total yards and producing five turnovers.

Georgia’s only two touchdowns were gifts, the result of two inopportune Florida turnovers — the Leak interception and a fourth quarter fumble at the UF 14 by freshman quarterback Tim Tebow — that gave Georgia a short field to work with. Other than those two drives, the Gators made the critical stops. Georgia got only 64 rushing yards (2.5 yards per carry) and completed just 13-33 passes. Florida recovered three fumbles and picked off two passes.

But once again, defense was not the problem.

For the second straight week, the problem was the offense in the second half. For the second straight game, the Gators couldn’t produce an offensive touchdown in the second half.

At Auburn, the Gators didn’t have many first half possessions but they ran up and down the field. In the first half Saturday, Florida outgained Georgia 206-81, and the Gators led 14-0 at the intermission. When Ray McDonald rumbled nine yards with a Kregg Lumpkin fumble for a touchdown on the first play of the second half, Florida looked like a team in total control.

That’s when the game started taking on the feel of one of those Vince Dooley games in the 1970s. The Gators killed their own momentum with drive-killing penalties and the two turnovers but the play calling was at issue, too. There was very little rhyme, hardly any reason.

“We’ve got issues,” said Meyer.

The issues included the turnovers, 10 penalties including one that wiped out a 66-yard punt return for a touchdown by Brandon James, three dropped passes by a team totally out of synch in the second half and the continuing woes of field goal kicker Chris Hetland, now 1-7 for the season.

“I think in six years I’ve never felt this way about an offense,” said Meyer. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ll start immediately. As a matter of fact we’ll start tonight and get this thing right.”

It didn’t start out that way. On the first drive, the Gators were magnificent. They sliced up the Georgia defense on that first drive far too easily.

That first drive was scripted and it worked almost like it was drawn up on paper as Florida moved 62 yards in nine plays, seven on the ground and two through the air. The only play that looked remotely out of synch was the first snap of the game when Leak fumbled while trying to avoid a sack. Carlton Medder fell on the ball for a one-yard loss but for the next eight plays, the Gators looked like a totally prepared, well oiled offensive machine.

A 20-yard run by freshman Tim Tebow highlighted that opening drive, finished off when the Georgia defense followed Leak and Percy Harvin left only to see the ball flipped back to Bubba Caldwell on a reverse. Caldwell turned on the jets and snaked his way the final five yards for that first touchdown with 9:11 remaining in the first quarter.

Maybe Florida’s second and third possessions in the first quarter were a prelude of things to come. The Gators managed only one first down and 19 yards, not the kind of production that was wanted or needed but with the defense playing the way it was, nobody was worried. Florida had all the answers to Georgia’s running game and the Gators were able to pressure freshman quarterback Matt Stafford without needing much of a blitz package. The Gators showed man and dropped into a seven-man zone. Meanwhile, the Florida front four kept collapsing the pocket, making life miserable for Stafford.

That’s the way the defense played it the rest of the half. Georgia got into Florida territory once (Florida forced three straight incompletions and a punt) and to the 50 another time (Ryan Smith picked off a Stafford pass). Georgia punted on five of its six possessions.

The Gators should have gone ahead 14-0 early in the second quarter when James blew threw the Georgia punt coverage for an apparent 66-yard touchdown return but Nick Brooks was called for an illegal block in the back. Replays showed Brooks trying to pull away and barely any contact, but it was enough to merit a flag.

When Florida did score again it was the second quarter and it came courtesy of another James punt return, this one for 26 yards to give the Gators a short field to work with at the Georgia 40.

Florida wasted no time, going for the whole bundle on first down. Leak play-faked to DeShawn Wynn. One of Georgia’s safeties bit on the play fake, the other went with the corner to help with Dallas Baker, leaving Caldwell all alone in the middle of the field. Leak took something off the throw but Caldwell made the catch at the five and then took it to the end zone. Hetland’s kick made it Florida 14-0 with 4:37 left in the half.

