JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Tim Tebow faked the handoff to running back Jeff Demps, juked past a Georgia defender in the backfield and wiggled his way through the middle of field.
After bursting past the line of scrimmage and evading a tackle from Georgia safety Bryan Evans, Tebow ran untouched into the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown late in the first half.
In the grand scheme of Florida’s 41-17 win over Georgia on that Halloween night in 2009, Tebow’s touchdown run was just one of five trips to the end zone for the Gators.
But for Tebow, the play meant so much more.
Because on that play, Tebow scored his 50th career rushing touchdown — breaking Herschel Walker’s record for most career rushing touchdowns by an SEC player. Tebow would extend his total to 55 by the end of the 2009 season. His record still stands today.
He gave the ball he used to score the record-breaking touchdown to his father for Christmas.
“So many plays and moments that were special,” Tebow said Friday, “… [but] that’ll be my favorite memory.”
And Tebow, who was inducted into the Florida-Georgia Hall of Fame on Friday, has a lot of them.
The annual neutral-site rivalry game was played in his backyard growing up in Jacksonville. His parents, both of whom went to the University of Florida, had their first date in the 1960s at a Florida-Georgia game.
And then there are the four years of being part of the storied rivalry as a member of the Gators from 2006-2009.
His heart fluttered every time they drove over the Hart Bridge and saw the two contrasting seas of fans — one orange and blue, the other red and black — outside the stadium.
On the field, though, Tebow excelled in the series just like he did during his four-year collegiate career.
Tebow was 2-1 as a starter for Florida in the rivalry game against the Bulldogs. Over his four years, he threw for 554 yards and 5 touchdowns on a 69.6-percent completion rate and added 145 rushing yards and 5 rushing touchdowns. He did not throw an interception against the Bulldogs.
“It was a big part of my life in college,” Tebow said, “and I think it’ll be a part of my life for a long time.”
That includes this weekend, as Tebow is back in his hometown as part of the SEC Network’s pregame show SEC Nation.
As Tebow — eight years removed from playing in the rivalry — sits back and watches the Gators (3-3, 3-2 SEC) take on the third-ranked Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0 SEC) on Saturday, he hopes his alma mater will continue to fight despite being a heavy underdog in the matchup.
“You have to rely on physicality, on pride and knowing that this is a rivalry game,” Tebow said. “When you’re a player at Florida or at Georgia, you’re not judged on the cupcakes at the beginning of the season. You’re judged by the rivalry games and you’re judged on those big moments.”
And this is a big moment for Florida. It would be a marquee win for third-year coach Jim McElwain and a chance for the Gators to turn the tide of their season that has seen its share of ups and downs — from the preseason suspensions to the last-second wins to the close home losses. A loss would essentially eliminate the Gators from winning the SEC East for the third straight year and mean they’re playing the season for pride and bowl eligibility.
“They have a chance to totally change their season if they go in there and get it done,” Tebow said.
While Tebow wouldn’t go as far as to say he was going to pick the Gators to pull off the upset, he said nothing is off-limits or far-fetched in a rivalry game at a neutral-site where momentum can swing on the fly.
“Anything can happen in this game,” Tebow said.