The latest white knuckler was Saturday's 21-14 win over the Florida State Seminoles at Doak Campbell Stadium, a place that's traditionally unkind to the Gators but ever since they named the field after FSU Coach Bobby Bowden, the Gators are 2-0. Saturday's script followed an all too familiar path for Gator fans --- Florida dominates early, fades in the third quarter and then finds the wherewithal to pull the game out in the late stages of the game.
"You see these gray hairs right here?" said Coach Urban Meyer, pointing to an increasing salt and pepper look along his temples in the media room after the game. "Next year about October I'll be bald."
Although he would much rather beat teams into total submission and set some scoring records along the way, Meyer will take the gray hair as long as the Gators keep on winning, even if they have to find new ways to come out ahead on the final scoreboard every single week. He's won by the big margins where calculators flame out by halftime but those were at outposts where the stakes aren't nearly this high and the competition isn't nearly this good. The wins are tougher to come by at Florida but he's 11-1 and heading to Atlanta next week for the SEC Championship Game against Arkansas and he's 20-4 in his two years at Florida.
Maybe Meyer and the Gators are short on the kind of style points that impress the boys at ESPN but each week when the most recently anointed prom queen crashes and burns, the Gators have found another way to win another football game. No matter what the style, the Gators are one of the few one-loss teams standing and they're now standing on top of the heap in the state of Florida for the second straight year, clearly the state's dominant college football program.
Florida showed plenty of first half style Saturday, racking up 266 yards and a 14-0 lead on long touchdowns by Bubba Caldwell (66-yard pass from Chris Leak) and Percy Harvin (41-yard run) but because the Gators are who they are and they've not shown the ability to put teams away, there was an uneasy feeling. The Gators left far too many points on the table because they missed field goals of 38 and 35 yards as Chris Hetland's season-long woes continued. Florida's offense was good enough in the first half that this game should have been a blowout win by the time the FSU band took the field to win the halftime show.
As good as they were in the first half the Gators reverted back to their live on the edge style in the third quarter. Almost as if it were scripted, the Gators went in the tank for a full 15 minutes, a helter-skelter quarter that saw both teams constantly on the verge of disaster.
Florida's disasters were helped in part by injuries to Percy Harvin and DeShawn Wynn on the first series of the second half. Harvin got hammered on a little underneath route over the middle, a scary time for the dynamic Florida freshman that scored on a 41-yard run off a direct snap in the second quarter to extend the Gators' lead to 14-0. Harvin was taken off the field on a cart strapped to a body board but the MRI came up negative and he was seen on the Florida sideline late in the game. Meyer said there is a chance that Harvin will be ready to play next week against Arkansas. Wynn suffered a shoulder stinger on the same series.
"You take DeShawn Wynn and Percy Harvin out and the run game gets watered down pretty fast," said Meyer.
With no running game and bad field position, Florida contributed mightily to Florida State's comeback. Even though the Seminoles shot themselves in the foot with three turnovers in the period (interceptions by Reggie Nelson, Ryan Smith and Tremaine McCollum), they were handed a pair of golden scoring opportunities. McCollum's interception actually worked in Florida State's favor. Instead of downing the ball in the end zone, McCollum tried to run it out and was stopped at the Florida one. Florida couldn't get a first down, punted and gave the Seminoles good field position that led to their only sustained scoring drive. Following a poor punt that gave them the ball on the Florida half of the field, they scored again on another jump ball, this one to 6-6 Gregg Carr who outleaped 5-10 Reggie Lewis for the ball.
After the second touchdown the Gators had that old familiar "Choak At Doak" look and the crowd sensed the momentum was all in FSU's favor. A save the season kind of win seemed FSU's for the taking but that's when the magic kicked in once again for these Groundhog Day Gators, sending FSU fans back to the reality of a season gone bad.
All the composure that disappeared in the third quarter miraculously reappeared on both sides of the ball. The same Chris Leak that was harassed into a very average third quarter responded with a 10-play, 74-yard drive that may go down as his finest moment in a Florida uniform when all is said and done. Due to injuries to DeShawn Wynn and Percy Harvin, Leak didn't even have the hint of a running game to rely on.
