GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP)—Florida will have to wait at least another week for the offensive explosion that typically happens in coach Urban Meyer’s second season.
Once again, Chris Leak and the Gators’ offense weren’t able to put together four good quarters.
Leak threw three touchdown passes, highly touted freshman Tim Tebow ran for a score and No. 7 Florida overcame a sluggish start to beat Southern Mississippi 34-7 Saturday night.
“I felt like we should have played much better,” Meyer said.
The Gators were hoping to enjoy an offensive surge in Meyer’s second season — the kind he witnessed at Bowling Green and Utah. Instead, Florida’s offense looked much like it did last season—playing with an inconsistent running game, a shaky offensive line and relying on Leak and the defense to win games.
Nonetheless, it worked again.
“It’s never a disappointment to win, but we weren’t at the top of our ability,” receiver Andre Caldwell said. “We expected to play a lot better. We expected more explosive plays and to put up more points.”
Leak completed 21 of 30 passes for 248 yards—most of it in the second half.
His third pass of the game was intercepted, and Southern Miss turned it into a 7-0 lead when Jeremy Young connected with Damion Carter three plays later.
“I don’t think you can write a script as great as that,” Golden Eagles coach Jeff Bower said.
Leak bounced back. He evened the game on the final play of the first quarter, rolling left and finding Dallas Baker wide open in the end zone for a 21-yard score. He added a 29-yard TD pass to Jemalle Cornelius late in the third quarter and a 16-yarder to Kesthan Moore in the fourth.
But the Gators wanted more, especially early. They settled for a 14-7 halftime lead.
“We can’t start the game like that,” Meyer said. “I was extremely upset with the way it started.”
There were several bright spots, though.
Baker finished with nine catches for 123 yards. Another receiver, freshman Percy Harvin, had a memorable debut. He ran four times for a team-high 58 yards and had three receptions for 33 yards. Harvin gained 23 yards on an end around in the second quarter, setting up DeShawn Wynn’s 3-yard touchdown run.
Harvin later used a sick move to turn what should have been lost yardage into a 9-yard gain, setting up Leak’s final TD pass.
“You can see he’s one of our most electric players, if not the most,” Meyer said. “We’ll never have a playmaker and not have him touch the ball.”
Tebow made an impact in his debut, too. He entered the game on the first play of the fourth quarter and had cameras flashing all around. After a 10-yard run by Moore, Tebow faked a handoff and kept the ball as he ran around the left end. He used a stiff-arm to elude LeVance Richmond, then dived across the goal line for a 1-yard score.
“He’s going to be a great player here,” Meyer said. “He’s going to will himself into the end zone many times here.”
Tebow also misused a cadence that caused a false start and called a wrong formation.
“First jitters, I guess,” Tebow said.
Regardless, his first game was more than he ever imagined.
“It definitely surpassed my expectations,” he said. “I’m just thankful I got to be a part of things.”
The pregame activities may have been the highlight of the night.
The 1996 national championship team celebrated its 10-year reunion, and coach Steve Spurrier returned to Florida Field for the first time since leaving his alma mater following the 2001 season.
Spurrier received a rousing ovation—probably the loudest of the night.
“I always talk about memories of a lifetime, and that’s what we play for,” Spurrier said. “This team was able to have the biggest memory.”
Florida would just as soon forget about the beginning opener.
Leak was sacked twice and hurried even more often. Wynn carried seven times for 45 yards before leaving the field in the third quarter with an neck injury.
The defense, playing without benched defensive tackles Steven Harris and Marcus Thomas, gave up 295 yards.
Young finished 13-of-27 for 129 yards and three interceptions for Southern Miss. He was replaced in the fourth quarter by Stephen Reaves, the son of former Florida All-American quarterback John Reaves.
“(Young) was a little inconsistent,” Bower said. “I saw good things from him. He showed athleticism and avoided sacks.”