Voodoo Gators! Another Great Escape

This was just another day at the office for Coach Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators, a regular stroll in the park. These voodoo Gators, who have turned cardiac finishes and great escapes into an art form in this year of living dangerously, continued their almost supernatural existence Saturday, turning the ghost of Steve Spurrier into mere flesh and blood along the way.

In a season where disaster lurks on every single play, where fourth quarters have been transformed into blindfolded walks through minefields, the Gators had to dig deep into their bag of tricks Saturday to overcome their own self-inflicted wounds and heavy dose of that old Spurrier magic. Florida’s vaunted defense never really found a way to stop Spurrier’s offense but the Gators did come up with two blocked field goals and a blocked extra point, just enough for the Gators to pull out a 17-16 victory with 90,703 fans jammed into The Swamp.

By earning their ninth win in ten games, the Gators remained in contention for the the BCS national championship game in Arizona. With losses by Louisville and Texas this week, the 9-1 Gators should move into third place in the BCS standings behind Ohio State and Michigan, who play next Saturday. The Gators have Division I-AA lightweight Western Carolina and Florida State, a 30-0 loser to Wake Forest on the regular season schedule before they play in the SEC championship game in Atlanta.

The Gators also avenged a loss to Spurrier and the Gamecocks in Columbia last year, turning Spurrier into a mere mortal in the process. Spurrier is the guy that renamed Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and called it The Swamp; the same guy that transformed Florida football from a sleeping giant into a consistent contender for the national championship. Spurrier owns one of Florida’s two Heisman trophies and he coached the guy that won the other one. The only national championship and the six SEC titles that counted were all won under Spurrier’s watch so a win was imperative for Florida to close the book on the Spurrier legacy.

Closing the book meant the Gators had to re-invent themselves for the second straight week. For the second straight week, the defense couldn’t make plays and once again the offense unloaded at least a couple of nine-round clips into its feet. Last week against Vanderbilt it was the punt block/return team that came up big when the game was on the line. This week it was the field goal/extra point block team that got the job done.

The best special teams units consider it a good outing when they’ve walked away from a game with one blocked kick. Two blocks are reason for celebration. Three? You figure donkeys fly before that happens, especially when the third block knocks down a potential game-winning field goal as time runs out.

That was no flying donkey you saw in the early evening Saturday, just 6-6 Jarvis Moss going airborne the second time to swat away Ryan Succop’s 48-yard field goal attempt that would have won the game for South Carolina on the last play of the game. Earlier in the evening, Moss blocked a Succop extra point with 8:13 remaining in the game.

In the third quarter, Ray McDonald bulled his way through the guard-center gap to block a 47-yard field goal attempt by Succop.

Those three plays made up for some untimely drive-stopping mistakes on offense and the defense’s inability to make a big play.

Offensively, the Gators had the ball seven possessions and on each one, they moved the ball at least 50 yards and into South Carolina territory. But on all but one drive, the Gators committed a huge mistake.

“We got too cute,” said Meyer in his post-game remarks.

Consider these four non-scoring drives:

— On Florida’s first drive, the Gators came up empty, wasting an 11-play, 76-yard drive that produced six plays of 10 or more yards. South Carolina got the drive off track with a seven-yard sack of Chris Leak and that forced Florida to bring on Chris Hetland for a 30-yard field goal attempt that he sailed wide left.

— On Florida’s second possession, the Gators moved from their 10 to the South Carolina 35 behind the running of DeShawn Wynn but a Leak to Bubba Caldwell pass that would have put the ball on the Gamecocks’ six yard line was called back because of holding. Leak got sacked on third down, forcing the Gators to punt.

— On Florida’s first possession of the second half, after a 56-yard kickoff return by Brandon James was called back for an illegal block, the Gators moved to the South Carolina 38 in large part because of a 13-yard Leak to Cornelius Ingram pass and a 24-yard completion to Percy Harvin on a crossing pattern. The drive ended when Leak didn’t see Dallas Baker free over the middle and threw instead to Caldwell who was double covered down the right side.

