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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Florida Crushes Buckeyes

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It would be an insult to Florida to say the Gators pulled a Villanova on Monday night.

Florida was no Villanova '85, no Cinderella, no No. 8 seed riding some miracle run. It was a deserving participant in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game, and Ohio State had the physical and emotional bruises to prove it Tuesday morning.

But make no mistake: The Gators' 41-14 demolishing of the Buckeyes was the best performance by an underdog college team in a national championship contest since Villanova threatened perfection by shooting 80 percent from the field against Georgetown on April 1, 1985. It didn't take error-free football to beat unraveling Ohio State on Monday night, but Florida played that well anyway.

"Who woulda thunk it?" Florida defensive backs coach Chuck Heater said to a fellow Gators staffer on the elevator late in the game, as they hustled downstairs to join the celebration. "Coaches never think it's going to be like that."

Chris Leak had all the right moves in dismantling BCS favorite Ohio State Monday night.Nobody else thought it was going to be like that, either. Ohio State was a 7½-point favorite. Rarely has Las Vegas and almost every member of the sports media -- my moronic self emphatically included -- been this wrong.

Florida had a month between BCS Selection Sunday and this game to simmer in a stew of disrespect. Clearly, the Gators had reached a boiling point by kickoff.

"Motivation was not an issue," said Urban Meyer, whose first six years as a college head coach merely rank among the most impressive in history. "If you are looking for a great pregame speech, I didn't have to have any. We had one for 30 days."

But it's one thing to play angry. It's another to play angry and play perfectly.

This was 85 guys going Don Larsen on an unbeaten and allegedly unbeatable opponent. This was one team rising to the occasion and the other snorkeling far below it.

Consider: Florida hadn't beaten a I-A opponent by this many points since Central Florida on Sept. 9, and hadn't beaten a BCS-conference opponent by that much since last season. Ohio State hadn't been beaten by this many points since 1994.

The Florida game plan was art, suitable for framing. The execution of the game plan was similarly gorgeous.

Urban Meyer undressed The Vest. Scored 41 points on him, the most ever on a Jim Tressel-coached Ohio State team. Last time Tress' boys gave up more it was 1999 and he was the coach at I-AA Youngstown State.

Chris Leak humiliated Mr. Heisman. To say he won the personal matchup with Troy Smith is like saying Sitting Bull got the best of Custer. It was a massacre and a stunning reversal of fortune for a guy who was widely doubted as a big-game quarterback while Smith was universally saluted.

A Florida defense that has been excellent all year was impenetrable Monday night. The Buckeyes were held to a preposterous 82 yards of offense, which looks like a misprint unless you saw the game.

"It's the greatest feeling to be national champs … I'm just so proud of how hard we worked over the four years, and we finally got to this point; then we took advantage of this opportunity."
-- Florida QB Chris Leak

The Florida offense clicked like it hasn't all year -- arguably like it never has in Meyer's two years in Gainesville. Everything worked: Leak played the smartest and most efficient game of his career; the offensive line combined great push in the running game with great protection in the passing game; the receivers didn't drop a thing; the running backs never put the ball on the ground and rarely took a step backward.

The Gators had zero turnovers. The only other game they did that this season was against I-AA Western Carolina. Last time they had a turnover-free game against a I-A opponent was Nov. 5, 2005, against Vanderbilt.

And even the wobbliest of special teamers had his Villanova moment. Obscure 'Nova guard Harold Jensen earned a footnote in history by making all five of his field goals against Georgetown in '85. Florida kicker Chris Hetland, who was a serially inaccurate 4-of-13 in the regular season, made all two of his field goals for Florida -- both exceeding his season long by a lot.

Combine all the elements and you have a masterpiece. After the opening 16 seconds of kickoff coverage -- when Ohio State's Ted Ginn Jr. began the game with a 93-yard touchdown return -- there wasn't a single thing the Gators did poorly.

"The whole year we felt we hadn't put together a complete game," receiver Jemalle Cornelius said. "Tonight I think we did."

