Sunday October 11th, 2009

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Officially, Tim Tebow was not cleared to play against LSU until he passed his last set of medical tests late Saturday morning. Unofficially, the Florida star knew he was OK when he survived the flight from Gainesville to Baton Rouge.

"There was a lot of turbulence," said Tebow, who, two weeks after suffering the most scrutinized concussion in college history, returned for No. 1 Florida's 13-3 win here against No. 4 LSU on Saturday night. "Most of the time, I'd probably get sick on a flight like that. So after that, I said 'I'm ready to go.'"

Florida coach Urban Meyer remained uncertain as recently as Thursday whether he'd let his star quarterback play even if cleared. "I kept saying, 'Would I play my son?'" said Meyer. "Because Tim is my son. He's part of the family."

Eventually, following consultations with two doctors and a meeting with Tebow's father, Bob, Meyer felt assured that he wouldn't be risking his symptom-free player's health by starting him against the Tigers. Any remaining concerns were alleviated when, on Florida's fifth offensive play, LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson drilled Tebow on a pass attempt -- and he got right back up.

"I liked [getting hit]," the former Heisman winner said with a chuckle. "The first time I got hit, everything felt good, so I was thinking, 'OK, let's go."

Ultimately, Tebow never truly got going -- at least not at the prolific rate at which we've become accustomed. He finished with just 134 passing yards and 38 rushing yards in a game-long defensive struggle.

Part of that was by design. Meyer conceded that Florida was "somewhat conservative" in both its game plan and its treatment of Tebow. The 5-0 Gators could afford to play it safe considering the extent to which their defense suffocated the Tigers (5-1), allowing just 162 yards -- including just 44 in the entire second half -- and sacking Tigers quarterback Jordan Jefferson five times.

"Defensively, it was one of the best efforts I've ever seen containing athletes," said Meyer. "There's not a faster team you're going to face than [LSU}, and they kept everything in front of them."

The Tigers had some early success moving the ball. With Jefferson frequently running the option, LSU drove from its own 21 down to the Florida 2-yard line midway through the second quarter. But the Tigers wound up settling for a field goal to tie the score at 3-3. They never caught a sniff of the end zone after that.

On its ensuing possession, Florida took over on its own 20. On first down, Tebow, largely a non-factor to that point, found himself under duress. He tucked the ball and dodged an LSU defender. And then another. And then two or three more after that. He wound up with an 8-yard gain.

It was a vintage Tebow play, and the first of an eight-play drive that culminated with the quarterback running consecutive keepers to gain a first down, then throwing a 24-yard dart to receiver Riley Cooper for the game's lone touchdown.

From that point forward, Tebow never hesitated to tuck the ball and run. He wound up with his customary 17 rushing attempts, most of them straight up the middle. Though he gained just 38 yards, the game served as a means of easing back in to his familiar, bulldozer style.

"I tried to play smart," said Tebow. "I told Coach Meyer I'm not going to go out there and play tentative, but not try to fight for extra yards, get out of bounds. I avoided some of the hits I'd normally take."

The most telling sign that this was not a typical Tebow night was Meyer's decision to punt on a fourth and inches at the LSU 39 late in the third quarter.

At the time, Florida still led by just one score, 10-3, having wasted a 14-play, 76-yard drive on its previous possession when kicker Caleb Sturgis missed a 25-yard-field goal. As would be expected, Tebow and the offense initially came to the line of scrimmage, but it turned out to be a ruse. Florida took the delay of game penalty and punted.

It didn't make a difference. As if the Tigers didn't have enough trouble dealing with Florida's defense, they compounded it with a never-ending series of penalties. LSU ended the third quarter by drawing consecutive false start penalties. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Gators defensive end Jermaine Cunningham sacked Jefferson.

That pretty much summed up the Tigers' night.

"We didn't play smart," said LSU coach Les Miles, whose team also garnered four offsides and two facemask penalties on defense. "We moved the ball at times, and then, in the second half, we could not move the ball offensively. In a game where we have just a few possessions, you have to move the football."

The Tigers' offensive struggles weren't entirely surprising. They entered the game ranked 99th nationally in total offense. But Florida's defense figures to shut down a lot of folks this season, especially when All-American linebacker Brandon Spikes played the way he did Saturday. Spikes, who'd been limited earlier in the season by tendonitis in his Achilles heel, notched a team-high 11 tackles with 2½ sacks and a forced fumble.

But Spikes wasn't the Gator player being whisked from interview to interview late Saturday night while the rest of the team waited inside buses to head to the airport. After two weeks veiled in secrecy, Tebow finally got the chance to speak publicly about his travails of the past two weeks.

"It was tough. I could see the stress it put on my family, friends, teammates and different people who were worried about me. ... I'm just thankful it wasn't worse."

So, too, was the contingent of Florida faithful who occupied the corner end-zone seats adjacent to their team's locker room. As the clock wound down on LSU's first Saturday night home loss in 32 games, they bellowed their ubiquitous chant: "It's great ... to be .. a Florida Gator."

With their No. 1 ranking in tact, their star quarterback happy and healthy and their defense yet to allow more than 13 points in a game, it's easy to see why.

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