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Saturday, October 7, 2006
Future of Florida football on display in The Swamp

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There is no earned run average for quarterbacks, no statistic available to measure the ratio of successful plays to unsuccessful. That's too bad for Florida backup quarterback Tim Tebow, the rambunctious Great Dane puppy of a freshman whom Gators offensive coordinator Dan Mullen sends onto the field with the feel of a manager knowing when to signal the bullpen.

Tim Tebow
Tim Tebow proved he can score by land and by air.
Tebow certainly didn't make all the difference in No. 5 Florida's 23-10 defeat of No. 9 LSU on a gray Saturday afternoon at The Swamp. The left-hander played only 15 snaps, the last six of which came in fourth-quarter garbage time.

There was also the Gator defense and special teams that forced five turnovers and blocked a punt. And there was senior quarterback Chris Leak, making the 39th start of his career.

"Chris is our guy," Mullen said. "Tim is going to come in for his little complementary set of plays each week."

Every set of plays should be so little and complementary. On his first eight snaps, Tebow ran for one touchdown and threw for two more.

There is no question about whether Leak should be the starter. Tebow can run Tebow's plays. Leak can run the Florida offense.

"Do I have to guard against anything?" Florida coach Urban Meyer repeated. "No. We're 6-0. We need to continue to improve. Chris was 17-of-26 for 155. He did throw a pick. He did not throw a touchdown. We expect more than that. We just need to continue to improve."

The 6-foot-3, 229-pound Tebow comes in mainly on short yardage downs. He takes the long snap and bulls through the line like an NFL fullback, taking safeties several yards for the ride and bouncing up to ask the crowd to cheer. In the first five games of the season, Tebow ran the ball 32 times for 193 yards -- that's 6 yards per carry -- and threw only 12 passes.

His numbers Saturday were similar: nine carries for 35 yards, two passes. But the two passes, one yard to tight end Tate Casey and 35 yards to wideout Louis Murphy, finished in the end zone.

"I'm the guilty one," said Meyer, who has led Florida to its first 6-0 start since it won the national championship a decade ago. "I want the ball in his hands right now. I know he's going to hang onto it."

In the first 29½ minutes against LSU, Tebow took five snaps, ran four (one of them a fourth-down, one-yard sneak for a touchdown) and handed the ball off on the other. With :27 left in the half, Florida had the ball again on the LSU 1.

Tebow took the snap and moved toward the line. The Tiger defense surged forward, just as the Gator coaches hoped, conditioned by his running to forget that he set four Florida high school career passing records.

This week, Florida installed "Pop Pass," a play Meyer's staff used at Utah for fullback Ben Moa, who threw it to win a triple-overtime game against Air Force in 2003.

The play called for Tebow to get to the line, stop, leap into the air and throw it to Casey, who would block and release underneath the goalpost.

JaMarcus Russell
JaMarcus Russell could be the top pick in the draft.
"A jump pass from the 1920 era," Meyer called it.

Tebow and Casey stayed after practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to practice the play.

"It looked an awful lot prettier in practice," Mullen said.

That's because in practice, Tebow threw it at the apex of his jump. On Saturday, Casey got tangled up with LSU safety LaRon Landry at the line. Tebow leaped, ball in his left hand, and Casey hadn't arrived yet. Tebow pulled the ball down and, as if he were Jason Kidd against Ben Wallace, Tebow hoisted a floater from chest level.

"When I saw Tate rip through him [Landry]," Tebow said, "I kind of double-pumped and put it up there for him. He did a great job coming down with it."

Casey caught it as he fell backward, completing a somersault with the ball safely in his arms.

"We'd rather our tight end not fumble around, fall down and do six pushups, do a cartwheel, get up and try to catch it," Meyer said.

"It felt like the ball was up there for an hour," Casey said.

Casey had a lot in common with LSU, which must have felt as if this nightmare would never end. Florida forced LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell to cough up four turnovers. The junior, who came into the game having thrown 84 consecutive passes without an interception, threw three of them, two to senior corner Ryan Smith, who caught two last week against Alabama as well.

Russell may have been lucky. Smith dropped two others that he had in his hands. But as bad as his three interceptions were, Russell's first turnover proved to be the most costly.

LSU had made 48 straight trips into the red zone (excluding running the clock out at the end of games) and come out with points. The 48th trip, in the first quarter, gave the Tigers a 7-0 lead.

The 49th trip went awry, but not without a fight. Craig Davis took a short pass into the end zone for an apparent 21-yard score, but backup guard Herman Johnson got caught holding at the Florida 3. Three plays later, from the Gator 10, Jacob Hester raced inside the 1 and stretched his arm over the goal line. No, said the official. No, said the review official.

Russell lined up under center. All 22 players lined up inside the box, and there would have been more if the rules allowed. Russell came up without the ball, and somehow, in the scrum, Florida linebacker Brandon Siler fell on it.

The Gators also made recoveries in the kicking game, turning a first-quarter LSU muff into a touchdown and creating a safety off the second-half kickoff when Riley Cooper blasted the Tigers' Early Doucet at the 3.

Given that Florida took the free kick and drove 67 yards in five plays for a touchdown, the turnovers really created 16 points. Tebow concluded that drive with his 35-yard pass to Murphy.

Again, Tebow took the snap and moved toward the line. Again, LSU bit. Meyer called the pass a "helmet throw," as in Tebow "could have taken his helmet off and thrown it. He [Murphy] was that wide open."

Murphy was that wide open because LSU had to account for Tebow's ability to run.

"Against the best secondary maybe in the country, you saw No. 82 [Murphy] running without anybody on him," Meyer said. "Something was going on."

That something was Tebow.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.