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Gators rely on defense in squeaker

UF 21, VANDY 17: Despite mistakes, scoreless second half, Gators just pleased to win.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 10, 2002

UF 21, VANDY 17: Despite mistakes, scoreless second half, Gators just pleased to win.

NASHVILLE -- Maybe it was the emotional letdown after last week's win over No. 7 Georgia. Maybe it was that fewer than 30,000 attended.

Maybe this is the kind of team the Gators really are this season.

The kind that does just enough to win, just enough to beat Vanderbilt by four.

Florida scored 21 in the first half, then held on for a 21-17 win Saturday over a Vanderbilt team that is winless in the SEC this season and has one win over a Division I-A team.

The win came before 28,881, the smallest crowd to watch a Florida game in 12 years.

Sure, it wasn't pretty. But it was a win. And as the Gators said afterward, isn't that what really counts?

"Everybody knows it doesn't matter how ugly a win is, a win is still a win," offensive tackle Max Starks said.

You can argue all you want about whether the 2002 Gators are as good as past Florida teams, whether they are a good team at all this season.

But with one conference game left, No. 23 Florida (7-3, 5-2) is still in contention for the SEC East championship.

"There is no sense of frustration," said running back Ran Carthon, whose 1-yard touchdown gave the Gators a 14-3 lead with 13:45 left in the first half. "We won the game. Like Aaron Walker (tight end) said, 'whether you hit a bloop single or a line drive, it's still a hit.' We don't want to be the masters of winning ugly, but that's just how it's happened."

So it has.

Coach Ron Zook said he does not believe in emotional letdowns, so he refused to use the excuse that Florida was emotionally drained from last weekend's 20-13 win.

"You have to give Vanderbilt credit," Zook said. "They hung in there and did the things they felt like they had to do to win it. ... This game, I was scared to death. These are the games you're concerned about coming off an emotional win."

That concern was valid.

The mistakes that have hampered the Gators this season continued. Matt Leach missed two 48-yard field goals, including one attempt after a Gator touchdown was called back for illegal procedure late in the first half.

The Gators had eight penalties for 55 yards, including a face-mask that gave Vanderbilt first and goal on the 5.

Vanderbilt (2-8, 0-6) scored two plays later on a 1-yard run by Matthew Tant to pull within 14-10. The touchdown was set up by a 65-yard punt return.

Zook said he is not concerned about the overall play of the Gators, but the penalties and special teams have to be addressed.

"I say we can get it corrected, but I've said that before," Zook said. "We're going to get it corrected."

Florida led 21-10 at halftime, then watched its offense stall in the second half. Quarterback Rex Grossman was 11-of-21 in the first half, but 6-of-11 for 45 yards in the second.

His 170 yards passing are the second lowest of the season. The Gators went 0-for-3 on third down conversions to open the game and converted their only third down of the first half after an offsides call against Vanderbilt.

"It wasn't as well as we could have played," said Grossman, who had a 1-yard touchdown run with 5:30 left in the first half to give the Gators a 21-10 lead.

"We have the potential to put a lot more points on the board and we didn't do our part. ... When you're coming off a big game like Georgia, it's only human nature to probably not be as fired up. That was our challenge and we won the game."

In the past five games, Florida has scored 21 second-half points, including an overtime win over Auburn, and only six in the third quarter. As it has many times this season, when the offense sputtered, the defense stepped up.

The Gators allowed Vanderbilt to open the second half with a 15-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by quarterback Jay Cutler with 7:30 left in the third.

But the defense ultimately held Vanderbilt to 173 rushing yards and 94 passing.

Safety Cory Bailey intercepted a Cutler pass on Vanderbilt's first possession and returned it 24 yards to set up Earnest Graham's 1-yard run for a 7-0 lead. Safety Guss Scott also had an interception in the first quarter.

Florida's running game, which had struggled of late, was another bright spot. Graham and Carthon combined for 208 yards on 38 carries, and the Gators rushed for 223 yards.

"We ran the ball probably as good as we've run it all season," Zook said. "I was disappointed in the way we played in the opening drive, but they (defense) came back and did what we needed to do.

"I'm proud of the way our team hung in there."

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