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Gators pull escape job

UF 41, KENTUCKY 34: After a blown lead, Grossman and Co. find enough points.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 29, 2002

GAINESVILLE -- If mistakes can beat you, as Florida coach Ron Zook has said repeatedly this season, then the Florida football team was on the ropes for much of the second half Saturday afternoon.

But somehow the Gators rebounded, just in time to survive an upset bid at home.

Despite giving up 27 points on mistakes and blunders on its special teams, No. 7 Florida did what was needed to earn a 41-34 win against Kentucky in front of 85,333 at Florida Field.

"I told the team if we were not a football team that has a chance to be a good team, then we would have lost that game out there," Zook said. "They didn't quit. I saw it in their eyes. No one acted like we weren't going to win the game. I think we can build on that and we can go from there."

Florida can build on the fact that even though its special teams disintegrated, the Gators were able to turn to other areas to pull through.

The defense had another solid outing, holding the SEC's leading rusher, Artose Pinner, to 90 yards on 20 carries -- and holding the Wildcats to 268 yards.

Kentucky's Jared Lorenzen, the 300-pound quarterback who was coming off a 300-yard game last week, was 20-of-32 for 180 yards.

"The defense played great," Zook said. "A lot of the situations they were put in was from special teams."

Carrying its first 4-0 record in nearly 20 years, Kentucky entered with the belief it could upset the Gators for the first time in 15 attempts.

The Wildcats got fairly close.

"It was a good step for our kids to learn how to play a game like this," Kentucky coach Guy Morriss said. "You come out in a hostile environment and hopefully there are some things we can learn from this."

Trailing 19-0 at halftime, Kentucky rallied to take a 28-25 lead with 3:03 remaining in the third quarter on Lorenzen's 39-yard pass to Aaron Boone.

Then the shootout was on.

Florida responded with a 35-yard touchdown from Rex Grossman to Taylor Jacobs for a 32-28 lead. Grossman and Jacobs connected 12 times for 183 yards.

"That was big," Grossman said of the touchdown. " ... They finally lined up man-to-man with him and then he was off. Taylor's had two great games. He's been the majority of our offense."

Then cornerback Keiwan Ratliff made what turned out to be the first of two plays that sealed the victory for Florida.

With 9:25 remaining in the game and Kentucky driving on Florida's 41-yard line, Lorenzen rolled out and drilled a pass into the hands of Ratliff, who bobbled the ball then secured it and ran 62 yards for a score and a 39-28 lead.

"After it hit my hands, it felt like slow motion," Ratliff said. "And it felt like I was running forever."

But Kentucky wasn't finished.

Kentucky wide receiver Derek Abney, who had already returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, returned a punt 49 yards for another touchdown. But on the 2-point conversion attempt, Lorenzen lofted another pass that fell into Ratliff's hands. He returned it for two points for Florida.

Kentucky got the ball back, but did not get a first down on its final drive.

"When you come and play in the Swamp and play Florida, you want to win," Lorenzen said. "We convinced ourselves that we could win when we were down 19 at the half. Coach Morriss gets us fired up and Abney plays great for us. You don't ever plan on losing. I feel bad for our seniors. They never beat Florida. I thought this was the year we had a chance to do it."

Kentucky was aided by a slew of Gators' mistakes, including a bobbled snap, the punt and kickoff returns by Abney and a blocked punt. There also were two missed extra points by kicker Matt Leach.

"We'll get that corrected, I promise you that," Zook said.

What might get lost in the special teams mess is the fact that Florida's offense looked solid for the second week in a row after a slow start this season.

Of Florida's 509 offensive yards, 134 came on the ground. Grossman was 28-of-43 for 375 yards and two touchdowns. He completed passes to eight players.

"Our offense is getting better, our defense is getting better," Zook said.

Running backs Earnest Graham and Ran Carthon combined for three touchdowns, including a 19-yarder for Carthon (his first of two) in the second quarter. Jacobs also scored two -- a 4-yarder with 7:21 left in the third, then the 35-yard touchdown with 18 seconds left in the third quarter.

"A real team knows how to deal with adversity and I think we showed that tonight," Carthon said. "Kentucky showed they are not the same Kentucky team. I told those guys after the game, it's a shame you can't go to a bowl game (because of probation) because they deserve it."

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