Updated: Mar 27
WHEN GAME PLANS CAME TOGETHER PERFECTLY
About a week prior to the Gators flying out to Arizona to begin their final practices and preparation for the 2006 national championship game against Ohio State, co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison confided in me as we walked from the Sanders Practice Field on the Florida campus to the west side of The Swamp. “We can beat them with a four-man rush,” Mattison told me, confident that I wouldn’t be going into detail about what he was telling me. “They won’t be able to handle our guys on the inside and that will free up our guys on the outside. If we blitz it will be just to keep them off balance.”
Mattison coached Florida’s defensive line. Basically, he went into the game with a five-man rotation: Steven Harris, Ray McDonald and Joe Cohen handling the two inside positions with Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss on the outside.
Over on the offensive side of the ball, Dan Mullen had a pair of game plans ready to go. Knowing the Gators had a decisive speed advantage, one plan had the Gators going vertical in the passing game if the Buckeyes tried to go bump and run with the wide receivers Dallas Baker, Bubba Caldwell and Jemalle Cornelius with Percy Harvin and Cornelius Ingram working the middle of the field. The second game plan was based on Ohio State playing its safeties well off the line of scrimmage. If that were the case, Mullen’s play calls would shift the passing game to shorter routes to receivers who would be wide open beneath the safeties.
Both Mattison and Mullen were confident their game plans would work very well after watching film of the Buckeyes’ 42-39 win over Michigan. In what some called that overused “game of the century,” Mattison and Mullen saw an Ohio State team that had been exposed on both sides of the ball.
After what Mattison had told me that day after practice in Gainesville, I watched a replay of every Ohio State game and I came to the conclusion there was no way the Buckeyes could handle Florida’s D-line, which would leave the linebacking crew of Brandon Siler, Earl Everett and Brian Crum free to make tackles. I was convinced the Buckeyes couldn’t run the football on the Gators nor could they keep Heisman Trophy QB Troy Smith upright without going max protect. That, of course, would play into Florida’s hands because it would reduce the Buckeyes to two and three-man routes. The only receiver Ohio State had that I was remotely concerned with was Ted Ginn Jr. and while he had world class speed, I thought Florida had faced better and snuffed out receivers in guys like D.J. Hall of Alabama, Dwayne Bowe of LSU and Chris Davis of FSU.
What I saw of the Ohio State defense told me the Gators could run the football well enough to set up the passing game and that there was no way the Buckeyes could cover the Florida receivers. I had no idea how the Buckeyes could cover Dallas Baker or Percy Harvin.
Three days before the January 8 (2007) game at University of Phoenix Stadium (now State Farm Stadium) in Glendale, I caught Mattison for a couple of moments after the Gators finished practice on a late, chilly afternoon. I asked him if he was as confident now as he was in Gainesville. He patted me on my back and just grinned. It was the kind of gesture that told me he knew in his heart of hearts what was going to happen in three days.
The night before the game, I wrote that I expected Florida to win by 10 or more points. I actually believed the Gators would win by more than that but I stayed conservative in my prediction. A lot of people told me I was absolutely nuts but I didn’t waver in my belief that Florida would dominate this game. It wasn’t based on being a Gator. It had everything to do with what I had seen every single game the Gators had played and having watched every game on replay that Ohio State had played.
I thought Ohio State would have been a slightly better than average team in the SEC because I was convinced the Buckeyes didn’t have the speed to cope with the Gators much less the better teams in the SEC.
On the way to the stadium, Mark McLeod saw the dome of the stadium from 20 miles out as we drove into Glendale. He remarked, “This looks like the mothership has landed.” It did look like something from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Bob Redman started humming the music from “Close Encounters.”
When we got to the stadium, I got a call from an Iowa radio station that had been in contact a few days before asking if I would come on the show with a pregame analysis of Florida’s chances against the mighty Buckeyes. I think one of the hosts spewed his coffee through his nose when I said, “I’ll be shocked if Florida wins by less than 20 points.” They couldn’t stop laughing and asked if I had ever watched the Buckeyes. I answered, “I’ve seen every single game they’ve played and I don’t think they can stay with the Gators.”
More howls of laughter. I then told them that if the Gators lost or simply won in a squeaker that I would come on their show the next day and all their callers could tell me what an idiot I am.
The stadium was probably 70% Ohio State. Because there was no Big Ten Championship Game at the time and the Buckeyes were unbeaten and ranked #1, all the Ohio State people had a week to buy up all the tickets, which were going for $1,400 for nose bleeders and more than $2,000 for anything where oxygen wasn’t pumped in. There was such an overflow in the media that most of us were in the corner of the south end zone.
