UF 30, TENNESSEE 13: All the breaks go the Gators' way late in the second quarter, and Ron Zook gets his first big victory as Florida's coach.
|[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Florida kicker Matt Leach (14) and his teammates celebrate a field goal just before the half, which gave the Gators a 24-0 lead against Tennessee.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Coach Phillip Fulmer waited 10 long years to get rid of Steve Spurrier. Spurrier's gone and Fulmer and the Volunteers still can't shake the Gators.
With Florida's former coach in the NFL and the Gators struggling for a first-year head coach, Tennessee appeared primed to take over as king of the SEC East.
The Vols were four-point favorites, playing at home and undefeated.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the top of the mountain. The Gators refused to step aside.
|[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Rex Grossman celebrates Florida's first touchdown Saturday in UF's victory over Tennessee.
Tenth-ranked Florida (3-1, 1-0) went into Neyland Stadium on Saturday, rediscovered its passing game, ran when necessary and scored 24 points in the final 4:55 of the first half on the way to a 30-13 win against the nation's No. 4 team in front of a stunned crowd of 108,722.
"This feels so good," said Florida receiver Carlos Perez, who scored his first touchdown of the season on a 28-yard pass with 3:40 left in the second quarter. "We came out here and won against all odds. Everybody picked us not to win and we came out here and showed that the Gators are still alive. We showed a tremendous amount of heart."
With the victory, Ron Zook became the first Florida coach to defeat a Top 5 team on the road in his first season.
Several Tennessee players said last week that the psychological advantage was squarely in their favor. After all, the Vols defeated Florida last season, in Gainesville, to end Florida's chances of playing for the SEC title and the national championship.
But it was Florida that played like the team with everything on its side. The defense that had been porous against the run this season held the Vols to 99 yards rushing. Florida allowed Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen to go 30-for-44 for 285 yards, but his success rarely translated into trips into the end zone.
With heavy rain and a sloppy field hampering playing conditions, the Vols fell victim to their own critical mistakes: eight fumbles, including three lost, tying a single-game record.
"I was very disappointed in the loss," Fulmer said. "The buck starts and stops with me. We made enough mistakes to lose two games out there."
Neither team scored in the first quarter. Tennessee had Alex Walls' 27-yard field-goal attempt blocked by Florida's Ian Scott with 2:50 remaining.
Florida capped a nine-play, 84-yard drive with a 1-yard run by Earnest Graham with 4:55 left in the second quarter to take a 7-0 lead.
Then Tennessee's mishaps the rest of the half became Florida's gains.
A Clausen fumble, recovered by Marcus Oquendo-Johnson, led to the 28-yard touchdown pass from Florida quarterback Rex Grossman to Perez.
Just like that Florida led 14-0.
"If I can't get the snap, we can't run the play, so it's something we have to work on," Clausen said.
The Vols (2-1, 0-1) fumbled three snaps in four plays in their next drive, prompting a punt. Six plays and 62 yards later, Grossman connected with Taylor Jacobs for a 7-yard pass and a 21-0 lead with 35 seconds left in the half.
Jacobs caught nine passes for 141 yards, including a 52-yarder to set up Florida's first score.
"Coach told us before this game that all we needed to win was the people in this room," said Jacobs, who had 23 receiving yards against Ohio and 56 against Miami in the Gators' two previous games. "The people in the room are what make our world go around. We tried to remember that and play to the best of our ability even though we were the underdog coming in."
Then with two seconds remaining in the half, defensive end Clint Mitchell caused and recovered a fumble. Florida's Matt Leach hit a season-best 42-yard field goal with no time on the clock to give the Gators a 24-0 halftime lead.
Clausen's 15-yard pass to Derrick Tinsley pulled the Vols to within 24-7 with 9:51 left in the third quarter. On its next possession, Tennessee put together a 14-play drive that culminated with a 1-yard run by Jabari Davis. The extra point sailed wide left, leaving the Vols trailing 24-13.
By no means were the Gators perfect. Grossman was sacked four times and again was pressured most of the game.
But when it counted most, the much-maligned offensive line gave Grossman enough time to get things done. And when necessary he gave himself time, scrambling for yards on crucial plays. He was 20-for-35 for 324 yards and two interceptions.
"This is a real testament to the heart of this team that we came in here and did what we did," right guard David Jorgensen said.
For Zook, it was a testament to a team holding things together when most thought it was ready to fall apart.
"This is a great win for our program, but we've got a long way to go," Zook said. "It's big. I'm going to enjoy this one tonight, but we've got to be ready to go next week."
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