Gators seek cure for wobbly legs

Published October 29, 2006

JACKSONVILLE - In a tailback's league, it was a tailback's time.

The lead was dwindling, and the clock was moving in slow motion. The momentum was gone, and the defense looked weary. There was a lot of turf to travel, a lot of clock to eat.

According to SEC bylaws, in other words, it was time for the Florida Gators to hand off, to lunge forward and to run away and hide.

Provided, of course, Urban Meyer could somehow remember the primary use of a running back.

The Gators won the darndest game in the strangest way Saturday. They held off Georgia, again. This time, they did it with one back tied behind Meyer's hand.

This is the SEC, for crying out loud. This is the league of Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson, of Emmitt Smith and George Rogers, of Cadillac Williams and Neal Anderson and a hundred others.

Also, of Percy Harvin.

And Andre Caldwell.

And Tim Tebow.

And Chris Leak.

You know, the Four Horsemen.

And so it went. Through three-and-a-half quarters, everyone ran the ball but the most likely candidate to do so. Harvin, a wide receiver, ran it seven times. Caldwell, another wide receiver, ran it five. Tebow, the freshman quarterback, ran it six times. Leak, also a quarterback, ran it five. If you count a fumble, even defensive end Ray McDonald ran it once.

As for DeShawn Wynn, the tailback?

Until the Gators had no other choice, Wynn was a ghost, a decoy, a memory. He didn't run the ball at all in the first half, and he touched it only once in the third quarter. No other Florida tailback ran the ball, either. If Bear Bryant were still alive, the sight of it might have killed him.

To tell the truth, it wasn't doing Wynn any good, either. Meyer had evidently decided the best way to win was to give him the ball as seldom as possible, and it was driving him crazy.

Finally, late in the third quarter, Wynn couldn't stand it any more. He approached Meyer. "Give me the ball," Wynn said, "and I'll move the chains for you."

Meyer picked up the phone to his coaches upstairs. "No. 21 wants the ball," he said.

In that moment, perhaps a coach and a player learned a little something about each other. Perhaps Meyer saw a spark that he hadn't seen in Wynn beforehand. Perhaps Wynn saw what he had to do to meet Meyer's expectations.

"He kind of got right in my grill and said he wanted the ball," Meyer said. "He hadn't done that a lot. Earlier, if he had, I don't know if I would have listened to him. But I have a lot more respect for DeShawn. We're going to give him the ball more and more. He's earned that."

There for a moment, Saturday's game looked dicey. Tebow had just fumbled away a touchdown, and the Gators found themselves at their own 10 with 8:17 to play. The offense was sputtering, the quarterbacks were struggling, and suddenly, there was a light in the eyes of the Bulldogs.

From that point on, Wynn carried the ball seven times for 33 yards, and because of him, the Gators ate up 3:24 with one possession and the final 3:50 with another. There in the final innings, he was Mariano Rivera, staving off a comeback.

"It was all about wanting the ball," Wynn said. "Coach Meyer likes it when you get in his face. It gives him confidence. That isn't my personality, but I really wanted the ball."

After the game, Meyer tried to let Wynn off the hook somewhat by talking about how beaten up he was and how Wynn hasn't been able to practice. Wynn wasn't having any.

"I'm not hurt," he said. When he was told Meyer had talked of how beaten up he was, Wynn said: "Yeah, a little. But what running back isn't beaten up?"

In the SEC, there is one reason a coach doesn't use a tailback. That's when a coach doesn't believe he has a tailback. And, yeah, some of that was going on, too. Meyer and Wynn have never been an easy fit, and Wynn has never completely relocated from the doghouse. It was as if Meyer was telling his tailbacks that if need be, he'll find another way to move the ball.

Perhaps it worked. For a tailback, nothing is more important than getting the ball. For a coach, nothing is more important than his back treasuring the chance. If the two of them finally get each other, that's a victory of its own.

For the Gators, after all, there are crucial games ahead. Crucial third and 2s, too.

Gary Shelton can be reached at 727 893-8805 or at gshelton@sptimes.com.