With the game finally in hand, fresh off a touchdown with five minutes left, Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes shared an emotional national championship hug.
The Florida Gators needed each other to get through one of the most difficult, at times awkward, games in school history.
Clutch fourth-quarter offense and big-play ability on defense scored the Gators a second national title in three years with a 24-14 victory against Oklahoma, cementing Coach Urban Meyer's eventual statue on the Gainesville campus between Tebow Lane and Percy Harvin Drive.
24-14, Jan. 8, Dolphin Stadium. Mark it on your Facebook page. Because this was the game when a great team had to overcome its own mediocre play and a hungry Oklahoma team sick of losing Bowl Championship Series title games.
The Sooners couldn't finish. So the Gators finished them off. The joy culminated Thursday with an impeccable 76-yard drive and a 4-yard pass from Tebow to receiver David Nelson in the middle of the end zone with five minutes to go. Tebow created third-down conversion after conversion on that drive to finish with 231 passing yards and two touchdowns to match his 109 yards rushing.
The performance earned him a most valuable player honor, adding to the Tebow persona despite his tucking and running any chance he got during times of frustration with the passing game.
"I promised the guys that I would go out and play with all my heart," Tebow said. "I was so motivated tonight. ... I'm so proud of my teammates right now. I can't put it into words. It was just an incredible night."
This was the time a Gators defense masked an average first-half with an uncanny ability to create two interceptions and a goal-line stop.
After the game, Spikes chanted, "SEC."
"We knew they were going to come out and out-tough us with their aerial attack, and hey, may the best team win," Spikes said.
To win a second national title in three seasons, you have to win games like this. In the biggest game of their careers, these players didn't want to claim the title through more than 30 minutes of play. The same two teams that combined to average 99 points during the regular season somehow became the second pair of teams in the BCS era to go scoreless in the first quarter.
This was each team's smallest offensive output of the year, which is an amazing feat with a Sam Bradford-led offense that scored an NCAA-record 702 points in the first 13 games.
Even when Harvin — who was brilliant on a bummed right ankle with 171 total offensive yards — burst for a 52-yard gain on the first play of a mid-fourth-quarter drive to position the Gators into the red zone, Tebow botched a third down because he thought the officials blew the whistle.
The Gators settled for a 27-yard Jonathan Phillips field goal in that fourth-quarter drive.
Yet Florida never trailed.
Florida responded with a commanding fourth-quarter offense, and the instincts of the defense saved the game with no problem.
Oklahoma marched downfield with ease on numerous drives, but Florida stopped the Sooners twice within their 6-yard line in the first half.
A Major Wright interception with 3 seconds left bounced off at least three Gators, including cornerback Joe Haden, who broke up the pass on third-and-6.
Gators defensive tackle Torrey Davis made a clutch stop on running back Chris Brown on fourth-and-1 from the 1-yard line earlier in the second quarter. A normally cool, calm Bradford (26-of-41 passing, 256 yards) in the pocket became turnover prone thanks to safety Ahmad Black, who ripped an interception out of the hands of receiver Juaquin Iglesias with about 10 minutes left in the game.
Earlier in the week, Tebow spoke of the difficult challenge of channeling his intensity, his motivation. Ice-water veins, he said. That poise became poison in the first half, when Tebow recorded the first multi-interception game of his Gators career. And to think Tebow's offense converted six of its first six third downs. Tebow had thrown two INTs all year on 268 passing attempts.
That second interception midway through the second quarter — a clueless pass into the hands of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy — appeared to be the beginning of Oklahoma's surging momentum, but UF stood its ground.
The Sooners had just ripped through the Florida defense with a 65-yard scoring drive. Brown had no issue marching down the field once again to Florida's own 1-yard line. That's when Brown met Davis, and from then on Oklahoma's offense lost its rhythm in the red zone.
"There's no better feeling," Harvin said about the title. "Nobody gave us a chance to win this game. They said we weren't tough enough."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun