BATON ROUGE, La. — He was nervous, no doubt about that. Tim Tebow was holding on for dear life, and praying he wouldn't get sick.
For all he had been through the past two weeks — the hit in the Kentucky game, the vomiting on the sideline, the ambulance ride and hospital stay, the neurological tests and the minute-by-minute news coverage of his recovery from a concussion — this was the part he dreaded most.
Not the bright lights and thunderous noise at Tiger Stadium. Not the first blitz by cornerback Patrick Peterson. Not the bumping, banging or battering. No, it was the plane flight through turbulent weather that scared the motion sickness-prone quarterback.
The truth is, the flight was the last hurdle Tebow had to survive before he could start against LSU on Saturday night. UF coach Urban Meyer had decided a couple of days earlier that he would trust the medical recommendations that Tebow was fit to play, just as long as the senior got through the 90-minute flight to Baton Rouge without suffering any setbacks.
So Meyer figured out his quarterback had passed his final medical check Saturday morning when he walked into a meeting room, and Tebow wore a big grin with his thumb in the air.
"It was a tough (decision) for me," Meyer said. "I kept saying, 'Would I play my son?' Tim is my son. He's part of the family."
Once the decision was made, the rest was relatively easy for Tebow and the Gators. Meyer toned down the gameplan to keep the pressure off Tebow, but Florida's defense and running game more than offset the conservative playcalling in a 13-3 victory.
Now it is fair to say it was not the greatest night of Tebow's career. Not for a player with two national championship rings and a Heisman Trophy. If you want to be picky, you might even argue that Tebow has rarely had such mundane numbers in such a big game.
The game's real stars were everywhere else. The offensive linemen who blew open holes in the middle of the LSU defense. Or the guys on defense who have now given up two touchdowns in the season's first five games.
The truth is, Tebow played a supporting role on Saturday night. For much of the first half, the Gators adjusted their offense to limit his role. Yet, in a way, this could be portrayed as a defining game in a career that has been among the best in college football history.
You see, Tebow has always been more than the sum of his statistics. His appeal has been more visceral. More emotional. He has been the picture of decorum off the field, and the embodiment of toughness on it.
"Courageous is a good word. Toughness," Meyer said. "All of the above."
In the end, Tebow's numbers were pretty pedestrian. He threw for 134 yards and ran for 38. He admitted that he avoided a few hits he might have normally taken but said he never felt tentative or lightheaded.
Thirty minutes after the game, he was joking and looking relaxed. He had no cuts or bruises, just a motion sickness patch under his right ear for the plane flight home.
"I think I played smart. I wasn't going to play tentative or scared, because that's not me, but I tried to play smart," Tebow said. "I avoided some of the hits I might have normally taken."
In the end, the concussion played a minor role in the night's drama. Tebow seemed tentative early but was running the ball more and more as the game continued. Prior to Saturday night, Tebow had either run or passed the ball on about 65 percent of Florida's plays when he was in the game. And that's what made Florida's gameplan so interesting in the first half. The ratio of Tebow plays was virtually opposite of Florida's first four games. Tebow's number was called less than 40 percent of the time.
Yet the plan worked for the most part. The Gators did not generate a ton of offense, but they held on to the ball for long stretches. It wasn't until the final minutes of the first half that Tebow began to look like his old self. After moving to the LSU 29, Tebow went up the middle on consecutive running plays to pick up a first down.
Then, with 57 seconds remaining, Tebow faked a handoff, looked left then turned right and threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Riley Cooper to put Florida up 10-3.
It was one of only six passes Tebow threw in the first half but, then again, numbers have never been the best way to measure him.
For all the talk of the quarterback's head during the past two weeks, you saw his best attribute on Saturday night.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]