GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When No. 1 Florida looks back on this season, Halloween week could be the one that stands out.
Turning point? The Gators might simply call it another “Mississippi Moment.”
Remember quarterback Tim Tebow’s speech following a 31-30 loss to Mississippi last season, the one that helped propel Florida to its second national champion in three years? The Gators heard another inspirational message last week following a 29-19 victory at Mississippi State.
Coach Urban Meyer said Sunday he started a series of locker-room addresses in Starkville after Tebow threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns and the offense struggled to score for the third consecutive week.
Florida responded with its most well-rounded game in a month, thumping rival Georgia 41-17 on Saturday and clinching a spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
“I was right in the middle of it,” Meyer said. “There was no finger-pointing. It was just guys saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get better.'”
Although some reports said Tebow and linebacker Brandon Spikes had a verbal altercation before the speeches, Meyer denied that happening.
Meyer said he apologized for calling a pass play deep in Florida territory that resulted in one defensive score, then turned the floor over to defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, guard Mike Pouncey, Tebow and Spikes.
“We get on guys and hold them accountable,” Spikes said Saturday night. “Things weren’t getting done. Things weren’t getting done the way we expected. We had a team meeting. We may have stepped on a few toes. Throughout the whole week, it was just an issue that guys weren’t really happy. It wasn’t no big deal, nothing like that. You’re going to hit a little adversity. You’ve got to get through that.”
Whatever was said certainly set the tone for the week.
Meyer kept his assistants late last Sunday night, breaking down every snap in the red zone and coming up with ways to be less predictable around the goal line. Meyer also asked Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan to speak to team leaders later in the week. Donovan’s message was to stick together, recalling what it took for his 2006-07 team to repeat as national champions.
Then Meyer ripped into his team in the hotel Friday night.
“This is a passionate game,” Meyer said, refusing to give details about what he said. “It was a hard week on (offensive coordinator Steve Addazio), on our quarterback, too.”
Florida’s offense, mostly because of its red-zone woes, had been more analyzed than Tebow’s concussion the last two weeks. Were the problems a result of play-calling, the offensive line, receivers, Tebow or a little bit of everything?
Regardless, the Gators (8-0, 6-0) showed few weaknesses against the Bulldogs (4-4, 3-3), who wore black pants and black helmets for the first time in hopes of creating a little extra buzz.
Tebow has TD passes on Florida’s first two possessions, then broke Herschel Walker’s SEC record for rushing scores with his 50th. Meyer said Tebow played looser than he had in recent weeks, finishing with 164 yards passing, 85 rushing and accounting for four touchdowns.
The defense sealed the victory with four interceptions in the second half, including two by A.J. Jones. The Gators wrapped up the SEC East a few hours later when Tennessee beat South Carolina 31-13.
“Last week, it was the ship is sinking. That’s what I kept hearing. The boat’s got holes in it. It absolutely does not,” Meyer said. “We’ve got good guys that go really hard and we play good teams and we’re in the Southeastern Conference. I’m hoping we do hit a stride, but you don’t have time to worry about that.”
Instead, the Gators hope to avoid a letdown in remaining games against Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Florida International and Florida State.
Meyer insisted his team won’t ease up, even though the SEC East is in hand.
“I do think at some point in February you reflect upon moments during the season. Not now,” he said. “I kind of like the urgency, I love pressure and our players love pressure. … If you want to relieve pressure, you might transfer somewhere and go have some fun and play some ball.
“If you want to play in pressure-packed situations on national TV each week with a lot at stake, you are in the right place. I hope there’s all kinds of pressure on our team this week.”
Mark Long/The Associated Press