— On Florida’s second possession of the second half, the Gators took over at the South Carolina 47 after McDonald’s block of Succop’s field goal. On third and three at the South Carolina 28, the snap from Steve Rissler to Tim Tebow glanced off the shoulder pads of Harvin, who mistimed his motion. Florida recovered back at the 43 and was forced to punt.

“My timing was off,” said Harvin. “I was a step too early and the snap hit me.”

Two of Florida’s scoring drives weren’t exactly things of beauty, either.

Florida got its first touchdown on a 78-yard drive in the second quarter in which Leak hit all six of his passes. The touchdown came on an underthrown 21-yard pass to Dallas Baker. Baker was a couple of yards behind Fred Bennett but when the ball was thrown short, he came back and literally outwrestled the South Carolina defensive back for the score with 1:25 remaining in the half.

The Gators were forced to settle for a game-tying 22-yard field goal by Hetland with 10:49 remaining in the game because of yet another bad offensive mistake. On a drive that began at the Florida 20, the Gators moved to the South Carolina 13 behind a 21-yard run by Wynn and a 28-yard Leak to Ingram pass. With first down at the South Carolina 13, however, the Gators got too fancy. South Carolina sniffed out what was supposed to be a throw back pass on a reverse, surrounding Caldwell back at the 29 where he was called for intentional grounding. A Leak to Harvin pass on a crossing pattern got Florida back to the five, but on third down, Tebow came into the game and he threw incomplete on a rollout pass to Billy Latsko.

“Tate Casey was wide open in the end zone and but I made a bad decision and then rushed the pass,” said Tebow.

Florida’s only drive without a critical mistake was the one that won the game. The Gators started at their own 20 after South Carolina had taken a 16-10 lead on a 14-yard Davis run with 8:13 remaining in the game. The Gators took 12 plays to cover the 80 yards and it required a gutsy fourth-down call by Meyer to keep things going.

Facing fourth and less than a yard at their own 29 with just over six minutes left in the game, Meyer rolled the dice and sent in Tebow. Everybody in the house knew he was going to run with the ball, but the big freshman quarterback powered his way for six yards and the drive’s first first down.

“I didn’t feel we were stopping them,” said Meyer. “We had three time outs available but we weren’t stopping them. To walk into the locker room after that and look at your team and not give them an opportunity to win a game … I couldn’t do that. It was non-negotiable.”

Leak completed his only pass of the drive on the next play, a 19-yarder to Harvin that got the Gators into South Carolina territory again. After a seven-yard run by Wynn, Leak fooled everyone in the stadium when he popped through the left side of the line and broke into the clear for a 17-yard gain to the 23. His eight-yard run on a third down quarterback draw got the ball to the 12 to set up Tebow, who hammered up the middle 12 yards for game-tying touchdown with 3:03 remaining in the game. Hetland’s extra point provided Florida with the margin of victory.

That set the stage for the last play dramatics. South Carolina moved the ball to the Florida 33 with just under 40 seconds left in the game but a two-yard loss and a false start moved the ball back to the 40. Mitchell’s second down pass was batted into the air and on third down, his pass to Freddie Brown got the ball to the Florida 31, setting up Succop for the game-winning field goal attempt.

South Carolina called time out to get its field goal unit on the field and Meyer followed that up by calling another time out to try to freeze Succop. The Florida coach debated calling another time out but changed his mind.

“We had two time outs,” said Meyer. “We were going to burn another one but I couldn’t stand it.”

That set the stage for Moss to save the game, a play Meyer said was made possible because McDonald and Steve Harris got penetration up the middle to allow Moss to take a couple of steps toward the line and time his leap.

Meyer said, “The first thing Jarvis Moss said when we called him up in front of the team was ‘I want to thank Ray McDonald and Steven Harris because in the huddle they said we know we can get this thing. We’re going to knock those guys back.’ You don’t get that without two seniors up front knocking those guys back.”

You don’t get that without some kind of magic, either. Call it voodoo, call it a charmed existence … call it anything you want. It was an improbable win won in a most improbable way. It kept the Gators in the national title hunt and it erased some of the Spurrier shadow.

“It’s a good day to be a Gator,” said Harvin.

A very good day, indeed.

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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.