This complete game completes a rainbow career arc for Leak, splashing him down in a pot of gold in his final college game. This was the day Florida fans envisioned when the nation's No. 1 high school quarterback in 2002 committed to the Gators -- but for four years, it rarely looked like it would ever happen.

"My legacy was to get University of Florida football back here," Leak said. "And with my teammates and coaches, we were able to do that."

After two uneven years under Ron Zook and an occasionally painful adjustment season under Meyer, Leak entered 2006 unfulfilled. He had all of the stats but none of the hardware necessary to qualify for historic hero status in Gainesville -- and Meyer told him as much.

It's all about winning titles with him, and Leak had none: not a division title, not a conference title, not a national title.

Chris Leak has gone from being booed to celebrated in his four years at Florida.Now, at last, he has all three.

"He is officially one of the top two quarterbacks to play at the University of Florida," Meyer said, lumping Leak in with Danny Wuerffel -- and ahead of the Gators' QB who won a Heisman Trophy but not a national championship, Steve Spurrier.

Even this senior season had been a choppy ride for Leak. A not-insignificant portion of the Florida fan base rooted for freshman Tim Tebow to beat out Leak, and Tebow's early insertion into the offense as a change-of-pace QB only stoked their ardor. When Tebow was replaced by Leak during the Kentucky game in Gainesville in September, the boos were audible.

Monday night, as Leak stood on the winner's podium and held the crystal football over his head, there were no boos from Gator Nation. Only adulation.

"Nobody deserves it more than Chris Leak," Cornelius said. "The way he played tonight, like a championship quarterback, I'm proud of him."

The prep for this championship moment was intensive and unrelenting over the past month. Offensive coordinator Dan Mullen nearly wore out the Ohio State game film -- and his players.

"I don't think we could watch any more Ohio State games," Mullen said. "I put on the Michigan game yesterday and they said, 'This is about the 75th time. Let's just go play the game, coach.'"

Did Mullen insist?

"Oh yeah," he said with a smile. "We watched it again. One more time."

Clearly, Florida found plenty to expose in those tapes. With Leak dealing the ball crisply and quickly into the flats and underneath the Ohio State secondary, the Gators sliced through the Buckeyes for touchdowns in their first three possessions.

By then Leak had completed his first nine passes, on his way to a 25-for-36 night. When receivers weren't open, a guy who had chucked 13 interceptions and fumbled twice this year threw it several yards out of bounds. He was determined not to make any game-turning mistakes, surprisingly leaving those to Smith.

"This is the best game I think he's played," Mullen said. "The most prepared, the most calm he's been. He really wanted to finish his career off right."

Leak's willfully expressionless public mien finally broke Monday. He concluded the game by urging Meyer to employ the "victory" formation. After taking a knee, he leaped to his feet and fired the ball high into the air.

After kneeling for a long moment of prayer on that postgame podium, Leak beamed. Then he hammed. He posed with the crystal football in one hand, then in two hands. He cradled it like a baby and smooched it.

It was something to see this sphinx of a young man so obviously enjoy himself.

"It's the greatest feeling to be national champs," Leak said. "… I'm just so proud of how hard we worked over the four years, and we finally got to this point; then we took advantage of this opportunity.

"When you work hard, when you keep doing the right things and you are a good person, you get your schoolwork done, you graduate, when you are doing all the right things, eventually your time is going to come."

Chris Leak's time finally came Monday night, but he and his Florida teammates didn't just finish it off with a championship. They finished it off with something approaching the perfect game.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

USC Kicker Danelo Found Dead

LOS ANGELES -- Police said there was no evidence pointing to suicide in the death of Southern California kicker Mario Danelo, whose body was found about 120 feet down a rocky cliff.

USC kicker Mario Danelo was discovered at the base of a cliff in Los Angeles Saturday."I have no indication per se that it was a criminal event," Lt. David Pierson, commanding officer of the LAPD Harbor Division detectives, told the Los Angeles Times. "But we exhaust all leads to ensure that we're making the right categorization of the case."

Pierson said investigators had information that Danelo was out with friends Friday night and that he was last seen around midnight. His body was found Saturday afternoon near Point Fermin lighthouse in the city's San Pedro section.

