PAUL FINEBAUM INVITATIONAL: No. 1 Florida (2008) 37, No. 9 Ole Miss (2003) 18
Gators strike early, often in first PFI appearance
By Joey Fairbanks (@Fairbeezy)
Normally his feet do most of the heavy lifting, but Tim Tebow let his arm do the talking in this game. The former Heisman Trophy winner threw two early touchdowns to lead his top-seeded Gators to a 37-18 victory over No. 9 Ole Miss (2003).
“I really just wanted our team to go out there and be the hardest-working team on the field,” said a jubilant Tebow after the final whistle. “We got some opportunities early and were able to make them count. I’m proud of this team.”
Tebow led his team 69 yards down the field on the opening drive. culminating the drive with a 14-yard strike to Louis Murphy just under two minutes after the kickoff to start the contest.
The Gators would never look back.
“He was just too much for us today,” Rebels head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Hopefully they’ll swing by Sardis Lake before they head home. The way he played today, I think he might be able to walk across it if he tried.”
Tebow was worthy of high praise, but the Gator running backs were also something to behold. Jeffery Demps and Chris Rainey both had 100-plus yards and a touchdown.
“Tim’s just the man at directing this offense,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said. “He may know it as well as I do, and his running ability just creates wide open chances in the passing game.”
Tebow’s counterpart, Ole Miss’ Eli Manning, was the only thing able to keep his team in the game. Manning passed for 320 yards and two scores himself.
“We played them tough, they just made the plays that mattered,” Manning said after the game.
He did not receive a lot of help from the running game, as the Rebels managed just 131 yards on 43 attempts.
“The o-line has to get more push up front,” said a dejected Cutcliffe. “They managed to keep Eli upright all day, but credit their defense with bottling up the run very well.”
The Gator defense also forced three fumbles on the afternoon, recovering two. They also held the Rebels scoreless in the first half. Linebacker Brandon Spikes chipped in with an interception on the last play of the first half.
“I was able to make a good read and get in between the receiver and the ball,” Spikes said. “I tried to make some juke moves and get free, but one of them guys got me from behind.”
Their dominance of the half, as well as the two Tebow touchdown passes, put the Gators comfortably ahead at the break, 17-0.
The Rebels finally got on the board when Jonathan Nichols converted a 32-yard field goal to end the opening drive of the second half. It was his only make of the day and as close as the Rebels would get on the scoreboard.
Florida answered right back with a Jonathan Phillips field goal of their own to push their lead to 20-3. Then, Demps broke away from the pack on a 49-yard scoring dash, effectively ending the Rebels’ afternoon. He nearly matched Ole Miss’ team rushing total on his own with 129 yards on 11 carries.
“I saw the hole, and just used my speed to get in it,” said Demps, a world-class sprinter when he isn’t donning the orange Florida helmet. “Chris (Rainey) stay competing to see who can have the best day.”
Manning and company mounted a drive, scoring on a 15-yard pass to Chris Collins with 3:42 left in the third. They needed the defense to hold, and they had a shot at getting back in the game.
Instead, Rainey delivered a backbreaking 72-yard dash to the endzone that put a bow on the contest.
“Let Jeff say what he wants about having the most yards,” said a smirking Rainey in the direction of running mate Demps, “but I had the highlight of the day on that run.”
The victory propels the Gators into a semifinal matchup with a very hot LSU Tiger team who routed Tennessee in their last contest.
“I was hoping to see the Vols in that game, as I have had a bit of success against them,” said Meyer, who has not lost to the Big Orange in his career at Florida. “LSU is a tough defensive team, but hopefully we can spread them out and use the home-field to our advantage.”