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January 9, 2007
No. 1 Ohio State
No. 2 Florida
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GLENDALE, Ariz. ? In retrospect, perhaps we all should have seen this coming.
Florida's 41-14 victory over Ohio State in Monday's BCS national championship football game might be called an upset, but that's clearly inaccurate.
Looking back, indications of the Gators' rise kept surfacing like clues to a mystery that was meticulously solved. And when time ran out on a cool night in the desert, only Ohio State and its Heisman Trophy winning quarterback appeared clueless.
Florida held the Buckeyes to just 82 yards of offense, and Troy Smith continued a trend of dreadful performances in championship games by Heisman Trophy winners.
Teams on which Heisman Trophy winners have played are 5-12 over the last 40 years in games that directly impacted the national championship. Smith ? like Oklahoma's Jason White, Florida State's Chris Weinke and Miami's Gino Torretta and Vinny Testaverde ? was surprisingly dreadful in the biggest game of the season. He completed just four passes for a mere 35 yards, threw an interception, lost a fumble and was sacked a season-high five times for 51 yards in losses.
"He kept smiling at us," Florida defensive end Jarvis Moss said. "The Heisman Trophy winner has to keep his cool and act cool, but we could tell he was rattled."
Perhaps we should have anticipated that might happen. All week leading up to the game there was suggestions Florida's team speed might cause problems for Ohio State, which boasted an offensive line that included four All-Big Ten selections.
However, that was largely dismissed as pre-game hype. But Florida tackles Ray McDonald, Joe Cohen and others routinely made an inside push. Moss and Derrick Harvey sprinted around massive Ohio State tackles Alex Boone and Kirk Barton and swooped in on Smith like buzzards on roadkill.
"You could tell No. 75 (Boone) and No. 74 (Barton) don't move well. They're just big," Moss said. "We used our athleticism and speed and it was easy to beat them."
The Buckeyes, who trailed 34-14 at halftime, couldn't argue much.
"They looked fast on film and they proved to be as fast and they looked," Ohio State center Doug Datish said. "I'd say it makes a big difference when they get up, when they build a lead they can dictate to us what we're going to do. We're more or less predictable of what we needed to do. We were coming from behind, and any time you allow guys - especially with that type of speed - to pin their ears back ? it's tough."
Yet, team speed is just one issue that hinted of a Florida victory.
The favored team has often floundered in championship games recently.
Remember, USC was hailed as practically unbeatable until Texas beat the Trojans last year. Miami was supposed to cruise past Ohio State in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, but the Buckeyes prevailed in overtime. Upstart Oklahoma didn't have a chance to defeat powerful Florida State in the 2001 Orange Bowl, but did it anyway.
Still, the Gators had more than historical trends and a fast defense going for them. They had a dozen victories against the nation's most demanding schedule. They were champions of the Southeastern Conference, the strongest league in college football.
And they have an experienced quarterback in Chris Leak, who passed for 213 yards and a touchdown to be named offensive most valuable player.
They also have a brilliant leader in coach Urban Meyer, who joined Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Ohio State's Jim Tressel as coaches since 2000 to win a national championship in just their second year on the job.
Meyer had more than a month to scheme for Ohio State's defense, and he developed a creative game plan that left the Buckeyes dazed and confused.
They ran the spread. They ran the Power I. They ran reverses. And, well, they ran.
Florida started this year with five new starters in the offensive line and its running game has never been overpowering. Meyer had acknowledged that the Gators would have to make the Ohio State defense respect the run if the Gators were to be successful.
Florida rushed for 156 yards. UF always seemed to gain at least 3 or 4 yards, which would set up short yardage on third down. The Gators converted 10 of 19 third-down situations.
Ohio State converted one of nine.
"I think Ohio State has their own style, their own aura about themselves," Leak said. "So we knew coming into this game what we were gong to be playing against. That's why we tried to make sure we managed things on offense, because we knew they were such a great defense and that they capitalize on things such as turnovers and fumbles.
"We knew we had to play our best game of the season to be successful, and I think we were able to do that."
Ohio State scored first when Ted Ginn Jr. returned the opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, but Florida scored three consecutive touchdowns and was only forced to punt once in the first half.
Florida's offense was so sharp that Tressel seemed to panic. Trailing 24-14 in the second quarter, he opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 from his 29-yard line.
Chris Wells was stopped for no gain.
"We were pretty shocked by that," McDonald said. "That was a slap in the face. That just showed they thought they were more physical than us. We showed them on that one play that's not going to happen today."
On Ohio State's next play, Moss sacked Smith and forced a fumble that Harvey recovered at the Buckeyes' 5-yard line. Three plays later Tim Tebow threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell for a 34-14 halftime lead.
By then, it was obvious that Florida would take a surprisingly easy victory.
But why was it surprising?
The Gators were doubted because earlier in the year they struggled to eke out victories against the lesser teams like Vanderbilt and South Carolina. The general consensus was that if the Gators struggled to beat the Gamecocks, they couldn't possibly beat powerful Ohio State.
But many championship teams can point to an unlikely play that enabled them to avoid costly losses.
For Tennessee in 1998 it was a bizarre fumble by Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner that set up a winning score. In 2002 it was Craig Krenzel's fourth down touchdown pass in the waning minutes to escape Purdue. Last year it was Vince Young's 80-yard touchdown run that sparked Texas to rally from a 19-point deficit to beat Oklahoma State.
When Moss blocked a field goal on the final play to secure a 17-16 victory over South Carolina, it should have been interpreted as an indication that Florida was a team of destiny.