Pierson said police had no information as to whether Danelo had been drinking. Martha Garcia of the Los Angeles Police Department said the body showed signs of traumatic injuries.

Someone flying a remote-control airplane noticed something at the bottom of the cliff and a friend hiked down to the beach and discovered the body, Pierson said.

Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said investigators did not find a surf board, scuba-diving tanks or anything else to indicate Danelo might have been down there for any of the recreational activities common to the area.

Humphrey said over the years a handful of people had fallen from the cliff.

"It's entirely possible that he fell," Humphrey said.

Atop the cliff are signs forbidding entrance. They warn of unstable, slippery surfaces and steep drops. A bouquet of flowers and candles were left at the scene by onlookers late Saturday.

Danelo, the 21-year-old son of former NFL kicker Joe Danelo, made 15 of 16 field goals this season and led the Trojans in scoring with 89 points. The junior made two field goals in the Rose Bowl on Monday to help USC beat Michigan 32-18.

He only missed two field goals in his career, going 26-for-28, and was 127 of 134 on extra points. In 2005, he set NCAA single-season records with 83 extra points and 86 attempts.

Speaking on behalf of Trojans coach Pete Carroll, USC spokesman Tim Tessalone said: "We were stunned to hear about this tragedy. This is a great loss. Mario was a wonderful young man of high character.

"He was one heck of a kicker. He was a key ingredient in our success the past two years. The thoughts and prayers of the entire Trojan family go out to the Danelo family on this sad, sad day."

Reached by phone Saturday, the family declined to comment.

USC linebacker Dallas Sartz said Danelo would be remembered for his upbeat personality and dependable kicking.

"I just remember Mario was the guy who always had a smile on his face and would always cheer you up," said Sartz, a team captain.

Friday, January 05, 2007

You Can Thank Nick Saban For This

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- If top-ranked Ohio State beats Florida to win the national championship on Monday night, coach Jim Tressel will likely get a lot richer.

Tressel's current contract specifies he can begin negotiations on a new agreement just six months after signing one that will pay him more than $2.6 million this season.

"Whether we win it or not, I'm going to sit back and say, 'Where are we? What have we accomplished?'" Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said Wednesday.

Smith said he will review Tressel's compensation package and compare it to coaches around the Big Ten and the nation while weighing Tressel's success on the field, his players' academic progress and other factors.

Tressel's seven-year contract, signed June 30, 2006, includes a $200,000 bonus for getting the Buckeyes into the national championship game.

The contract states that if Ohio State wins that game, "coach and university agree to begin negotiating, in good faith, the terms of a new employment agreement that would supersede this agreement."

Alabama reportedly outbid the Miami Dolphins on Wednesday to hire away coach Nick Saban, who was being paid $4.5 million per year.

Some think Saban's new contract might inflate coaches' salaries at major universities, much like a lucrative free-agent contract in baseball can raise the price for all players.

"I think the market has been extraordinary for a long time," Tressel said after the Buckeyes practiced on Wednesday. "Will this [Saban's contract] have any particular new bump on it? I doubt it."

Smith will compare Tressel's compensation package with other Big Ten coaches, then move on to other top coaches in the college game. But he drew a distinction between Tressel and Saban, who won a share of the 2003 national title while coaching at LSU.

"Jim Tressel is a proven coach in the Big Ten and nationally," Smith said. "That's a new coach at Alabama."

Tressel has a 62-13 record at Ohio State, including this year's 12-0 mark. He has a 5-1 record against the Buckeyes' chief rival, Michigan, and comes into the national championship game at the University of Phoenix Stadium with a 4-1 mark in bowl games.

Smith said he would compare Tressel's achievements with those of Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Southern California's Pete Carroll, Notre Dame's Charlie Weis and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, among others.

Saban's contract will have a lasting impression on coaches' contracts down the road, Smith said.

"I'm interested in seeing what that package is at Alabama, because four or five years from now it'll mean something," Smith said.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Boise State Shocks College Football

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- At the end of a game unlike any college football has ever witnessed, two of the great female icons in American culture staged a harmonic, hypnotic, borderline hallucinogenic convergence.

