- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2007

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Gator bait.

Underdog Florida conducted a full-scale demolition of the nation’s top-ranked team in the desert last night, mauling Ohio State 41-14 at University of Phoenix Stadium to claim the program’s first national title in a decade.

Perhaps the Gators (13-1) had heard once too often they didn’t have a chance against the undefeated bullies from the Big Ten, who entered the game as 7-point favorites.

Perhaps second-year Florida coach Urban Meyer had listened to one too many pundits laud the big-game mastery of Ohio State’s Jim Tressel.

Perhaps the Gators’ maligned senior quarterback, Chris Leak, was sick of Troy Smith’s Heisman hype.

Perhaps the SEC did deserve more respect as the nation’s ultimate mettle-tempering competitive grind.

Whatever the reason, the result was a resounding beatdown as the Gators rebounded from a game-opening body blow with an unrelenting hail of heroics.

“Coach and everybody else talked about how we were the underdogs for the last month, and we just got tired of hearing about it and just wanted to play football,” All-SEC Florida safety Reggie Nelson said after the Florida defense snuffed Smith and the Ohio State offense. “The SEC is too fast for the Big Ten, and we knew that.”

Woody Hayes couldn’t have scripted a better beginning for the Buckeyes, who were trying to win their second national title in five years. Electric junior flanker Ted Ginn Jr. received the opening kickoff at his own 7, bolted right from behind a wall of Buckeyes and sprinted 93 yards to put Ohio State ahead 7-0 just 16 stunning seconds into the action.

As it turned out, the rest of the night was a nightmarish plummet into the abyss for both Ginn and the Buckeyes. Ginn played just one series before limping to the locker room with a sprained left ankle.

And instead of flinching after the Buckeyes’ opening salvo, Florida focused. Running Meyer’s complicated spread offense to near-perfection, the Gators sailed down the field to touchdowns on their first three possessions, claiming a 21-7 lead on the first play of the second quarter when tailback DeShawn Wynn lunged over the right side from 2 yards out.

Personifying his team’s near-flawless start, Leak was 9-for-10 passing for 99 yards and a touchdown to Dallas Baker to that point. Leak, considered a career underachiever even by many Gators fans, collected the game’s MVP award after passing for 213 yards and grossly upstaging Smith, who looked completely out of sorts without Ginn at his side. The Heisman winner spent more time on his rear than a taxi driver last night, suffering six sacks and finishing the game a woeful 4-for-14 passing for just 35 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.

And if Leak stole Smith’s show, Florida freshman flanker Percy Harvin did the same to Ginn. While Ginn watched helplessly from the sideline on crutches, Harvin was seemingly everywhere for the Gators.

The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder from Virginia Beach nibbled successfully on the edges of the Ohio State defense all evening, scoring the Gators’ second touchdown on a twisting 4-yard run and generally tormenting the Buckeyes with Meyer’s nasty menu of pitches, screens and direct-snap magic.

Not to be outdone by Leak and Co., the Florida defense was equally impressive against an Ohio State offense that spent the entire regular season short-circuiting Big Ten scoreboards. The Buckeyes averaged almost 410 yards of offense this season; last night, the Buckeyes were held to a laughable 82 by the hungry Gators.

Headlining Florida’s defensive effort was former Eleanor Roosevelt High School standout Derrick Harvey. The 6-foot-5, 262-pound redshirt sophomore defensive end recorded three sacks and a fumble recovery, living up to the gargantuan promise he showed by racking up a state-record 31 sacks as high school senior in 2003.

Harvey’s recovery came at the tail end of a first half that saw even the normally unflappable Tressel begin to unravel. With his team trailing 24-14 and just under four minutes remaining, the generally conservative Tressel elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 29-yard line. Compounding the dubious decision, Tressel called a slow-developing running play. Predictably, Florida stuffed Ohio State’s Chris Wells for no gain and added three points to their lead a minute later on the second field goal of the night from Florida kicker Chris Hetland.

But Tressel’s flustered fit wasn’t finished. When Ohio State got the ball back with just 1:53 left in the half and only trailing 27-14, a surprisingly manageable deficit given the disparity in the two teams’ first half play, Tressel didn’t call a few innocuous runs and head for the locker room to regroup; he called a deep-drop pass.

Smith, hounded as he was all night by the Florida defensive front, scrambled right, was blasted from his blind side by Jarvis Moss and fumbled. Harvey collected the fumble and rumbled 8 yards to set up the Gators with a first down at the Ohio State 5. Three plays later, run-first Florida freshman quarterback Tim Tebow surprised the Buckeyes by pulling up and flicking a touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell, putting the Gators ahead 34-14 and effectively ending the competitive portion of the game before intermission.

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