ATLANTA - When Florida needed a big run, Tim Tebow tucked the ball under his arm and took off. When the Gators needed to complete a pass, he threw it right where it had to be.
That’s not all. He was motivator and cheerleader too.
Before the clinching drive he gathered the offense around him and shouted, “Let’s go win it here!” After the Southeastern Conference title was Florida’s — and, in all likelihood, a spot in the national championship game — he ran nearly three-quarters around the edge of the Georgia Dome, slapping hands with the Gator faithful in the stands.
“That was practically the hardest part of the day,” Tebow quipped.
No worries. He can handle whatever role the Gators throw his way.
With another virtuoso performance, Tebow gave No. 2 Florida a shot at its second national title in three years, handed No. 1 Alabama its first loss of the season and made a strong case for another Heisman Trophy in a 31-20 victory over the Crimson Tide on Saturday.
“I’ve had some great players, and I’ve got some great players on this team,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said. “But I’ve never had one like this. Tim’s got something special inside him. I’m not talking about throwing. I’m not talking about running. I’m talking about making everyone around him better. That fourth quarter was vintage Tim Tebow.”
The junior quarterback had an 0-5 record when his team trailed in the second half, and the Gators went to the final period down 20-17. But Tebow removed that blemish from his record, throwing the last of his three touchdowns passes with less than 3 minutes remaining to clinch it.
“He’s a great competitor. He takes his teammates on his shoulders a lot,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “They have a lot of confidence he’s going to make plays, and they play that way. They scored two touchdowns where we had them covered about as well as we could cover them.”
The win should be enough to give Florida (12-1) a spot in the BCS title game for the second time in three years, and Tebow’s performance will surely bolster his chances of becoming just the second player to win the Heisman Trophy two years in a row.
“We don’t want to be denied in anything we do,” said Tebow, who carried his team with injured star Percy Harvin watching from the sidelines.
Showing it could win a close game in a season of routs, Florida (12-1) scored the go-ahead touchdown with about just over 9 minutes remaining on a 2-yard run by Jeff Demps, among those filling in for the injured Harvin. Tebow finished the scoring with a pass that couldn’t have been thrown any better, hitting Riley Cooper for a 5-yard TD with 2:50 left.
Alabama (12-1) couldn’t have picked a worse time to lose. The Crimson Tide will likely settle for a spot in the Sugar Bowl, ruining any chance of adding another national championship to its glorious history.
Instead, mark down a spot in the title game for Florida, which won it just two years ago with a rout of Ohio State. The Gators came into the game ranked fourth in the BCS standings, but the impressive win over unbeaten and top-ranked Alabama will surely be enough to move them into one of the top spots.
Their opponent? Well, Oklahoma beat Missouri 62-21 in the Big 12 title game, probably assuring itself a matchup with the Gators.
Whoever it is will have to stop Tebow, who was 14-of-22 passing 216 yards and led the team in rushing with 57 yards. He tossed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Carl Moore to finish off Florida’s opening possession, went 5 yards to David Nelson to give the Gators a 17-10 halftime lead, and came through one more time to clinch the victory.
With Florida facing third-and-goal at the 5 after a rare sideline interference penalty, Tebow found Cooper breaking toward the middle in front of Marquis Johnson. The perfectly thrown pass — low enough to give no chance of an interception but high enough to catch — was cradled by a diving Cooper to make it a two-score game.
Joe Haden’s interception ended any hope of a comeback. Tebow was named the game’s MVP.
“One more year! One more year!” the Florida fans chanted afterward, hoping their junior quarterback will return for his senior season.
Alabama trailed at halftime for first time this year, but just the fact that it was close put the Gators in an unusual position.
Florida came in as the nation’s third-highest scoring team (46.3 points a game) and its average margin of victory was a staggering 37 points. Then again, the Gators did lose their only close game, a shocking 31-30 defeat to Mississippi at the Swamp on the final weekend in September.
The Tide was feeling good about itself after Mark Ingram scored on a 2-yard run and Leigh Tiffin booted his second field goal, a 27-yarder that pushed Alabama ahead going to the final period.
But Florida caught a huge break when Demps was dragged down short of the marker on third down, but Dont’a Hightower got a handful of facemask. The 15-yard penalty gave the Gators first down at the Bama 27.
Tebow took it from there. A 13-yard pass to Nelson. Then a 6-yarder to Nelson again to convert another third down by a yard. And finally, a quick pitch to Demps, who streaked around the left side and hurdled over two fallen players at the goal line for a 24-20 lead.
“Going 12-0 is a hard thing to do,” Saban said. “Every time they needed to make a play, Tim Tebow made the plays that made the difference in the game.”
This was the 41st meeting between the top two teams in The Associated Press poll. No. 1 still holds a 23-16-2 edge.
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