Boise State introduced Cinderella to Lady Liberty.

A head-to-toe, shining-beacon-to-glass-slipper miracle ensued.

Jared Zabransky passed for 262 yards and three touchdowns.The Broncos culminated an unrivaled string of gusto-laden, do-or-die trick plays with one of the oldest in the book, the Statue of Liberty. And when Ian Johnson grabbed Jared Zabransky's behind-the-back handoff, scooted around the left side and scored two titanic points to beat lordly Oklahoma 43-42 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, magic bloomed in the desert.

"It doesn't even seem real to me," Boise State offensive tackle Andrew Woodruff said, perplexedly rubbing his burr-headed scalp on the field while the Broncos fans roared in the stands.

Reality was further challenged when Johnson followed his winning run with an on-field wedding proposal to his flabbergasted cheerleader girlfriend. But, please, one blockbuster story at a time.

The big picture: The Valley of the Stun was the stage as an indomitable bunch of dreamers in orange pants landed the mightiest populist blow of college football's modern era. They were Hickory High in helmets, George Mason in cleats. They knocked off a gridiron giant one decade to the day after the burial of Pokey Allen, the beloved Boise coach who brought the program up to Division I-A status just 11 years ago.

The doors to the sport's throne room seem thrown open as never before.

Check the plaque at the lady's feet on Liberty Island this morning and see if the familiar sonnet has been changed. See if it now reads, "Give me your non-BCS teams tired of being disrespected, your poor of football budget, your huddled masses of mid-major strivers yearning to play in the grandest bowl games." And see if Lady Liberty is wearing a Boise State jersey today.

The Broncos entered their first Bowl Championship Series game undefeated but unloved in some elitist quarters. The Western Athletic Conference champions were made a steep underdog to the twice-beaten Sooners, and were suspected by some of fraudulence. They carried not just their own quest for nationwide credibility into this game, but the hopes and dreams of every alleged mid-major team that had been snubbed by a system of the rich, for the rich and by the rich.

Boise got its respect by beating the seven-time national champion Sooners in an overwrought overtime. But beyond the big picture was the delicious, utterly improbable manner in which the Broncos did it.

The method was true madness. And true genius. No coaching staff has ever ended a game with so much daring.

Out of conventional offensive options, first-year head coach Chris Petersen and first-year offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin went straight sandlot. They showed a career's worth of guts in calling one gadget play after another, rescuing Boise in a game it first had seemingly locked up, then had seemingly lost.

Asked if there could possibly be anything left in the playbook after this, the 30-year-old Harsin shook his head and smiled.

"No, no," he said. "We threw it all out right there."

They threw it out in the following order:

Ian Johnson scored the game-winner on a two-point conversion in OT.The last of the 21 points scored in the final 86 seconds of regulation came on a preposterous play: a 50-yard hook-and-lateral pass from Zabransky to Drisan James to Jerard Rabb -- a combination that will be the Tinker to Evers to Chance of Boise State lore for the next century or so. Rabb crossed the goal line with all of seven seconds left to play, saving the Broncos from what seemed to be imminent defeat.

Boise practices the play every week in its final full practice before games.

"The guys love it," Petersen said. "We probably run it 10 times because they love it."

So it's a fun play to practice. Whether it's an effective play is another matter entirely.

"Can I say something?" interjected linebacker Korey Hall in the postgame press conference. "It doesn't work in practice usually."

Harsin confirmed this.

"It never works," he said. "Ever."

Pause. Another smile.

"Then we do it and it works."

Zabransky, who looked like he'd lost the game just a minute earlier with a brutal pick-six gift to Oklahoma cornerback Marcus Walker, fired a 15-yard pass to James. The wideout curled just a step or two toward the middle of the field before flipping a lateral to Rabb, who grabbed it and swiftly outflanked the Sooners secondary and sprinted the final 35 yards to the end zone.

It was as shocking a last-gasp play as anything but Cal's five-lateral slalom through the Stanford band. It might also have been the most daring last-gasp call (that worked) of all time.

But it was only the first in Boise State's trick play trifecta.

