Gators escape with a win in Oxford

OXFORD, MS — Okay, so the Florida Gators didn’t play like the third-ranked team in the country and yeah, they’re young, immature and inexperienced and it showed especially on defense. They were exposed Saturday. Nobody can argue that. Nobody can argue the final score, either. Florida 30, Ole Miss 24. It was a win on the road in the SEC and you take those any way you can get them, even when you shoot yourself in the foot so many times that it might take a skilled surgeon weeks to locate and remove all the buckshot.

Usually, you lose when you commit 14 penalties for 127 yards, and it’s hard to win when your corners get burned so many times you want to send the young guys to a Shriner’s Hospital. Level up the playing field like that against a good team and you lose for sure but no matter who you play on the road in the SEC, if you manage to escape with a win you call that a blessing.

And maybe blessing is the best description of what happened here Saturday. This win was a blessing because the Florida Gators did everything they could to keep the Ole Miss Rebels in the game to the very end and yet somehow, they came away with a win in a state that has been most inhospitable to Florida teams over the years. Steve Spurrier had his problems in Mississippi, losing twice in Starkville. Ron Zook’s problems in the state — losing in both Starkville and Oxford and to Ole Miss in Gainesville — contributed mightily to his dismissal.

Urban Meyer’s first trip to the Magnolia State was a close encounter with all the old hexes or jinxes or whatever voodoo it is that has made it so tough for the Gators over the years. Nobody will ever call this win a masterpiece, but a paint by numbers win looks better in the scorebook than a beautiful loss.

It took Tim Tebow carrying the ball 27 times for 166 yards including 72 rushing yards in the fourth quarter to pull this one out. Tebow ran for two touchdowns and threw for 251 yards and two touchdowns as the Gators moved to 4-0 on the season, 2-0 in the SEC with Auburn looming on the schedule next week in Gainesville.

Florida’s win over an unranked team won’t bode well with the people who vote in the polls and neither will the way the Gators had to win it — running Tebow over and over up the gut in the fourth quarter doesn’t influence people to vote you in the top five — but right now that’s the least of Coach Urban Meyer’s concerns.

“Everybody wants to make us something other than we are,” said Meyer in his post-game news conference. “We’re a pretty good team, a young team and we just played another team on the road. I’ll choke somebody if I hear the style points thing or something like that.”

There were times when he might have wanted to choke some of his players, too.

In the first half two critical penalties had a hand in stifling two drives. A block in the back call on Maurkice Pouncey got one drive off to a bad start and a call for a face mask against Jason Watkins cost Florida 10 critical yards and precious seconds off the clock in the final 1:21 of the half when Florida was trying to at least get in field goal position. The half ended with Florida trying to spike the ball at the Ole Miss 28. A third penalty (15 yards) for interfering with the kick returner gave the Rebels excellent starting field position at their own 41 and jump started a drive that ended with a field goal in the first quarter.

Also in the first half, the Gators gave up a 42-yard kickoff return that gave the Rebels starting field position at the 47. An incidental face mask call against Tony Joiner gave Ole Miss a first down on another drive that ended with a field goal.

In the third quarter, the Gators gave up a 51-yard bomb from Ole Miss quarterback Seth Adams to Michael Hicks that set up a third field goal. On that play, Wondy Pierre-Louis was beaten on the route by Hicks and safety Kyle Jackson never reacted to give him deep help.

After Florida got a 37-yard touchdown pass from Tim Tebow to Louis Murphy with 5:17 remaining in the third quarter, the Gators were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct when Murphy clapped at the Ole Miss fans in the end zone. The Gators had to kick off from their own 15 and Ole Miss started its drive from the 41. A personal foul for a helmet to helmet hit by Brandon Spikes gave the Rebels an extra 15 yards on first down. Later in the drive, Adams hit four straight passes for 54 yards and a touchdown against Gator corners that gave way too much cushion and then had problems tackling. On the 19-yard touchdown to Shay Hodge, Jackson gambled and missed on a diving interception attempt at the 10. Hodge made the catch, spun and darted into the end zone to close the gap to 27-16 with 2:47 left in the quarter.

The final touchdown by the Rebels was a 77-yard bomb from Adams to Mike Wallace with seven seconds left in the third quarter. On that play, two true freshmen made mistakes. Corner Joe Haden was beaten on the route and safety Major Wright reacted too late and took a bad angle. Ole Miss tacked on a two-point conversion and it was a 27-24 game with a whole quarter left.

The Gators dodged a fourth quarter bullet when freshman punter Chas Henry shanked at midfield. Instead of pinning the Rebels deep, his 18-yarder gave Ole Miss the ball at their own 28. Joiner’s diving interception killed that drive for Ole Miss and that put the game in the hands of this year’s eraser for the Gators.

Last year the eraser was safety Reggie Nelson, who could roam sideline to sideline to atone for the sins of his cornerbacks. This year the eraser is Tebow, who took the Gators on his back on a 12-play drive that ended with a field goal and consumed 5:55 off the clock.

Before the drive began, Tebow was all over Meyer telling him to let him in the game so he could do what it would take to win it.

“He’s in my grill telling me let me win the game,” said Meyer. “He did. Nice job.”

On that drive, Tebow carried six times for 38 yards and threw one pass for nine yards to Percy Harvin. He converted a cricital third and six with a nine-yard run up the middle.  Florida’s drive stalled at the Ole Miss seven and the Gators had to settle for a 25-yard Joey Ijjas field goal. The points were breathing room, but more importantly, Tebow’s running played keep away from the Rebels.

Meyer had to play defense with his offense by controlling the ball and it worked.

“Let’s not make our defense go out there again,” he said. “Let your offensive line and your quarterback win the game and let your young secondary sit on the bench.”

After the field goal, it was Ole Miss’ turn for a couple of shots to the foot. A couple of false start penalties on the center put the Rebels in a hole with a fourth down at their own 33 with 3:09 remaining in the game. Meyer expected a fake punt on fourth down and his guess was correct. Justin Sparks ran to his left like he was going to do a rugby punt to keep the ball away from Brandon James, but he pulled up and threw back to his left to tight end Robert Lane who was wrestled down at the 41 short of a first down.

Taking over at the 41, everybody in Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium knew what was going to happen next.

“When it’s tough, let’s give it to the horse and let him go,” said Meyer.

Tebow ran it straight up the gut five times for 25 yards, forcing the Rebels to use all three of their timeouts as he moved Florida to two first downs. That’s not the way Meyer really would like to do things, but considering how the Gators had played defensively, he knew he had to go with Tebow.

“If our defense was playing lights out we would have been more traditional but I didn’t feel like our defense was stopping them,” said Meyer.

Fortunately, Meyer didn’t need the defense to make any more stops. The Gators were exposed for all their youth, inexperience and immaturity but what mattered was what was on the scoreboard.

Was it pretty? No it wasn’t.

Are the Gators in need of a total makeover in the secondary? Absolutely, but that’s not an option either.

“There’s no choices right now,” he said. “You got what you got.”

He gets Markihe Anderson back next week and that should help since he’s Florida’s best cover corner, but the Gators have other problems that will have to be addressed. The good thing about Saturday was that Florida found a way to win in a hostile environment. The other good thing is that Monday, the Gators get to correct all the mistakes on the heels of a win.

Correcting mistakes after a win sure beats the heck out of fixing what’s broken on Monday after a loss.

A win is a win is a win. The Gators got one Saturday. No matter how ugly it turned out to be, it looks beautiful in the scorebook.

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.