When Ted Ginn Jr. ran the opening kickoff back for a TD (Reggie Nelson was clipped right in front of a zebra who conveniently forgot to toss his yellow hankie), the Ohio State people went absolutely nuts but that didn’t last long because Brandon James not only ran Ohio State’s kickoff back 33 yards but another 15 was tacked on for a facemask.
What Mullen saw on Ohio State’s first defensive stand told him he would be going with the short underneath game. The Buckeyes were playing their safeties a good 25-30 yards off the line of scrimmage and their corners were giving a huge cushion. Three straight passes from Chris Leak – five yards to Harvin, two to Cornelius and three to Baker gave a first down. A four-yard run by DeShawn Wynn was followed by a little 11-yard swing pass out of the backfield to Billy Latsko. Tim Tebow came on and bulldozed middle linebacker James Laurinitis, who was supposed to be all-interplanetary but in fact wasn’t as good as half the middle linebackers in the SEC. The Buckeyes gave Baker such a cushion at the 14 that Leak made an easy throw that Baker caught, juked a defender and went in for the touchdown.
When Ohio State got the ball back, Smith threw incomplete to Ginn, who was smothered by Tremain McCollum. Smith was flushed from the pocket for a four-yard gain on second down, then was sacked by Harvey on third down for a seven-yard loss. Florida rushed only four on the play and Smith not only was under duress but all the receivers were covered. It was that way the entire game.
Thanks to an Ohio State personal foul, Florida got the ball on the Ohio State 49 after the punt. It took the Gators five plays to score, but the Mullen game plan showed just how vulnerable the Buckeyes were when Leak connected with Ingram in the middle of the field, behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties. That 20-yard completion put the ball at the OSU seven. Two plays later, Harvin scored on a four-yard jet sweep to put the Gators up for good.
On Ohio State’s ensuing possession, Smith was sacked again by Harvey and again on a four-man rush. Harvey was so quick off the ball that OSU’s All-American left tackle false started on the next play. The drive ended two plays later when Smith, under pressure from what seemed like the entire UF D-line was picked off by Reggie Lewis.
Florida drove 10 plays for 71 yards and a two-yard TD run by Wynn, a Cincinnati native. Leak had a 20-yard completion to Ingram and a 19-yarder to Cornelius on the drive, both easy throws to wide open receivers yards in front of the Ohio State safeties. Ohio State was so fearful of Florida’s speed that the Buckeyes stayed in a soft zone the entire game with the safeties looking like they were back to catch a punt.
Ohio State’s lone offensive scoring drive went 64 yards aided by a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty on Siler on one of those rare Florida blitzes.
The Buckeye balloon burst for good with 3:37 left in the half and the Gators leading 24-14. Feeling his defense had no way to stop the Gators, Jim Tressell went for it on fourth and one at the Ohio State 29. On the previous play, Harris had blown things up in the middle so badly that Smith barely got back to the line of scrimmage. On fourth down, Harris pushed All-Big Ten center Doug Datish so far back that he almost knocked down Smith trying to hand the ball off to Antonio Pittman, who was decleated by Everett and McDonald. That led to a Chris Hetland field goal and a 27-14 lead.
By this time in the game, Ohio State had abandoned anything but a two-man pass route. Tight end Rory Nicol, fullback Stan White and Pittman were all being held in to pass protect but it didn’t do any good. On Ohio State’s first play after the Ijjas field goal, Moss beat the double team, sacked Smith and forced a fumble that Harvey recovered and ran back nine yards to the OSU five. Then it was Tebow time. Two straight power runs got the ball to the one. With OSU expecting Tebow again on third down, he sprinted out and flipped a little pass to Caldwell for a TD and a 34-14 halftime lead.
The Gators could have easily scored 50 or 60 points in this game if Urban Meyer hadn’t gone conservative in the second half. He was content to run the clock when the Gators had the ball and let the defense keep humiliating the Ohio State offense. Leak wound up throwing for 213 yards and was selected the game’s Most Outstanding Player. The Gators ran for 156 and could have easily gone for more than 200 if Meyer had thrown the ball more in the second half. Mullen’s game plan worked to perfection though. Ohio State couldn’t stop a game plan so well executed.
On the defensive side, Harvey was the game’s outstanding defensive player as the Gators sacked Smith five times for 51 yards in losses. Ohio State managed only 82 yards of offense. Two of their eight first downs were due to UF penalties. Smith was 4-14 passing, looking anything but a Heisman winner.
When I saw Mattison on the field as the confetti flew post game, he hugged me and roared, “Didn’t these people (talking about the experts) watch my guys on film? We dominated them. They didn’t have a chance.”
He was right. The Gators dominated Ohio State and won the 2006 national championship because the game plans on both sides of the ball that were executed flawlessly. No matter how many championships the Gators win in the future, they may never experience another night quite like this when two game plans confluence with such absolute perfection.