The next one came when the game was threatening to end with a violent anticlimax. On the first play of overtime, Oklahoma star back Adrian Peterson slashed off left tackle 25 yards for a stand-up touchdown. Suddenly the new life gained by the hook-and-lateral play was in danger of being extinguished.

A designed throwback from tailback Vinny Perretta to Zabransky was aborted on Boise's first play, as Perretta wisely ate the ball for no gain. Five plays later, the Broncos had crept to the Oklahoma 5-yard line, but faced a fourth-and-2.

Harsin went to the trick bag again. Zabransky went in motion to the left. Perretta, at quarterback, took the shotgun snap and rolled right, then lofted a lovely spiral toward the right corner of the end zone. Tight end Derek Schouman cradled it for the touchdown.

But that only made the score 42-41, which left Petersen with a decision: play for the tie or go all-in. Win or lose, in a single play.

Jerard Rabb finished off the hook and ladder with a dive into the end zone.Petersen left his kicker on the sideline. Oklahoma called timeout. Boise State's brain trust called the play: Statue Left.

When Zabransky called it in the huddle, confidence flowed.

"We just won this game," receiver Legedu Naanee announced.

"When he said Statue I thought, 'Ohhh, brother, we're going to do it in style,'" Johnson said.

Boise had run the play once before this season, against Idaho, and gained a first down on it. In a credit to Oklahoma's scouting, Sooners linebacker Rufus Alexander said they'd seen the play on tape and had prepared for it.

But they weren't quite prepared enough to stop Boise's perfect execution.

Zabransky took the snap and feigned a throw in the right flat to Boise's three-man bunch formation. As the Sooners flew in that direction, Zabransky calmly stuck the ball behind his back with his left hand -- a twist on the conventional handoff he'd convinced Harsin would work earlier in the season.

Johnson then crisply reversed course, circled behind Zabransky and lifted the ball from his grasp. Virtually unimpeded by a bamboozled defense, the nation's touchdown leader crossed the goal line one final time in this dream season.

Bedlam, commingled with outright shock at the audacity of the call, ensued.

Johnson charged to the corner stands where his 56 family members were gathered. He jumped into their embrace, only to bring a banister falling down on him, cutting his leg. Pain was incidental at this moment, though. After hugging his father, the idiosyncratic star runner "started moseying over" to his girlfriend, Chrissy Popadics.

Johnson actually got the idea while attending the Insight Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium last week. One of the Fiesta Bowl committee members, Tyler Hanson, suggested to Johnson that he propose postgame.

"Maybe I will," Johnson told Hanson.

Still, he opted to leave the engagement ring at the team hotel. Just in case things didn't turn out well in the game.

"I didn't want to bring it and then always remember a loss," he said.

In the locker room after the game, Johnson embraced a beaming Hanson, thanking him for his inspiration. Here's the play-by-play from the proposal:

Running back Ian Johnson proposed to girlfriend and Broncos cheerleader Chrissy Popadics after Boise State's win. With a national audience watching at home, Johnson dropped on one knee ("I nearly slipped") and asked for her hand in marriage. The poor girl, already delirious over the game's dramatic end, spluttered out a breathless acceptance. Johnson had pulled his finest misdirection play yet.

"I had my hopes up [for an impending engagement], but that was it," Popadics said. "We had talked about it and he said, 'Not for a while.'"

Explained Johnson: "There's no better time than on national TV after the game-winning two-point conversion."

Minutes later, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops classily jogged up a tunnel to congratulate Johnson. On the victory, I think. Not the proposal.

Johnson's teammates were surprised by No. 41's move. But not shocked.

"I came in with Ian freshman year, and he's a little different guy," safety Marty Tadman said -- and when the heavily tattooed Tadman says you're a little different, you're a little different. "You've got to think of the weirdest circumstance he'd do that in, and this is probably it."

No bowl game has ever ended with circumstances this weird, piled improbably upon one another. When the final plot twist had played out and the final trickeration had worked, Boise State had beaten Oklahoma with a magical mix of determination and imagination.

Cinderella joined forces with Lady Liberty. The result was part fairy tale, part American Dream come true.

Pat Forde is a senior writer

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