[an error occurred while processing this directive]
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2002
GAINESVILLE -- When Auburn's last-ditch effort to score came up short, those on the Gators sideline spilled onto the field. Players whooped it up, running around like a bunch of school kids turned loose in an outdoor Toys "R' Us.
Finally, virtually the entire team gathered at midfield and kneeled in prayer. How fitting after Florida beat Auburn on a touchdown fling and a prayer.
The Gators did everything except tear down the goalposts in celebration after holding off the Tigers 30-23 at Florida Field. But could you blame them if they did?
The Gators won, and these days that can't be overemphasized. Even when the win comes against a team it usually beats, like Auburn. And even when the Gators looked pathetic at times and needed an extra period to get the job done.
In years past, a win over Auburn typically ranked somewhere just below a win over, say, Georgia and just above a victory over Ole Miss. Beating the Tigers was almost routine. Before Saturday night, Florida had won seven of the past eight times they had played.
But nothing is a given this season. No sir. This was as big a win as the Gators have had under coach Ron Zook. Just as big as beating Tennessee. Maybe bigger.
"This was a huge win for us," quarterback Rex Grossman said. "We needed this more than any game this year."
They needed it to stop the bleeding, and just in time to keep Florida's faint major bowl hopes alive. After losing to Ole Miss and LSU the past two weeks, a third straight loss would have been disastrous. The Gators would have been looking at possibly an Independence Bowl trip, the one taken by the SEC's seventh-best team, instead of still clinging to hopes of playing on New Year's Day.
But, despite another sloppy and uninspired performance, the Gators escaped defeat this time, and frankly that's all the really matters at this point.
"Wins," Zook said after the game, "are hard to come by."
All of the wild celebration might have looked funny at first, especially after beating a team that probably isn't going anywhere this season. But the Gators are having to learn to appreciate small victories. It's a new concept around these parts, of course, but with a little practice, the Gators eventually will get the hang of it.
Those days of taking wins for granted are over. At least for a while. From now on, any win is going to be big. Even a win over Vandy.
This Gators team clearly can't count on anything anymore. Frankly, it should have destroyed Auburn. This was a blowout waiting to happen.
The Gators piled up nearly 400 yards and led 14-0 early in the second quarter and 23-7 going into the fourth. They easily could have been up 34-7 instead had they not ruined countless scoring chances with penalties (13 for 90 yards) and lousy execution.
Not that anyone in orange and blue was complaining.
As ugly as this win was, though, it could turn out to be a real thing of beauty if the Gators can use it to shake off whatever has been ailing them and salvage the rest of the season.
For a team seemingly lacking confidence and aggressiveness, this is the kind of win that can change its attitude, the kind of shot in the arm that can begin to restore some of this team's lost swagger.
Sure, the Gators looked hapless committing all those penalties, several of which ruined scoring chances. And, yes, their fourth-quarter defense left a lot to be desired.
But the heroics they summoned in blocking that potential winning field goal at the end of regulation is the kind of thing that can carry over from one game to the next. Same goes for the clutch touchdown from Grossman to Taylor Jacobs and the Gators' defensive stand that followed.
"I know we'll use this as a springboard," Zook said. "I've said it all along -- we're a good football team. ... I think we can use this to get us right back to where we want to be."
For Zook's sake, he had better hope so. With Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State still waiting to get their licks, the Gators better take everything they can from this victory Saturday night.
Take that tenacity the defense showed down the stretch. And take the confidence that came with the win.
And if all else fails, take that prayer thing at midfield. At this point, what could it hurt?