Lies, Damn Lies And Two Quarterbacks

One big storyline in the 2006 Outback Bowl is the coaching matchup. Another is the need for the Florida Gators to sustain the momentum they generated with the win over Florida State. But a third big dimension of this game is the quarterback battle, a confrontation involving two players who have more than a few similarities.

Chris Leak and Drew Tate play in different sections of the United States. The Gator quarterback plays on rousing Southern afternoons, Tate often on sleepy Midwestern mornings (11:10 a.m. is a common kickoff time for many Iowa home games). Leak is finishing his third full season under center in Gainesville, while Tate is wrapping up a second full football campaign in Iowa City. But for all of these quarterbacks' differences, they have many similarities, and for this reason, their battle in Tampa will carry an extra measure of importance.

Chris Leak and Drew Tate, in their first years under center at their respective schools, showed enormous promise. Leak's brilliant performance against Florida State in 2003 made Gator fans hopeful that this ballyhooed recruit would light it up for Florida. Tate had his own breakthrough as a green and untested sophomore in 2004, excelling for coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe without the benefit of a running game. Entering 2005, the Gators and Hawkeyes were both hoping for their quarterbacks to lead them to big seasons.

But things didn't quite turn out that way, and that's where this quarterback drama really begins to take shape.

Purely by the numbers, the careers of Chris Leak and Drew Tate are pretty darn impressive. Tate's statistics this past season --- 61 percent completions, over 2,000 yards, a 3-to-1 TD-INT ratio --- suggest the Iowa quarterback has excelled. Leak has had his struggles in '05, but then again, an extraordinarily complicated and difficult systemic transition caused by a coaching change had more than a little to do with Leak's uneven play. And even then, the third-year player helped the Gators win eight games, especially against Vanderbilt when Leak rescued his teammates in overtime. To compete and have a winning record in big-time Division I-A football is nothing to sneeze at; what Chris Leak and Drew Tate have done to this point in their football lives eclipses what many others could ever hope to accomplish.

But if we're going to have the difficult and uneasy discussion that deals with championships and aspirations of college football grandeur, the verdict on Leak and Tate can't be very kind as each quarterback heads into the Outback Bowl.

Leak has lacked the services of Bubba Caldwell for almost all of 2005, and the quarterback has still improved in terms of his ball security, a big factor when your team relies on its defense to win games. But with that having been said, Leak hasn't been a difference-maker in big games against equal or slightly superior SEC competition. In the fourth quarter at LSU or the first quarter at South Carolina, Leak couldn't make the key plays that would have set the tone for crucial Florida victories, one of which would have propelled Urban Meyer's team to Atlanta. Few players work harder or study more intently, but the on-field results just haven't been there for Leak. A breakout 2006 could be on the horizon, but for now, the Gators' offensive leader still has a lot to prove to the national college football community.

The same can be said for Tate, despite seemingly gaudy numbers. Iowa fans might protest to the contrary, but the fact of the matter is that Tate's statistics paint a very deceiving picture about the quality of his 2005 season. The numbers don't look bad, but they don't tell you the kinds of things statistics just can't quantify.

In 2005's biggest games for Iowa, Drew Tate has come up small. In blowout wins against lesser opponents, Tate has rolled up numbers like nobody's business, but in the spotlight showdowns, Iowa's quarterback hasn't answered the bell. He drowned in a sea of turnovers at Iowa State in an ugly 23-3 loss. He was smothered by Ohio State's defense in a drubbing suffered at the hands of the Buckeyes. And against Michigan, something very interesting happened: Tate had the ball taken out of his hands inside the Michigan red zone in the final minute of regulation, with the Hawks trailing 17-14 and hoping for a go-ahead touchdown.

On second and four from the Michigan 15, Ferentz and O'Keefe --- the Iowa offensive braintrust --- ran Albert Young for no gain. Then, they used a third and four to have Tate throw a hasty shovel pass that just didn't develop. After Tate's superb passing got the Hawkeyes in position to beat Michigan, Iowa's heralded coach suddenly didn't want his quarterback to be his featured playmaker. That one bizarre sequence reveals something very disturbing about Tate and Iowa football in 2005: for whatever reason, this Iowa team --- and in particular, its quarterback --- lacked those intangible, immeasurable elements that separate 7-4 teams from 10-1 teams. Iowa figured to be a nine- or ten-win club this season, but Tate's mysterious absence in crunch time --- sometimes due to his poor play, other times due to his coaches' surprising skittishness --- caused his team to struggle. The statistics tell a lot of lies and damn lies where Drew Tate is concerned. He did not have a good year at all in 2005.

This Outback Bowl has more than a little bit of urgency on a number of levels. But even more than the high-profile coaching matchup between Kirk Ferentz and Urban Meyer, it is the quarterback clash between Chris Leak and Drew Tate that will figure prominently in the outcome. One QB will make money plays and elevate his game after a month-plus of down time and practice. The other QB will likely remain stuck in a rut and fail to rise to the occasion. The cauldron of big-time football will play on the emotions of both young men, and the one who makes the poised, purposeful response is the one who will lead his team to victory.

Two coaches and fan bases need this win badly. But it's the quarterbacks who need this game even more. With one big-time performance, a quarterback in this Outback Bowl will inspire tremendous confidence for 2006. The loser will spend an uncertain offseason looking for fresh motivation and a new beginning. For Chris Leak and Drew Tate, this game isn't about pretty statistics or gaudy numbers. It's about making clutch plays and earning a win. The one who does the deed will gain an immense amount of satisfaction after an autumn marked by considerable struggles.


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