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Gators' win bittersweet

UF 28, USC 7: The team falls short of winning the SEC East title.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 17, 2002

[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Gator Carlos Perez celebrates his second-quarter touchdown, but left later with a broken fibula.
GAINESVILLE -- They knew by the end of the first half their chance of going to Atlanta to play for the Southeastern Conference championship was over.

So the Gators did the only thing they could Saturday night, took care of the only thing under their control.


In the midst of bitter disappointment, Florida found a way to focus to ensure its seniors got to walk off Florida Field as winners one last time: with a 28-7 victory over South Carolina before 85,222 at rain-soaked Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

With Georgia's 24-21 win over Auburn, Florida (8-3, 6-2) lost the chance to represent the East in the SEC Championship game on Dec. 7.

The Gators defeated every SEC East opponent, but their midseason stumble against SEC West teams Mississippi and LSU cost them a championship.

But you could not catch Florida coach Ron Zook bemoaning the Gators' fate.

"I'm proud of the fact that our team beat everyone in the division," Zook said. "I'm proud of the way they hung in there.

"They've (seniors) kept this football team together, they've handled adversity. We have an opportunity to have a big, big year, possibly win 10 games. This is a great win for us."

It was a win that extended Florida's streak over South Carolina (5-6, 3-5) to 12. It was a win in which the offense played arguably its best game of the season, despite being without two of its top receivers -- Taylor Jacobs and Carlos Perez, who broke his right leg late in the second quarter. It was a win in which the offensive line avoided sacks and provided time for quarterback Rex Grossman to throw some of the deep passes that have eluded the offense this season.

And it was a win in which Grossman threw a season-high four touchdowns. Afterward, the junior quarterback said he was unsure if he had played his final game at Florida Field.

"It was a fun win," said Grossman, who was 24-of-36 for 228 yards and also caught a 21-yard pass from receiver/cornerback Keiwan Ratliff. "It just seemed that we were on top of our game tonight, both offensively and defensively. It was a fun game to play because we knew what they were going to do and it was just a matter of executing and going out there and having a good time."

Grossman's final touchdown pass, a 27-yarder to Kelvin Kight with 9:08 left, gave him 74 for his career. That ties for third in the SEC with former UF quarterback Shane Matthews and former Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch (Peyton Manning had 89). Grossman is also tied for second all time in Florida history behind Danny Wuerffel (114).

"The guy's a winner, he's a competitor," Zook said.

The Gators led by 14 at halftime after a slow start.

South Carolina dominated the first quarter: the Gamecocks had possession for 11:02 (Florida 3:58), gained 95 rushing yards on 19 carries compared with 10 yards on four carries for the Gators and compiled 104 yards compared with 44 for Florida.

But they couldn't get into the end zone, and a 39-yard field goal attempt midway through the first quarter failed.

"Our coaches talk about stepping up when we need to and that is what we try to do -- just step up and not give in when they get a little run on us," senior safety Todd Johnson said. "We just keep fighting the whole night."

Florida took a 7-0 lead on a 3-yard pass from Grossman to Carlos Perez with 7:42 left in the second quarter. Perez broke his leg on a hit after a reception with 4:47 left in the half.

Four minutes later, walk-on tight end Darrell Carpenter caught a 15-yard touchdown from Grossman to end an 81-yard drive and give the Gators a 14-0 lead. It was the first touchdown of Carpenter's career.

South Carolina, decimated by injuries to four of its receivers, attempted to bolster its offensive power with two quarterbacks -- sophomore Dondrial Pinkins and senior Corey Jenkins.

The combination did not fare well via the air. Jenkins didn't attempt a pass and Dondrial was 8-of-17 for 74 yards and was sacked twice. The quarterbacks combined for 99 yards on 16 carries. Florida's defense held South Carolina to 271 yards, its fifth opponent in its past seven to be held under 300 yards.

"We had some missed tackles early (first quarter), but we adjusted as a defense," senior linebacker Mike Nattiel said. "J.T. (defensive coordinator John Thompson) called a great game. It's great to go out beating South Carolina four years in a row and it's great for this senior class that we beat every team in the East this year.

South Carolina's only touchdown came with 3:27 left in the third -- a 1-yard run by Daccus Turman to cap a 77-yard drive on 13 plays.

"Our players played hard," coach Lou Holtz said. "I thought they played well. I thought they competed. ... We are definitely disappointed. If they hadn't invented the forward pass we would not be hurting as much as we are now."

Florida's O.J. Small got his first touchdown of the season with a 12-yard pass from Grossman that gave the Gators a 21-0 lead.

The Gators amassed 404 yards, including 155 rushing. Senior Earnest Graham had 81 yards on 17 carries, and Grossman completed passes to nine different players.

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