GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Tim Tebow stood on the sideline with his eyes closed. He couldn’t bear to watch, not after seeing so much go wrong all afternoon.
Maybe he should have peeked. After all, he missed what might go down as the most important field goal in Florida history.
Tebow directed a 69-yard drive in the final minutes, setting up Caleb Sturgis’ 27-yard field goal with 9 seconds remaining that gave the top-ranked Gators a 23-20 win against Arkansas on Saturday.
“Once I heard everybody cheering and opened my eyes and saw we made the field goal, that was fun,” Tebow said.
The rest of the game wasn’t nearly as enjoyable.
On a day when little went right for the Gators (6-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference), Tebow took over down the stretch and helped extend the nation’s longest win streak to 16 games. He threw for 255 yards and a touchdown, ran for 69 more and saved his best plays for when Florida needed him most.
That final drive may have been Tebow’s Heisman moment. It kept Florida unbeaten and likely No. 1 in the country. It also may have preserved the team’s chances of repeating as national champion.
“I always knew we had a shot,” Tebow said. “We were just going to keep believing until the last second.”
The 2007 Heisman Trophy winner threw for 30 yards and ran for 22 on the final drive. Three plays stood out: His 12-yard pass to Riley Cooper on third down (Cooper fell down, then caught the ball on one knee) and consecutive runs that gained 16 yards and put Sturgis well within his comfort zone.
Sturgis overcame an early miss and finished with three field goals, including a 51-yarder in the third. For much of the day, it was Florida’s best play.
Just about everything that could go wrong for the Gators did. They had four turnovers, three dropped passes, were gashed against the run and gave up more big plays in one game than they had all season. They missed a field goal and scored once in their first four trips inside the 20-yard line.
“You usually don’t win that kind of game,” coach Urban Meyer said.
But after struggling to move the ball on a relatively cool, sun-drenched afternoon, Tebow led the Gators to scores on three of their final four possessions.
He hooked up with Deonte Thompson on a 77-yard TD that gave Florida its first lead of the game, 13-10 with 2:59 to play in the third. Another deep pass to Thompson drew a pass-interference penalty and set up Jeff Demps’ 10-yard TD run that tied the game at 20 midway through the fourth.
Tebow put Florida in position for the game-winner with a 14-play drive that took almost all the time off the clock.
“When it came down to it, you knew we were going to play with a little bit more heart and our guys were going to dig a little bit deeper, and they did,” Tebow said.
The Razorbacks (3-3, 1-3) entered the game with the league’s worst-rated defense. But they hardly looked the part Saturday. They stuffed Florida’s high-powered running game, sacked Tebow six times and forced the Gators into several mistakes.
“I think somebody held onto the ball too long,” Meyer said, putting much of the blame on his star player. “Six sacks and four turnovers? I’m going to get him in here and start yelling at him. We’ve got to get that fixed immediately.”
A week after knocking off Auburn, Arkansas showed it’s making fast progress under second-year coach Bobby Petrino.
Ryan Mallett threw for 224 yards, Dennis Johnson ran for 107 in place of injured starter Michael Smith (hamstring) and Greg Childs caught four passes for 135 yards.
Arkansas made a few costly mistakes, though.
Mallett overthrew fullback Van Stumon, who was wide open in the end zone, and Arkansas settled for a field goal that tied it at 13 late in the third. Then Alex Tejada yanked a 38-yard field goal with 3:08 remaining that would have put his team ahead.
“We played our hearts out all night,” defensive end Jake Bequette said. “It hurts. Right there with No. 1 team in the nation. Take the positives from this: Can play anyone, anywhere, anytime.”
Added Mallett: “We had a chance to win against the No. 1 team in the country and we couldn’t pull it out.”
Tebow did. The finish, though, probably won’t let Florida forget the start.
The Gators had three turnovers on consecutive possessions in the first half, including two fumbles by Tebow and another by tight end Aaron Hernandez.
“The worst first half we’ve ever play,” Meyer said. “I’m not pleased with where we’re at. But I understand the game and understand where we’re at.”
Defense kept the Gators close. They sacked Mallett four times and pressured him often enough that he completed just 12 of 27 passes. They did it without three starters, too.
Star linebacker Brandon Spikes, who entered the game with a team-high 32 tackles and three sacks, injured his left groin early in the game and did not return. Defensive tackles Lawrence Marsh (ankle) and Jaye Howard (knee) didn’t even suit up.
“I don’t think they really missed a step,” Mallett said. “We just have a good offense. You’ve got to give us a little credit. They’ve never seen an offense like ours all year and probably won’t for the rest of the year.”