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Maligned Gators D gains confidence

Defense holds the Vols to 99 yards rushing and aids in several fumbles.

By JILL MARTIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- This time, no one was missing assignments. This time, there were fewer missed tackles.

This time, Florida's defense did not look confused.

For the first time this season, defensive coordinator John Thompson's system was executed correctly. And, judging by the numbers and Tennessee's mistakes, his system works.

"We knew we could play," free safety Todd Johnson said. "We just had to listen to him and we did that tonight."

Tennessee, which had averaged 162.5 yards rushing, was held to 99 yards. But the Vols' turnovers were more significant.

Tennessee had eight fumbles, including four straight in the final 4:55 of the first half. Quarterback Casey Clausen was responsible for three.

Florida's Marcus Oquendo-Johnson recovered his first fumble, leading to a scoring pass from Grossman to receiver Carlos Perez.

The second fumble came when Corey Larkins mishandled a kickoff return. No scoring damage was done -- Florida's first play was a pass by Grossman, which was intercepted by free safety Rashad Baker -- but it pinned the Vols at their 1-yard line.

Clausen then fumbled on the next two plays, but Tennessee recovered.

With the Vols trying to run out the clock in the second quarter, defensive end Clint Mitchell forced a fumble from fullback Troy Fleming, which he ran back 10 yards. That set up a final-play 41-yard field goal for Matt Leach.

Florida scored 10 points from Tennessee turnovers and led 24-0 at the half.

"It was like boom, boom, boom and then it was over," Mitchell said. "That put a really big smile on the defense's face. I think that took the momentum from them and made things much harder for them."

Before Saturday, the Gators defense was criticized because of high rushing totals against Miami and winless Ohio, allowing an average 211.3 yards. The Gators allowed 306 against the Hurricanes and 178 against the Bobcats.

Tennessee was held to one rushing touchdown. Though he was not sacked, Clausen was under pressure and was forced to run 11 times.

"I think the coaches had a great plan for us," defensive tackle Ian Scott said. "We just came out with the mind-set that enough was enough. We have great coaches that put us in great positions to make plays, we were better tacklers and I think we were a lot more disciplined on defense, and that helped us out."

One might think Saturday's performance by the defense would be viewed as vindication for Florida's players.

Not at all. The performance in Knoxville further solidified that Thompson's system is fundamentally sound when it is run correctly.

And now others may see that as well.

"We felt like we were just spit in our face," Johnson said. "Nobody respected us. We felt like it was a slap in our coaches' faces. We knew they're great coaches they have great schemes. We just weren't executing."

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