Seniors lead path to title
Published: Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 6:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.
Sun sports writer
GLENDALE, Ariz. — When Urban Meyer arrived in Gainesville two years ago with new a philosophy and new demands, some resisted, some left, but many remained, buying into the Meyer way.
Actually, their number totaled 21.
These were the players who would go on to form the senior class of 2006. The heart and soul of Meyer's second team.
On Monday night in the University of Phoenix Stadium, these 21 seniors led the Gators to one of the greatest victories in school history — a 41-14 thrashing of No. 1 Ohio State that gives Florida its second football national championship.
Florida now holds the current national championships in both football and basketball, the first time that's ever happened in NCAA history in the same calendar year.
"If I had my choice, I would be around people who fight," said Meyer, with his son Nate sitting on his lap in the postgame press conference. "We fought all year. I made this comment in the middle of the year that these seniors earned my admiration because they have been through an awful lot.
"Some day down the road we'll write a book and tell you what some of these seniors have been through. I love them. I can't tell you how much they mean to me. (Senior quarterback) Chris Leak and I are now attached at the hip for the next 30 years because we're national champions."
In the biggest game of his life, Leak came up big. He wasn't spectacular, but he was nearly flawless in managing the game and helping the offense make the most of its scoring opportunities.
He completed 25 of 36 passes for 213 yards and one touchdown (a 14-yarder in the first quarter for the Gators' first score) and did not throw an interception.
Much maligned for much of his career, especially the past two seasons, Leak now goes down in history as one of the two greatest quarterbacks in school history, Meyer said. (The other being Danny Wuerffel, who also quarterbacked the Gators to the national title, in 1996).
"It is the greatest feeling to be national champs," Leak said. "I'm just so thankful to be around these great teammates and coaches. We have worked so hard to get to this point and we took advantage of this opportunity. The guys have worked so hard and we have been blessed."
Leak and the offense received a boost from the play of true freshman quarterback Tim Tebow, who threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell in the closing seconds of the first half and put the game out of reach with a 1-yard TD run with 10:20 remaining in the game.
While the offense was at its efficient best, the defense turned in one of the great performances in UF history
After speedy Ohio State wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. left the game early in the first quarter with a sprained ankle (and did not return), the Gators zeroed in Heisman-winning quarterback Troy Smith and pressured him into one of the worst performances of his career.
Smith was sacked five times, lost a fumble and threw for a mere 35 yards. He completed only four passes in 14 attempts and was intercepted in the first quarter by senior cornerback Reggie Lewis.
The high-powered OSU offense, which lit up Michigan for 42 points, managed only 82 yards of total offense and averaged an almost unthinkable 2.2 yards per play.
Florida's defense was clearly faster than the Ohio State offense, especially on the edge, where sophomore Derrick Harvey (three sacks) and junior Jarvis Moss (two sacks) had no trouble running around the OSU offensive tackles and then running down Smith. UF's linebackers and defensive backs also had the Ohio State receivers smothered for most of the night.
"We had a lot more of everything than they had," junior linebacker Brandon Siler said. "More speed, more strength, more quickness."
Siler said the Gators felt they had more of everything than OSU heading into the game, even though the Buckeyes were an 8-point favorite. UF felt it was disrespected by the media and came into the game with a chip on its shoulder. The motivation obviously worked.
"Coaches and players, we've got a bunch of hard-working guys now," Meyer said. "You start messing around with people's pride (and it's motivating). You do it for 30 days and you have a bunch of tigers.
"I really enjoyed coaching this team and it wasn't hard for the last 30 days. There is a lot of pride now. You can come watch our workouts in February and March and you can see how hard we work. Motivation was easy for the last 30 days, especially with guys that are very invested."
Those invested players are bringing the national championship trophy back to Gainesville with them early this evening.
"Coach Meyer has done a great job with this program," junior safety Reggie Nelson said. "I'm just happy to be a part of it. We all are. We owe a lot to these seniors."
Contact Robbie Andreu at 374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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