BATON ROUGE, La. – Florida coach Urban Meyer didn't offer any tears this time. He instead issued a promise.
"I don't know if I've ever done this, but I guarantee we'll be back," Meyer said Saturday after Florida's heartbreaking 28-24 loss to top-ranked LSU. "The Florida Gators will be back smokin.' ''
But it won't be this season.
The Gators' chances of winning a second consecutive national title disintegrated with perhaps the most crushing defeat of Meyer's three-year coaching tenure. Jacob Hester's 2-yard touchdown run with 1:09 left allowed LSU to squeak out a victory over Florida. The Tigers made three fourth-down conversions in their final two touchdown drives to erase a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit.
This loss proved even more painful than the Gators' 21-17 setback at LSU two years ago. Meyer capped that day's post-game news conference with tears. He highlighted this one with a vow that Florida would reclaim its place among the nation's elite teams.
"I don't know when," Meyer said. "I can't make that (promise) yet. I've got to see how everybody responds, but we'll come back."
The Gators nearly put themselves right back in the national title hunt Saturday before they stumbled down the stretch. Florida couldn't have scripted most of the evening's events any better.
Tim Tebow threw two touchdown passes and ran for a third score as Florida grabbed a 24-14 fourth-quarter lead over an LSU team accustomed to putting teams away early, especially at home.
USC already had lost 24-23 to 41-point underdog Stanford earlier in the night, raising hopes that a one-loss Florida team again could work its way back into title contention.
"We should have won," Tebow said. "There's no doubt about it. We should have won.
"We've just got to finish the game and play all four quarters."
FLORIDA AT LSU
Offensive player of the game
LSU RB Jacob Hester rushed for a game-high 106 yards on 23 carries and scored the winning touchdown on a 2-yard run with 1:09 left. Hester also had a pair of huge 2-yard gains on fourth-and-1 situations during the Tigers' winning drive.
Defensive players of the game
Florida sophomore DE Jermaine Cunningham delivered a breakthrough performance by collecting 17 tackles – 10 solos – and breaking up two passes. LSU SS Craig Steltz made 16 tackles, which represented the highest single-game total by an LSU player since LB Bradie James had 18 against Arkansas on Nov. 29, 2002.
Florida owned a 24-14 lead early in the fourth quarter when a Tim Tebow pass bounced off the helmet of tight end Cornelius Ingram and landed in the arms of defensive end Kirston Pittman at the Gators' 27. LSU went on to score a touchdown on its ensuing drive and outscored Florida 14-0 the rest of the game.
Florida CB Joe Haden was a true freshman who came of age Saturday night. Haden compiled 10 tackles – two for loss – and made his first career interception.
Best call, part one
Two weeks after an LSU fake field goal resulted in a touchdown against South Carolina, a similar gamble paid off for the Tigers. LSU trailed 17-7 in the third quarter when Colt David lined up for a 42-yard field goal. LSU QB Matt Flynn served as the holder, took the snap and raced toward the right sideline for an 8-yard gain. Keiland Williams capped the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run.
Best call, part two
LSU trailed 24-14 early in the fourth quarter when it decided to go for a touchdown on fourth-and-3 from the 4 instead of relying on a field goal. The gamble paid off when Flynn threw a touchdown pass to Demetrius Byrd.
Best call, part three
Trailing 24-21 in the closing minutes, LSU faced fourth-and-1 from Florida's 7. Rather than attempting a chip-shot field goal that would have tied the game, the Tigers again went for the first down. Hester delivered a 2-yard gain and later scored the winning touchdown on another 2-yard run.
Florida had a first down on its 47 late in the first quarter when four Gators lined up wide and three of them never left the line of scrimmage. Tebow rolled to his left on the play and was sacked by Glenn Dorsey for a 7-yard loss. Florida still went on to score a touchdown on that drive with help from an interference penalty on LB Darry Beckwith on a third-down incompletion.
What this means for Florida
Even in a season as unpredictable as this one, it's hard to imagine a two-loss team playing for the national title. Florida's hopes of repeating appear over, but the Gators remain in SEC title contention. Florida has next week off before traveling to Kentucky on Oct. 13 as it begins its quest for a rematch with LSU in the SEC championship game.
What this means for LSU
The Tigers should begin the week atop all major polls following USC's stunning 24-23 loss to Stanford.
