TAMPA — With Florida clinging to a six-point lead late in the fourth quarter Saturday, a flood of memories rushed to senior strong safety Ahmad Black.
Penn State had marched more than 50 yards deep into Florida territory, and with just more than a minute left, the Nittany Lions looked poised to spoil Black's final game in a Gators uniform. But Black thought back to the most important game he ever played.
"They were driving down the field, and I was thinking, 'We need a play, we need a play,' " he said. "That was similar to the (2008) national championship game. They were running the ball up and down our throat, getting first down after first down. We had to come up with some way to stop them."
Like he did against Sam Bradford and the Oklahoma Sooners his sophomore season, when he helped seal Florida's victory with an interception, Black stepped in front of a pass intended for Penn State tight end Kevin Haplea and returned the ball 80 yards for a touchdown as the Gators closed their season with a 37-24 win in the Outback Bowl.
"That's a storybook ending for him, to take the interception back and point at the crowd," freshman cornerback Cody Riggs said. "There's nothing else you could ask for, nothing better for him."
On his way into the end zone, Black thought about spiking the ball but nixed the idea, telling coach Urban Meyer he remembered a less glamorous moment from his sophomore campaign.
After returning an interception for a touchdown in 2008, Black formed an "L" with his arms as a shoutout to Lakeland, his hometown. Meyer scolded him on the sideline after the celebration, threatening to bench the safety if he showboated again.
So this time, Black held back.
"Ahmad Black is one of my closest friends," Meyer said. "I can call him a friend now because he's not my player; he's family. Ahmad Black is not the Ahmad Black we got four years ago. Ahmad Black has turned into a grown man."
Black led Florida with six tackles, two interceptions and two pass breakups on his way to MVP honors. The effort was a fitting finale for the player who led the Gators with 108 tackles and five interceptions this season.
While those stats make Black a clear favorite among Florida coaches and teammates, his future is in doubt because of other numbers: 5 feet 9, 190 pounds.
Still, Black said he has read the criticism and doesn't care.
"I guess I'm too small and too slow," he said, minutes after hoisting the MVP trophy.