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UF 14, MISSISSIPPI 17: Mistakes sink the Gators' chances, especially Rex Grossman's four INTs.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
A Rex Grossman pass eludes Ran Carthon as Eric Oliver defends. Grossman threw four interceptions as UF squandered a 12-point lead.
OXFORD, Miss. -- Stunned. Shocked. Numb.

Those were the words the Florida players mustered to describe their feelings after Saturday's 17-14 loss to Mississippi in front of a state-record crowd of 61,140 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

"I'm just out of it right now," defensive end Clint Mitchell said. "We just sat and watched the seconds tick off and I just got mad. It just eats at your guts."

Favored by 13, the sixth-ranked Gators watched as a 14-2 first half lead turned into an inept second half that allowed the Rebels to come from behind and earn the biggest win in Oxford since 1952 when the Rebels defeated then No. 3 Maryland. It is the first time Florida has lost in Oxford since 1935.

"You never know what's going to happen in football," said Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning, who finished 18-of-33 for 154 yards. "You never know who's going to step it up and play well."

Or in Florida's case, who is going to fall apart.

For the second consecutive game, mistakes kept Florida's opponent in the game, this time leading to the Gators' loss.

Quarterback Rex Grossman, harassed and battered by the Mississippi defense all day, made mistakes that led to all 17 Ole Miss points, throwing two interceptions and causing a safety. He had four interceptions.

"The 17 points are my fault and I take the blame for that," said Grossman, who was 19-of-44 for 205 yards and two touchdowns, and played with an injured left hand from the second quarter on. "It's a team sport, but I definitely didn't do my part in winning this game. It was just a difficult game in the second half."

Florida (4-2, 2-1 SEC) started slowly, but took a 7-0 lead with a 16-yard pass from Grossman to Carlos Perez with 19 seconds left in the first quarter.

Perez's 18-yard pass with 13 seconds left in the first half culminated a 98-yard drive and sent Florida to the locker room with a 14-2 lead.

Then the Gators fell apart.

Before Saturday, much of the talk surrounded the Rebels' defense, which was wracked with injuries and had allowed SEC cellar-dweller Vanderbilt to score 38 points and pile up more than 300 yards in its previous game.

The talk offended the Rebels. They responded by holding Florida to 95 rushing yards on 30 carries. They responded by not allowing Florida to gain a first down in the second half and posting a second half shutout -- the first time this season that has happened to the Gators.

And they responded with two big-time plays from senior defensive back Matt Grier.

Grier's interception early in the third quarter set up a 4-yard run by Vashon Pearson to pull Ole Miss within 14-10 with 12:41 remaining.

Then Grier scored the winning touchdown when he intercepted a Grossman pass and ran it 24 yards to give the Rebels a 17-14 lead with 7:34 left in the third quarter.

"That's all we heard all week and we wanted everybody to know we aren't no weak defense, we can go out there and play with anybody," said Grier, who had just returned to the game for the touchdown play after being attended to in the locker room. "We knew what we had to do. This is a big win. We believed (they could win). There was no doubt in our minds."

Florida made costly mistakes: the four interceptions; a blocked 35-yard field goal attempt by Matt Leach; 11 penalties for 86 yards, two that negated plays that would have put the Gators inside the 15-yard line.

The most costly may have been for an ineligible receiver downfield after Grossman threw a pass to running back Earnest Graham, who then threw it back to Grossman. The penalty negated a 27-yard gain with just less than eight minutes left in the game, which would have put the Gators inside the 15-yard line.

"Offensively, I have no concerns," coach Ron Zook said. "Did we play well? No. Is it correctable? Yes. Sometimes with new systems you have to get knocked down to get the light turned on. We are a good enough offense to make the plays you need to win a close ball game. We do have some work to do.

"Since I've been here, if I've asked them to do something, they do it, with perhaps the exception of getting ready to play today. And who is to say we weren't ready. Ole Miss just had a great game."

For the third consecutive week, a strong Florida defensive effort was overshadowed by other breakdowns. The Gators held Manning without a touchdown pass for the first time in 16 consecutive games and sacked him three times. The Rebels didn't cross midfield until 9:44 in the second quarter.

"It shows you that at any given time you can lose," UF's Keiwan Ratliff said. "I saw how happy they were (Mississippi fans) and we're down in the dumps right now. I don't want that feeling next week."

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