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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.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2002


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.

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.

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."

0987$temp$ $STPT$

ID:+ Paper:+

Date: 9/22/02 Page: 0+

Section: COLUMNS Byline: GARY SHELTON+

Headline: Rex is slingin' in the rain

Notes:+

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Rex Grossman wants you to get this straight. The dance meant nothing, okay

He stood on the soggy field of Rocky Top, hipping and hopping, movin' to the groovin'. Hey, a guy gets happy feet sometimes. Is that so wrong?

Oh, and answering critics? This had nothing to do with that, either. So what if people had used him for a dart board lately? So what if his own fans were acting as if the best part of him had boarded a jet for Washington? Hey, a guy has to take a little heat, right?

The Heisman? Nah, this had nothing to do with the Heisman. This was just a guy taking 108,000 people to his back yard, where he proceeded to put on a show.

On the day of his greatest performance, Grossman almost pulled off another one. He stood in a concrete room in the bowels of Neyland Stadium, shrugging off vindication and stepping around validation. Every time someone asked him a question that suggested a compliment, he would retreat to team-speak. Motivation? What extra motivation?

Yep, you could believe that this meant absolutely nothing beyond a big victory to Grossman.

Or you could believe that, as soon as everyone left the room, he was going to put on a party hat and dance all over again.

This was the best Grossman has been. Yes, that includes those nine 300-yard games in a row. It includes the 464-yard, five-touchdown day at LSU. It includes every pass that piled up until he was second in the Heisman Trophy voting last year.

This was better. The Gators never have asked Grossman to do more, and he never has responded better. He was playing at the bottom of a waterfall, and it didn't matter. He was chased and knocked the ground, time and again, and it didn't matter. The critics had ripped at his flesh for two weeks, and his team had looked ordinary, and only his coach was being roasted at a higher temperature. And it didn't matter.

"Don't count out Rex Grossman," guard Shannon Snell said. "Don't ever count out Rex Grossman."

Lately, it had become quite fashionable to count out Grossman who, for the past two games, had looked pretty much like a systemless system quarterback. He was poor against Miami and mediocre against Ohio, and it reminded everyone of last year's suggestion that Grossman was just the latest in a line of quarterbacks to be body-snatched by Steve Spurrier.

Then came Saturday, when Grossman threw for 324 yards and three touchdowns to lead Florida to a swagger-saving victory over the Vols.

No, it wasn't the first time Grossman has done great things for Florida. But the Gators never needed Grossman to do great things more. We have seen Grossman play the part of pretty passer; we never have seen him show this kind of grit.

Four games into the Ron Zook era and already some Gator fans were looking for large hunks to fall from the sky. Florida was staring a 2-2 start in the face, and the reactionaries in the crowd -- and they know who they are -- were wondering where Nero went to buy fiddles.

Even at Tennessee, the Vols were looking at this as if it weren't just one game, but an opportunity for Florida to hand over the keys to the kingdom. It was as if Phil Fulmer Way was going to be turned into an interstate that would run through every campus in the SEC.

Grossman stopped the talk. He made plays with his arm, with his legs, with his head. He threw as he was being knocked backward, little flips that looked dangerous until a receiver was rolling downhill. "Backyard ball," Grossman called it. Maybe, but when it's General Neyland's backyard, it's pretty impressive.

"Sometimes, you have to make something out of nothing," Grossman said, grinning. "I'm not going to take it upfield for long, but I'm pretty shifty in the pocket."

You wanted the kid to yell "yippee." You wanted him to claim his vindication, waggle a finger. Not Grossman. Rex was, well, imperious.

Take the second quarter, where there was such a deluge that Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen couldn't manage a center snap. Grossman? He threw for 167 yards and two scores.

There was the play where he shrugged off blitzing safety Steven Marsh, rolled right and weaved his way upfield for 18 yards. Two plays later, he scrambled, pulled up and launched a 52-yard pass to Taylor Jacobs to set up Florida's first score.

After that, Tennessee seemed shellshocked. Or, perhaps, Grossed out. The Vols spent the next five minutes wandering aimlessly, bumping into one another and dropping the ball to the turf. You have never seen a team disintegrate more completely.

In response, Grossman threw more two touchdowns. Who has ever been this good in the rain? Gene Kelly?

Ah, but Grossman wasn't done. After Tennessee scored twice in the third quarter, just enough to make Florida fans a little nervous, Grossman went back to work. He drove his team 80 yards in 11 plays, completing all six passes for 66 yards along the way.

"I don't see how you can criticize Rex Grossman," Zook said. "He's been a great quarterback, and he's going to be a great quarterback. Rex is a competitor, a winner."

More than that, on this day, Grossman was a response. He was a statement to remind his fans that winning isn't something in the past tense. He was a memo about patience, about perspective, about poise.

As for the rest of you? Well, if you've been one of the critical Florida fans, you're on notice.

For the meantime, however, you can do this.

Dance.

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