Florida's hopes of another national title appear to be over after a remarkable Saturday night in Death Valley.
The Tigers barely converted a pair of fourth-down runs on their final drive before Jacob Hester powered over from the 2-yard line with 1:09 remaining, completing a stunning comeback that gave LSU a 28-24 victory over the No. 9 Gators.
Tim Tebow shredded the nation's top-ranked defense for three quarters, giving Florida a 24-14 lead with 15 minutes remaining. He threw for a pair of touchdowns and ran for another.
But LSU (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference), top-ranked in the AP poll for the first time in 58 years, kept rolling the dice and coming up with winners. The Tigers scored two touchdowns on fourth-down plays and another after pulling off a fake field goal. Then, on the game's decisive drive, they finally hit the jackpot.
Florida (4-2, 2-2) failed to bounce back from a last-play loss to Auburn the previous week, giving coach Urban Meyer his first two-game losing streak since he was at Bowling Green in 2002 and likely snuffing out the Gators' chances of repeating as national champions.
Hester bulled his way into the end zone for LSU's first lead of the game. When the Tigers knocked down Tebow's final long pass in the end zone, the record crowd of 92,910 let out its biggest roar of all.
The Tigers should still be No. 1 when the poll comes out Sunday. And, with second-ranked Southern California losing to Stanford in a 24-23 stunner, really there's no doubt about it.
"We took great strides in showing our character and ability to come from behind," coach Les Miles said. "I like the way this team is coming together."
Miles should head straight to one of those casinos on the Mississippi River after this one.
Backup quarterback Ryan Perilloux scored on a fourth-and-goal run from the 1 in the second quarter. Starting quarterback Matt Flynn pulled off a fake field goal that led to Keiland Williams' 4-yard TD run in the third quarter. And Flynn tossed a 4-yard scoring pass to Demetrius Byrd on fourth-and-goal with 10:15 remaining.
But the Tigers weren't done. Not by a longest of long shots.
First, with seven minutes left and the ball on their side of midfield, LSU passed up a punt and went for it needing nearly 2 yards. Hester took the handoff and put his head down. The chains came on after he was tackled. First down by about the length of the football.
"I gamble more than you think," Miles said with the devilish grin of someone who doubled down and hit blackjack. "Their offense is a possession offense. ... They keep the ball. We knew if we got some fourth-down opportunities, we were going to make those calls. We just didn't know if we were going to make 'em."
They did, over and over again.
LSU kept driving down the field, but found itself facing another fourth-and-1 at the Florida 6. Most coaches would have taken a chip-shot field goal and their chances in overtimes. Not Miles, who apparently decided this was the night all the cards were going his way. He also was mindful that kicker Colt David already had missed two attempts.
Hester got the ball again and dove forward. The chains came out again. Another first down with less than a yard to spare.
Finally, facing third-and-goal from just outside the 2, the Tigers decided to do things the easy way. Hester took another handoff on virtually the same play that had worked twice before, falling into the end zone with his 23rd carry of the night.
Flynn leaped into the air and pumped his right fist. Touchdown, LSU.
Hester, who finished with 106 bruising yards, was shaken up on the winning score. But he finally got up and trotted off the field to a second rousing ovation, the capper on another magical Saturday night at Tiger Stadium.
LSU improved to 30-2 at home over the last five years.
Tebow got the ball across midfield on the final possession. But his final, desperate heave was batted down in the back of the end zone.
"I don't know if I've ever done this, but I guarantee we'll be back," Meyer said defiantly. "The Florida Gators will be back. Smokin'."
Facing a defense that had two shutouts and was allowing less than 175 yards per game, Tebow passed for 158 yards and rushed for 75. But the Gators had two crucial turnovers in the second half, which allowed LSU to get back into the game after twice falling behind by 10 points.
"It is something that just cannot happen," Tebow said. "We have got to straighten it out."
The Associated Press News Service
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