Gators make most of chances


Published: Tuesday, January 9, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 9, 2007 at 2:55 a.m.
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Florida senior quarterback Chris Leak completes a pass to Billy Latsko during the first quarter of the Tostitos BCS National Championship at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

TRACY WILCOX/The Gainesville Sun
GLENDALE, Ariz. - The last time the Florida Gators ventured into the desert in search of the national title, they were swept away by a sandstorm tinged in Nebraska red.
This time, the Gators were the ones who created the perfect storm, coming up with their best performance of this special season to shock No. 1 Ohio State 41-14 on Monday night in the BCS Championship Game before a national television audience and 74,628 at the University of Phoenix Stadium.
Florida now holds the national championships in both football and basketball, the first school to achieve that remarkable feat in the same calendar year.
"I'm not surprised at all," senior wide receiver Dallas Baker said. "We had something to prove. Some people were predicting Ohio State to win 41-14. Well, it was 41-14 for the University of Florida.
"Nobody gave us a chance. Now, we can finally throw up a No. 1. We had a lot of doubters out there, the media, the Ohio State fans. No one can doubt us now. We're national champs."
The Gators (13-1) earned the title by making the most of every scoring opportunity on offense and by overwhelming Ohio State and Heisman-winning quarterback Troy Smith with superior speed on defense.
It was not supposed to happen this way. The Gators entered the game an 7-point underdog and most in the national media were talking about this Ohio State team possibly being one of the best of all time.
"Our pregame speech was easy," said UF coach Urban Meyer, wearing a national championship jacket minutes after the game. "I don't want to say there was a lack of respect, but that's exactly what it was. For 30 days, our team got motivated and that's why they played so hard.
"I want to thank our seniors. We have 21 seniors who played as hard as they can. The senior class is the reason we're here today."
The swarming Florida defense swarmed Smith all night, sacking him five times and completely knocking him off his game. He completed only four of 14 passes for 35 yards and was intercepted once. The powerful Buckeyes managed only eight first downs and 82 yards of total offense.
"All the credit goes to the (defensive) front seven," UF All-America safety Reggie Nelson said.
Sophomore defensive end Derrick Harvey sacked Smith twice, recovered a fumble and was named the game's defensive MVP.
"They're well coached. I can't say enough about those guys," Smith said of Florida. "They came out and fought for 60 minutes and did exactly what they needed to do to get the win. We came out and fought. If this is the worst thing that happens to us in life, I'm pretty cool with that."
While Smith could get nothing going, UF's two-quarterback system of senior Chris Leak and true freshman Tim Tebow was close to flawless. Leak completed 25 of 36 passes for 213 yards and had no interceptions, while Tebow threw a touchdown and ran for a score.
His 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal came with 10:20 to play and put the game away.
"We have to congratulate the University of Florida," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "They did a great job in earning the national championship. No question about it.
"We scored on the first play of the game and from that point on we could not keep the pressure where we needed it to be."
Florida's night in the glare of the national spotlight could not have gotten off to a worse start.
Speedy All-America wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. took the opening kickoff, found a gaping hole in the middle of the UF return team and sprinted untouched 93 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
As shocking as it was, it didn't seem to faze the Gators, who had talked confidently all week that they felt they matched up well with the nation's No. 1 team.
Apparently, they were right.
The Gators responded to the early touchdown with one of their own and then dominated the rest of the half to build their 20-point lead.
The response to Ginn's long run was a 14-yard TD pass from Leak to wide receiver Dallas Baker to make it a 7-7 game with less than five minutes gone in the game.
On OSU's next possession, the Florida defense forced a three-and-out. Following a short punt and a 15-yard personal foul penalty against the Buckeyes on the return, the Gators were back in scoring position again, at the OSU 34.
Four plays later, wide receiver Percy Harvin scored on a 4-yard run to give the Gators a 14-7 lead with 5:51 left in the first quarter.
While the offense was making the most of scoring opportunities, the speedy UF defense was shutting down the Heisman winner.
Cornerback Reggie Lewis intercepted a Smith pass on the UF 29 and then the Gators went on another scoring drive that culminated with a 2-yard TD run by Ohio native DeShawn Wynn on the first play of the second quarter.
Ohio State matched that score only three offensive plays later when junior tailback Antonio Pittman found open space off of left tackle and ran 18 yards for a touchdown to draw the Buckeyes within a touchdown, 21-14.
The rest of the first half belonged to the Gators. In a big way.
Chris Hetland was true on a season-long 42-yard field goal to give the Gators a 10-point lead with 6:00 remaining the the half.
Hetland upped it to 27-14 minutes later with a 40-yard field goal. It was the first game this season he made two field goals.
In the final minutes of the half, it was the Florida defense, appropriately enough, that set up the offense for an easy score that nearly put the game out of reach.
Defensive end Jarvis Moss sacked Smith from behind, Smith fumbled and Harvey recovered on the OSU 5.
On third-and-goal from the 1, Tebow bulled his way into the end zone to put the Gators ahead 34-14 with only 23 seconds left in the half.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 374-5022 or andreur@gvillesun.com.

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