Saturday, December 6, 2008

Game For the Ages: Florida Outlasts #1 Bama for SEC Title

By JC De La Torre

Photos courtesy of and

The Florida Gators claimed their eighth Southeastern Conference Championship, outslugging the #1 team in the country, the previously undefeated Alabama Crimson Tide 31-20 in an epic battle that was much closer than the score indicated. Barring an unforeseen travesty in the final BCS Standings, the Gators will be playing for the National Championship in Miami against either Oklahoma or Texas (depending on the results of the Big 12 Championship Game tonight). Florida played with out their offensive superstar, Percy Harvin, who was nursing a high ankles sprain, so Heisman Trophy quarterback Tim Tebow put the Gator offense on his back and basically willed Florida to victory.

After Alabama opened the game with a 3 and out, Tebow drove the Gators right down the field, rushing for 19 yds, throwing for 25 yds and completing a 9 play 59 yd drive with a touchdown pass to little used wide out Carl Moore, who caught his first touchdown pass of the season. Surprisingly, Alabama struck back quickly, as John Parker Wilson connected with phenomenal freshman Julio Jones on a 20 yd curl, Jones spinned away from Gator defensive back Joe Haden, and raced 64 yds to the Florida 18 yd line. Before the Gators could catch their breath, Alabama's Glenn Coffee powered off tackle and rumbled 18 yds for the tying score.

The Gators offense had a rare three and out and punter Chas Henry, perhaps shocked he had to go out there so quickly shanked the punt for 36 yds, which was fielded on the run by returner Javier Arenas, who raced 19 yds to the Gators 25. Wilson hit Nick Walker for 12 yds to the Florida 13, but would get no closer as the Florida defense stiffened and Alabama settled for a 30 yd Leigh Tiffin field goal. Alabama led 10-7, the first time Florida trailed in a game since the gut wrenching loss to Ole Miss.

The two defenses flexed their muscles as the game moved into the 2nd quarter. Each punched and counterpunched but neither seemed to get a foothold. Finally, midway through the second quarter, Tebow found WR Riley Cooper wide open down the sideline and hit him in stride for a 51 yd gain all the way to the Alabama 4 yd line. Like the Gators, the Crimson Tide defense wouldn't allow the score - stuffing Demps once and Tebow twice and forcing the Gators to settle for a 19 yd Jonathan Phillips field goal, tying the game at 10 with 8:59 to go in the first half..

The Gator defense 3-and-outed the Tide offense once again, and Tebow once again put the Florida offense on his back. After Brandon James rushed for 4 yds and an Alabama defender was nailed for grabbing the face mask, tacking on a 15 yd personal foul that put Florida on the Crimon Tide 38. From there Tebow figured in 8 straight plays for Florida, four rushes and 4 passes, including a 22 yd strike to tight end Aaron Hernandez to put the Gators at point blank range at the Bama 5 yd line. Tebow would scramble to his left and fire a low trajectory pass into the end zone, where underrated wide receiver David Nelson made a terrific grab just barely off the turf to give Florida back the lead 17-10, it would stay that way until halftime. Alabama trailed at the half for the first time this season.

Florida got the ball first in the second half, but Alabama's defense forced the Gators offense 3-and-out. Chas Henry blasted a massive 57 yd punt that drove returner Javier Arenas to his 9 yd line where he was wiped out by the solid coverage of the Florida special teams crew. From there, it became the Julio Jones show. Jones made three big catches for 38 yds while his teammate Glenn Coffee pounded the right side of the Florida defense for 31 yds. Alabama drove 91 yds, in 15 plays and ate up 6:53 off the clock and cashed in with the game tying touchdown on Mark Ingram's 2 yd run. The Gators tried to answer, with Tebow finding Louis Murphy for a 34 yd gain to the Alabama 37. Jeff Demps would gain 12 yds on two carries to the Crimson Tide 25. On 1st and 10 from the 25, Demps would get stuffed and Tebow would throw two incompletions, forcing Florida to settle for a 42 yd field goal attempt by Jonathan Davis. It was the longest attempt of the year by Davis and it ended up being his first miss of the season as he pushed it wide right.

John Parker Wilson hit Nick Walker for 17 yds, then Alabama went back to the running game, pounding Coffee at the Florida front 4, driving it to the Gators 37 yd line. From there, Wilson hit Julio Jones for a 22 yd gain to the Florida 12 yd line. The Gators defense stiffened again, forcing two incompletions by Wilson and stuffing Coffee on a two yd run. As the 3rd quarter expired, Leigh Tiffin kicked a 27 yd field goal to give Alabama a 20-17 advantage moving into the final quarter.

In his illustrious career at the University of Florida, Quarterback Tim Tebow had done just about everything. The one thing he had never done was lead the Gators back for a victory when trailing in the second half - he was 0-5 lifetime. The Gators patiently and methodically moved down the field on Alabama's stout defense, driving 62 yds in 11 plays, setting up Jeff Demps on the option toss for a 1 yd score, giving Florida the lead back at 24-20.

On Alabama's ensuing drive, Wilson fired an incompletion intended for Julio Jones, then saw Glenn Coffee stuffed after a 2 yd gain. On 3rd and 8, Jermaine Cunningham sacked Wilson for an 11 yd loss, forcing Alabama to kick it back to the Gators with 7:27 left. Florida would then beat the Tide at their own game. Three runs by Florida got them to the 48 yd line, then Tebow hit Louis Murphy for 33 yds and Aaron Hernandez for 15 yds, moving the ball to the 6 yd line. Tebow rumbled 5 yds to the Alabama 1 yd line....then, inexplicably, the Gators were called for a sideline infraction. The call was legit, Urban Meyer and some of the other coaches were on the field - but to make that call with the game on the It could have been a game changing call, but Tebow made up for the penalty, finding Riley Cooper in the end zone for the game clinching score, putting Florida up by 11 with only 2:50 left in the game.

Alabama would get the ball back one last time but John Parker Wilson's desperation pass was intercepted by Joe Haden and Florida ran out the clock, clinching the SEC Championship and at least a BCS bowl berth. With an 11 point victory over the #1 team in the nation, most pundits are saying that this victory should vault the Gators into the Bowl Championship Series title game. Then again, in this fouled system you never know. One year Auburn went undefeated and was shutout of the National Championship game. Think about that, a team that went undefeated in the SEC didn't get a chance to play for the Crystal football. That's why you can never know. It will be a great injustice if the Gators are denied an opportunity to play for the title as the way they have dominated the SEC, scoring 30 or more against every SEC opponent and having double digit victories in 9 straight they are without question playing the best football in the country. If its about the best teams, I don't see how anyone can argue with Florida playing for it all.

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