Rebels play Gators close

Published 1:58 am Sunday, September 23, 2007

Florida coach Urban Meyer was right to be worried about his young Gators’ first road trip.

Tim Tebow set a school record for quarterbacks with 166 yards rushing and accounted for four touchdowns Saturday to lead the third-ranked Gators to a difficult 30-24 win at Mississippi.

Despite Tebow’s big numbers, it took a late Tony Joiner interception and a pair of time-consuming drives to put the pesky Rebels away in the defending national champions’ first challenge of the season.

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“I’m just anxious to get on the plane and get the hell out of here,” Meyer said.

Meyer was concerned the Gators (4-0) weren’t ready to travel after three home wins in which they averaged 55 points. Thirty-five players, including 18 true freshmen, were making their first road trip and Florida made a one-hour bus drive from nearby Tupelo before the game’s early start.

The effects of the trip showed most notably in Florida’s 14 penalties for 127 yards, which Meyer called “just awful.”

While many of the Gators seemed lethargic, Tebow did not. He ran the spread option offense in workmanlike fashion, taking what Ole Miss (1-3) gave him underneath and never forcing the deep pass. The sophomore led the Gators to their 11th straight win and 19th in their last 20.

The victory also snapped a three-game losing streak in the state of Mississippi, but it was the first time since last year’s Southeastern Conference championship game that Florida failed to score 38 points or more. It was the third straight loss for Ole Miss.

“It was a fourth-quarter fight,” Tebow said. “It’s a huge win. There’s a lot to learn and get better, but you can do that in a more positive fashion when you win.”

Percy Harvin had a career-high 11 catches for 121 yards and a touchdown, a 19-yarder in the second quarter that helped the Gators to a 14-6 halftime lead.

Tebow gave Florida some separation at the start of the second half when he engineered a pair of touchdown drives. He scored on a 6-yard run, then hit Louis Murphy with a 37-yard pass down the center for a 27-9 lead with 5:17 left in the third quarter.

Florida appeared to be pulling away after the Rebels had to settle for field-goal attempts for much of the first three quarters.

However, Ole Miss quarterback Seth Adams, whose availability was in question because he sprained his right shoulder against Vanderbilt last week, led the Rebels back with the deep pass.

Adams threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Shay Hodge with 2:47 remaining in the third, cutting Florida’s lead to 27-16. Then he hit Mike Wallace in stride on the next series for a 71-yard score. His 2-point conversion pass to Marshay Green made it 27-24 with a quarter to play.

Joiner intercepted Adams on the Rebels’ next drive, and Tebow followed with 37 yards rushing on a 12-play, 53-yard drive that took 5:55 and ended with Joey Ijjas’ 25-yard field goal.

That score took the oomph out of the Rebels’ rally and they failed to make a first down with a fake punt on their final drive.

Tebow, who was the nation’s No. 2 passer coming into the game, finished with 261 yards passing. In addition, he was the first quarterback to go over 100 yards at Florida since 1977 when Terry LeCount had 108 against Georgia.

“We were nervous for a while,” defensive end Derrick Harvey said. “But thank goodness we’ve got Tim Tebow on our team.”

Ole Miss was able to move the ball on the Gators’ young defense with 390 yards of total offense, but struggled each time it traveled deep into Florida territory, mostly because of ill-timed penalties.

Still the performance was heartening to the Rebels, who were reeling from a 31-17 loss at Vanderbilt last week.

“This team just came together,” Adams said. “It’s an amazing thing when you get all these guys on the same page and ready to play.”