When the Gators got the score on the Georgia’s first offensive play of the second half — Derrick Harvey got into the backfield to strip Lumpkin of the ball and McDonald scooped it up and scored from nine yards out — the Gators were in position to score a decisive, blowout win but that’s when the game got funky. Funky like it did in the 70s. Funky like it did when Vince Dooley was coaching. Florida fans felt sick. Georgia fans felt a comeback win was on the way.

It felt funky because the Gators turned the ball over twice to hand Georgia a couple of touchdowns and there were three first down killing penalties, and there were two missed Chris Hetland field goals. His 39-yarder boinked the right upright with 10:08 remaining in the first quarter and the Gators on the verge of a 24-0 lead. His 42-yarder with 14:19 remaining in the fourth quarter fell a yard or two short. That would have made it 24-7. Those two misses forced Meyer to admit that he has to find a placekicker that can produce in game conditions.

“Nobody’s beaten him out in practice,” said Meyer.

But practice is one thing. Games are altogether different and now Meyer has to make a change.

“I don’t want to do it, but it’s time,” said Meyer, who said the misses have gotten into Hetland’s head.

The Gators also put the ball on the turf with 2:55 remaining in the game at the Florida 32, the kind of error that could have been the break that Georgia needed to tie the game, but a Kestahn Moore mistake was erased by hustling Billy Latsko, who beat two Georgia defenders to the football.

As many times as the Gators flirted with disaster, however, they weren’t the only team with second half issues on this evening. The Bulldogs matched the Gators wound for wound.

Stafford fumbled in the third quarter when he was sacked by Jarvis Moss (Harvey recovered). Also in the third quarter, Eric Wilbur shanked a punt but the ball took a Florida bounce, grazed off the leg of Georgia’s Kelin Johnson and Reggie Nelson recovered for the Gators on the Georgia 40. In the fourth quarter Reggie Lewis picked off Stafford at the Florida five. There were also three critical dropped passes by Georgia receivers in the second half, two by tight end Martez Milner, who was paying more attention to Florida free safety Reggie Nelson than he was the ball.

There was also a Georgia penalty at a critical moment. That came with 2:49 remaining in the game when the Bulldogs had Caldwell stopped short of a first down on a third down wide receiver sweep, but Quentin Moses was called for an inadvertent face mask that gave Florida a first down and enough impetus to finish out the game.

As strange as all the miscues seemed, perhaps the strangest turn of events in this all too bizarre second half was when Wynn got in Urban Meyer’s face and demanded the football. He had carried the ball three times the whole night, used more as a decoy because of his still not 100 percent knee. It was crunch time, though, and Wynn did something he’s never done before.

“He kind of got right in my grill and said give me the ball,” said Meyer. “He hasn’t done that a whole lot around here and earlier if he had I might not have listened to him. I have a lot more respect for DeShawn Wynn.”

On Florida’s final possession, Wynn carried five times for 23 yards. His six-yard run with just a little over a minute to go got Florida the first down it needed to eat up the final 60 seconds of clock and escape with a win.

For a game that had a Vince Dooley feel to it for so much of the second half, it didn’t have a Vince Dooley ending, however. In the 1970s, the Gators would have lost this one. This time, the Gators not only escaped but found themselves sitting rather pretty in the SEC East Division race.

“We are officially in the hunt for the SEC East title,” Meyer declared. “We need to get our mistakes fixed this week and then get out there and beat Vanderbilt next week.”

There’s no doubt the Gators will be favored to win next Saturday in Nashville, especially if the team that closed out Tennessee, Alabama and LSU shows up. But if the offense that sputtered and coughed so much the last two games in the second half shows, it’s going to be an adventure.

“We used to be a team that never was penalized and never dropped the ball,” said Meyer, who said there may be a few changes made, particularly on the offensive line where there are still far too many holding calls and false starts.

So it’s back to the drawing board. Instead of enjoying a Saturday night win over a bitter rival, Meyer and his offensive staff are going to be huddling into the wee hours, trying to find some answers that can be implemented quickly.

That’s not what he wants to do and he’s not going to give this win back just because it lacks style points, but he knows something’s got to give. Vanderbilt’s next and then South Carolina. Two wins and Florida’s got a championship for the first time since 2000. Another day like this, however, and it might be another opportunity blown like so many in the last five years.

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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.