What this means for Tennessee
No, the Vols weren't playing in this game, but they may have been the biggest beneficiaries of LSU's victory. Tennessee's triumph over Georgia and Florida's loss to LSU allows the Vols to control their own destiny in the SEC Eastern Division. Tennessee benefits from the fact it doesn't have LSU on its schedule. South Carolina is the only other East team to control its destiny; it already has lost to LSU.
LSU mascot Mike VI made his debut appearance at Tiger Stadium before the game. … The announced attendance of 92,910 was the largest crowd in Tiger Stadium history. … LSU has recorded at least one sack in 25 consecutive games. … LSU is 6-0 for the first time since 1973. … LSU's 17th consecutive home win ties a school record. The Tigers also won 17 home games in a row from 1935-37.
For the first three quarters, anyway, Tebow appeared on his way to establishing himself as a Heisman Trophy favorite while resurrecting the Gators' title hopes. The guy who became a household name last season by jumping in the air to throw a 1-yard touchdown pass against LSU haunted the Tigers again with similarly improbable plays.
With the Gators facing second-and-goal from the Tigers' 2, Tebow raced to his left at full speed and appeared intent on trying to run into the end zone. But just as linebacker Darry Beckwith converged on him, Tebow tossed a pass to tailback Kestahn Moore, who caught the pass at the front of the end zone.
Later in the first half, Tebow rolled to his right, pump faked and cut across the middle for a 9-yard touchdown run that extended the Gators' lead to 17-7. He then threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Cornelius Ingram to make it 24-14 midway through the third period.
When LSU kicker Colt David's 37-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide left with 12:52 left – his second missed field goal of the night - the Tigers looked doomed. That's when a fortunate bounce allowed LSU to get back into the game.
On Florida's next possession, Tebow's second-down pass ricocheted off Ingram's helmet and into the arms of defensive end Kirston Pittman at Florida's 27. Tebow said he was attempting to throw farther downfield to Andre Caldwell and indicated Ingram wasn't supposed to be in that area of the field.
"We had a little miscommunication in the play," Tebow said.
Five plays later, Matt Flynn took a page out of Tebow's book and pretended to run for the end zone on fourth-and-3 from Florida's 4. Once linebacker Brandon Spikes broke toward him, Flynn pulled up and threw to a wide-open Demetrius Byrd for a touchdown.
Everything went downhill for the Gators from there.
Brandon James stepped out of bounds at his 14-yard line on the ensuing kickoff return. LSU forced a three-and-out. The Tigers then went on an eight-minute drive that won the game.
Florida had numerous opportunities to stop LSU on the drive. Hester gained 2 yards on fourth-and-1 from his LSU's 49, one play after Flynn had scrambled for 15. And when the Tigers faced fourth-and-1 from Florida's 7 in the closing minutes, LSU coach Les Miles refused to send in David for an attempt at a game-tying field goal.
Instead, LSU handed the ball to Hester, whose 2-yard burst produced one more first down. Hester finally delivered a 2-yard touchdown run on third-and-goal.
"Everyone played their hearts out," said Florida cornerback Joe Haden, who had an interception in the first quarter. "It just didn't fall correctly. No one could have played any harder than we did."
Except, perhaps, for LSU.
The Tigers entered the night having outscored opponents 174-17 in the first quarter of home games during Miles' three-year tenure, but the team that usually buries foes early spent most of the night digging its own grave.
Flynn threw an interception on their first pass of the night, and the Tigers committed a critical pass interference penalty to keep the Gators' first touchdown drive alive. Instead of falling apart after all those mistakes, LSU regrouped and delivered the knockout blow that Florida failed to land.
Miles may have paid Florida's offense the ultimate compliment when he explained why he kept going for it on fourth down.
"The opportunity to keep the ball was something you had to do," Miles said. "Their offense would give every defense in the country a difficult time."
By the time Florida got the ball back after Hester's touchdown, the Gators needed to travel 80 yards in just 69 seconds. The Gators got to LSU's 46 before a desperation pass in the end zone was knocked down as time expired.
"We just wanted 30 more seconds," Tebow said.
Florida's high-powered offense even found some semblance of balance against the nation's top-ranked defense. After relying almost entirely on Tebow to carry the team for most of the season, the Gators more contributions from other players Saturday.
Tebow wasn't the Gators' leading rusher for the first time in three weeks, though he still gained 67 yards on 16 carries. That honor instead belonged to Moore, who had carried the ball just three times a week earlier in a 20-17 loss to Auburn.
Moore gained 79 yards on 12 carries and also had a touchdown catch, though he also had a critical fumble at midfield late in the third quarter when the Gators led 24-14 and appeared to be driving toward a game-clinching score.