SEC Sweep: UF caps perfect regular season

Florida running back Chris Rainey runs the ball in the fourth quarter of their game against the South Carolina Gamecocks on Nov. 14, 2009.

Photo by Tricia Coyne/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 10:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 10:10 p.m.

COLUMBIA, S.C. This perfect, and perfectly crazy, ride continues for the Florida Gators.


Three Things to Know

1. The Gators were saved by the defense again, especially end Justin Trattou, whose interception and 53-yard return on the first play of the fourth quarter turned the momentum and led to a clinching touchdown by Tim Tebow.
2. The offense got off to a quick start, with Tebow throwing a 68-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Riley Cooper on the Gators' third play from scrimmage. But the offense stalled in the second half, keeping the Gamecocks in the game.
3. The UF special teams again stood out, with UF effectively covering kickoffs and punts and Brandon James creating opportunities with his punt returns in the second half.

Just when it looked like it might come to a Gamecock-screeching end Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium, the Gators came up with a new escape, a new way to inch closer to an undefeated season and a possible shot at back-to-back national championships.

Heading into the fourth quarter, it looked like the Gators could go down, the losers in what would have been the greatest victory in the history of South Carolina football. They had lost the momentum and were about to lose the lead.

Then one play changed everything.

Defensive end Justin Trattou reeled in a tipped Stephen Garcia pass and returned it 53 yards on the first play of the fourth quarter to set up a touchdown that led to a 24-14 victory for Florida before a loud and energetic crowd of 79,297.

"We did not play perfect, obviously," UF coach Urban Meyer said. "I'm not sure we have played perfect in quite a while. But that's 20 (victories) in a row, and I'm awfully proud of those guys in there. To do what those young people are doing, it's special stuff.

"The whole field was tilting (South Carolina's way going into the fourth quarter). That play by Trattou will go down in (UF) history as one of the great plays."

The victory moved the nation's No. 1 team to 10-0 on the season and 8-0 in the SEC. UF is only the 12th team in league history to go 8-0 in SEC play.

"Wow," Meyer said of the undefeated SEC record. "I think everyone knows the respect we have for this conference. That's a wow."

Before Trattou's big play, it looked like the perfect run might end.

The Gators were clinging to a 17-14 lead, the Gamecocks were driving and had momentum as the third quarter ended.

But on a third-and-two play from the UF 22 on the first snap of the fourth quarter, Garcia threw a quick slant intended for wide receiver Moe Brown that was slightly tipped by cornerback Markihe Anderson and then bounced off Brown's hands and into the arms of Trattou. Looking more like a cornerback than a defensive lineman, Trattou weaved his way 53 yards down the sideline to the USC 26.

Three plays later, quarterback Tim Tebow scored on a 1-yard run to make it a 24-14 game and put UF back in control.

"I didn't say anything (at the end of the third quarter). I was just trying to coach special teams and offense," Meyer said. "I have a lot of confidence in our defensive staff. We have good players.

"I'd like to say it was a magical call, but it wasn't. It was a bunch of good players going really hard. It's almost like you expect them to make a play."

This was a game-changer.

"The turnover took a lot of steam (out of us)," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "Give Florida credit. They played pretty well. I don't know if by their standards they played super, but our defensive guys fought to the end of the game. We were just overpowered on offense in the fourth quarter."

Trattou's play came only four weeks after one of his two biceps tendons in his left arm became detached from his shoulder. Trattou has been playing in pain for the past three games. He came up with a big play when the Gators were desperately in need of one.

"We all came together (at the end of the third quarter). We knew we had to make a stop right there," Trattou said. "South Carolina had all the momentum. It was a great feeling to help my team."

The game changed completely after the play.

Once Tebow's TD run gave the Gators a double-digit lead, the defense took over and overwhelmed the South Carolina offense, sacking Garcia four times in the fourth quarter and holding the Gamecocks to minus-17 yards.

"In the second half, that was as well a defended game as I've seen," Meyer said.

Both offensive and defensively, the Gators had their problems in the first three quarters. After jumping out to a quick 7-0 lead on a 68-yard TD pass from Tebow to Riley Cooper in the game's opening minutes, the offense struggled again with consistency. UF dropped two touchdown passes and missed three field goals that kept USC in the game heading into the second half.

The defense surrendered some plays in the passing game and gave up two touchdowns in the first half, but settled down in the second half, then dominated after Trattou's interception.

Once again, it wasn't always pleasing to the eye, but it was another win and the Gators will take it.

"The great thing about winning is the 'W' doesn't get bigger by how many points you score," Tebow said. "We haven't won by huge margins, but we've shown a lot of character and pulled out wins. We've got a team full of character that fights to the end. It's not always pretty, but we just keep fighting."

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