Jan. 7, 2007
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) -Coach Urban Meyer's biggest concern heading into Monday night's BCS national championship game is whether Florida's secondary will hold up against Ohio State.
Sure, All-American safety Reggie Nelson is a difference maker, and cornerback Ryan Smith leads the Southeastern Conference and is tied for third in the nation with eight interceptions.
But Nelson is dealing with the death of his mother, fellow safety Tony Joiner is recovering from a high ankle sprain, and Smith and Reggie Lewis are trying to bounce back from sub-par games against Florida State and Arkansas.
"Can we hang in against the pass? That's where we have been exposed a little bit," Meyer said.
Florida hasn't allowed 300 yards passing all season, but the defense gave up more than 225 yards through the air five times, including close games against Tennessee, Vanderbilt and South Carolina.
The secondary also gave up long scoring passes against the Seminoles and the Razorbacks.
Are the Gators worried about Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and talented receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez?
"It's not a concern of mine at all," Ryan Smith said. "We've done a good job all season. We've made plays all season."
Lewis was even more adamant that Florida will be fine.
"People think we're a team that Ohio State is going to blow out," Lewis said. "That's not going to happen. We're a talented team, just like Ohio State. We can match up with them day in and day out on the field. Coach Meyer always says don't pay attention to how the nation thinks. It's about the team. Our team believes we can beat anybody on any given day."
Maybe so, but the secondary has given Meyer cause for concern.
Nelson has six interceptions, countless big hits and was a finalist for the Thorpe Award. But his mother died Dec. 21 following a three-year battle with cancer.
Nelson hasn't been the same since. He barely spoke the week after his mother's death and has been slow to get back to normal.
The Gators expect Nelson to dedicate the title game to the memory of his mother and maybe play like his usual self, which means disrupting timing of receivers, dislodging passes and disallowing big plays.
If he doesn't, Florida could be in trouble.
Troy Smith has completed 67 percent of his passes for more than 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns. He has just five interceptions and has been sacked 13 times.
Ginn leads the Buckeyes with 59 receptions for 781 yards and nine scores. Gonzalez has 49 catches for 723 yards and eight touchdowns. They are as talented a duo as Florida has faced this season.
"Ohio State has a great offense and can make a play at any time," Lewis said. "Another point, though, is that we have a great defense and we too can make a play at any time. It's a nice matchup and it will be a great game to go down in history."
The Gators might have matchup problems, though.
Joiner injured his right ankle against Arkansas in the SEC championship game and missed several practices last month. He has shared repetitions this week with Dorian Munroe, a freshman who has played primarily on special teams.
Lewis, a 5-foot-10 senior whose career was almost nonexistent before this season, tripped while covering Arkansas' Marcus Monk and gave up a 48-yard TD catch. Lewis and Ryan Smith, also 5-10, each were out-jumped for touchdowns by bigger receivers against FSU.
But Lewis knows maybe better than anyone how to bounce back. He almost transferred after playing little as a receiver. Last year, he asked to move to defensive back and was thrust into the lineup because of a late-season injury. He got picked on regularly against Vanderbilt in 2005, then made the game-winning interception in overtime.
"That's motivation because coming from what I came from, you'd have never thought I'd be in this position," Lewis said. "I'm excited. When you get a chance to play in a national championship game, you can't ask for anything else. It's the biggest thing there is next to the Super Bowl, so if you don't have butterflies, there's something wrong with you."