"We made a decision for that one drive that we were going to throw it every down," said Meyer. "Chris Leak did a heckuva job managing the offense … I love Chris Leak."
Everybody in the whole joint knew Leak was going to throw. When Mickey Andrews doesn't have to worry about stopping the run, the FSU defensive coordinator is one of the best in all of college football and coming up with big plays and critical stops but no matter what Andrews called in from the sideline, Leak had the answer. When the Seminoles blitzed, Leak rolled out and got the ball off. When they dropped eight into coverage, he pinpointed passes into very small windows for completions that kept the chains moving until he finally hit Dallas Baker with the game-winning touchdown pass. On the game-winning drive, Leak was 7-8 including a pair of on the money throws on third and long situations.
Leak converted a third and eight with a laser beam throw to Baker for 25 yards to the FSU 26 to keep the drive going and after a near disaster of a nine-yard loss on a ill-timed reverse, Leak got 10 yards back with a throw into coverage that only Cornelius Ingram could come down with. On third and nine and everybody in the house figuring he was going to look for Baker again, Leak threw the perfect pass to Baker in the northeast corner of the end zone, a 25-yard game-winner with 10:22 remaining left.
There was still plenty of time for FSU to do another one of those fourth quarter miracle rallies that the Seminoles have become famous for during the Bobby Bowden era. The needed miracle almost came at the expense of Florida's normally reliable kickoff coverage team. Following the Baker touchdown, the Seminoles thought they had the answer when Michael Ray Garvin, a sprinter on FSU's national championship track team, shot down the sideline for what looked to be the tying score but Jemalle Cornelius gave him just enough of a shove that he stepped on the out of bounds line at the Seminole 48.
Drew Weatherford hit a couple of quick passes to give the Seminoles a first down on Florida's 35 but the Gators held on four straight plays, taking over at the 26 when Brandon Warren got stopped a yard short of a first down with 8:20 remaining in the game. Weatherford had another chance to get the Seminoles going but another attempted fourth down conversion came up empty when Reggie Nelson broke up a sideline pass to Warren with 3:07 left in the game.
Nelson is a pivotal figure in this recurring Ground Hog Day theme for the Gators this season. He's been saving the Gators from his free safety position all year and he did it plenty of times against FSU. He had a couple of see you at the dentist hits in the first half, six tackles including a couple that saved potential touchdowns, one credited breakup (he probably influenced at least two drops and three overthrows) and a leaping interception that would have made the highlight film for the Flying Wallendas.
"Reggie Nelson is up for the Thorpe Award and I was with a Thorpe Award winner one time at Colorado State --- a guy named Greg Meyers --- and Reggie Nelson is the best defensive back I've seen and I've seen some pretty good ones," said Meyer. Nothing against the other two finalists [for the Thorpe Award] but Reggie Nelson is the best defensive back I've seen. We're 11-1 and he's saved us 11 times, I think. He's an excellent player."
The closeness of the game may have cost the Gators any shot they might have of playing Ohio State in Glendale, Arizona for the national championship but on this day, Glendale was the least of Urban Meyer's worries.
"I made a comment in our locker room," Meyer said. "Billy Donovan [coach of Florida's NCAA champion basketball team] came and spoke to the team exactly 100 days ago and his whole theme was ‘can you commit yourselves to doing something as a team for 107 days because 107 days from today' --- that was 100 days ago --- ‘is the SEC Championship.' We just talked about that as a team and it's here. It's here. We're going to go play for a ring in Atlanta."
It doesn't matter that the Gators are going to Atlanta on the momentum of another ugly win. It doesn't matter if this season keeps repeating itself with one great escape after another. All that matters is that Florida is 11-1, still standing, still surviving, and in the best shape the program's been since 2000. Maybe it's not a style points type of season, but Ground Hog Day II: College Football Edition is well worth remembering.