GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When you strip away the hype, the touchdowns, the cheers and the tears, sometimes a game -- or a season -- can boil down to one play. Eleven guys on one side need to move a leather ball 9 feet. Eleven guys on the other side must ensure that leather ball moves 8 feet, 11 inches or less.
And so it was for No. 11 Florida midway through Saturday's third quarter. The Gators' 51-21 win against No. 4 LSU, and that win's influence on Florida's chances to play for a national title after three top-five teams lost in one day, will make fine fodder for discussion on the Sunshine State's talk radio stations during the Gators' upcoming bye week. But that win doesn't happen -- and the season might take a decidedly different turn -- if Florida quarterback Tim Tebow doesn't barrel forward for 4 yards on third-and-3 from the Florida 40. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. This play deserves its own story.
It began at 4 a.m. on Sept. 28. Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen lay awake at home wondering what play he might have called 12 hours earlier that would have made that one measly yard the Gators needed to keep the chains moving in the waning seconds of a 31-30 loss to three-touchdown underdog Ole Miss. He ran Tebow up the middle, because Tebow up the middle on whatever-and-1 had paid plenty of bills in the Mullen household. Ole Miss defenders expected the play. They submarined Florida's much-maligned offensive line, and the play imploded before Tebow could step toward the line of scrimmage. He wondered if he should have called a pass or handed off to a back. Finally, Mullen accepted one fact: Florida fans wanted him fired after the Tebow play failed, but they may very well have done him bodily harm had he given the ball to anyone but Tebow. He finally went to sleep.
Two weeks later, Mullen sat in his seat in the coaches' booth at Florida Field. On the final drive of the first half and the first drive of the second half, the Tigers had turned Florida's 20-0 lead into a 20-14 opportunity. A stop on third-and-3 would have allowed tiny speedster Trindon Holliday to field a punt. More than likely, he would have set up his offense with fabulous field position. After a shaky start, LSU had shredded Florida's defense on consecutive possessions. The defending national champions certainly would ride the momentum into the end zone a third time.
Unless Florida could move 9 feet.
Mullen saw the Tigers trying to slip a sixth defensive back on the field. They're going to blitz us out of a dime, he thought. Then, confused about their personnel, the Tigers burned a timeout. Mullen knew that if LSU came with teeth bared, he might be able to slip Tebow through the line of scrimmage. After a discussion with offensive line coach Steve Addazio and head coach Urban Meyer, Mullen settled on Q zone, which -- basically -- told the linemen to block the man closest to them and Tebow to read the blocks and find the crease.
In his headphones, Mullen could hear Meyer and Addazio addressing the offensive line on the sideline. "Steve and Coach Meyer got right in the offensive linemen's faces," Mullen said. "They said, 'Hey, it's third-and-3 on the drive that we've deemed is the key drive of this game. We're running the ball right behind you with Tebow. We need to get this first down.' And they did."
Of course, football is a chess match, and LSU coaches in another booth anticipated Florida's next move. "They changed their defense when they came back out," Mullen said. "They knew we saw what they were doing."
Center Maurkice Pouncey didn't care. As soon as he heard Tebow would carry the Gators' hopes, he smiled. "First down," Pouncey remembered thinking. "Like always."
As Tebow scanned the field, he still thought the call was sound. "Every third down to that point, we had thrown a pass," said Tebow, who threw for 210 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score. "We knew they were probably going to expect some sort of underneath pass or a rub play or something like that. So we just decided to go out there with five wide, motion [tight end] Tate [Casey] in, crash the end and try to wedge it in there for 3 yards."
Tebow caught the shotgun snap. LSU defensive tackle Marlon Favorite, lined up against Florida left guard Carl Johnson, had to be licking his chops. He knew Tebow would charge straight for him, and the only guy between him and Mr. Heisman himself was a redshirt sophomore who started only because of injuries to starter Jim Tartt and backup Marcus Gilbert.
Favorite blasted inside, ready to blow up the play. Had Johnson panicked, he would have overextended. Favorite would have slid past and demolished Tebow. Instead, Johnson remained coiled tight. When Favorite dashed inside, Johnson hurled his 330 pounds. Tebow saw the block and used Johnson's substantial posterior as his guidepost. "He's such a powerful guy," Tebow said. "When he gets his hands on someone, he can really move them."
Johnson skated Favorite past the point of attack, allowing Tebow to rumble past for a 4-yard gain. The Gators needed 9 feet. They got 12. Told of Johnson's block -- he was a too busy at the time to watch it -- Pouncey smiled again. "I'm proud of big Carl," Pouncey said. "It's his time to shine."
Wait one second -- would this play have happened the same way had regular starter Ricky Jean-Francois lined up across from Johnson? Jean-Francois said last week that he and the Tigers planned to take out Tebow, but the mammoth tackle never got a chance to back up his words. But had Jean-Francois never suffered that groin injury in practice, would Tebow have gained those yards. LSU coach Les Miles isn't sure any play Saturday would have unfolded differently.
"I don't know that it made any difference at all," Miles said. "I know Ricky would have played well, but that's not the reason [for the loss]."
Three plays after Mullen made the call, Addazio and Meyer challenged the line, Johnson snowplowed Favorite and Tebow lunged 12 feet, Tebow hit Louis Murphy for a 37-yard gain to the 2-yard line. One Tebow naked bootleg later, the Gators led, 27-14. By the time the Tigers caught their breath again, that lead was 41-14.
LSU would fall along with fellow top-five residents Oklahoma and Missouri. Now the Gators are on equal footing with LSU, Oklahoma, Missouri, Georgia, USC, Ohio State and the other one-loss national title hopefuls. As for Texas, Alabama, Penn State and Texas Tech and the rest of the undefeated, plenty of elimination games remain. Just ask Miles, who led a two-loss team to the national title last season.
"College football is an unlikely scenario each weekend. Period," Miles said. "You pick 'em, you're wrong."
Indeed, chaos theory rules college football. And sometimes, the butterfly wing flap that sets in motion the chain of events that determines a team's destiny happens on a 9-foot patch of ground.