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College football

Kentucky assists Florida's big rally

UF 24, UK 21: A fourth-down penalty and late interception help the Gators come back from down 21-3 in the fourth.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published September 28, 2003

photo
[AP photo]
Florida receiver Carlos Perez hauls in a touchdown pass from quarterback Chris Leak as Kentucky defender Bo Smith drags him down during the fourth quarter.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Three quarters down and one to go, Florida found itself on the road with a freshman quarterback making his first start, its offense stalled, its defense tiring and trailing by 18.

Then Kentucky played like it didn't want to end a streak of 16 losses to the Gators after all.

Scoring 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points, Florida stunned Kentucky with a 24-21 victory in front of 70,579 at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday.

"As I looked in their eyes, I didn't see defeat. I didn't see quit," Florida coach Ron Zook said. "We stunk it up in the first half, and I think you've got to give a lot of credit to Kentucky. They played hard and made plays when they had to make them. But we came back and made them when we had to."

It was Florida's largest come-from-behind road victory and drew parallels to Florida's 1993 victory against the Wildcats and Danny Wuerffel's touchdown to Chris Doering with two seconds left.

"That's about as tough as it gets," Kentucky first-year coach Rich Brooks said. "It was a game we did a lot of good things in and had an opportunity to seal the deal and couldn't finish it. There were a lot of things where, if we do one thing different, it might not have come down to the finish we had."

Kentucky led 21-3 at the end of the third quarter and had held Florida to 65 rushing yards - despite having the SEC's worst rushing defense entering the game. Chris Leak had completed 12 of 18 passes for 113 yards, but Florida's only score was a 42-yard field goal by Matt Leach with 5:49 left in the first half.

Jared Lorenzen had kept the Gators defense off-balance all game, completing key passes and running the ball when necessary.

But two mistakes by the Wildcats negated everything good.

With less than two minutes left in the third quarter and Kentucky set to receive a punt, the Wildcats were penalized 15 yards for having 12 men on the field, giving the Gators a first down on their 40.

"That was a huge play. It worked in our favor, thank God," Zook said.

Leak hit Kelvin Kight for 40 yards on the next play. And eight plays later, Leak connected with senior Carlos Perez on a 3-yard pass in the back of the end zone to make it 21-9 with 14:55 left. The two-point conversion failed. Perez also caught a fourth-down, 10-yard touchdown with 4:45 left.

Holding a 21-16 lead, Lorenzen (18-of-27 for 179 yards) heaved a pass as he was being brought down by linebacker Channing Crowder. Cornerback Johnny Lamar picked it off and returned it 35 yards to the 1.

"I have to put this one on my shoulders," Lorenzen said. "Obviously, I shouldn't have thrown the ball."

With 3:15 left, Ran Carthon's 1-yard run and a two-point conversion (a 2-yard pass to Kight) gave Florida the victory.

"Every other team gets breaks, and it feels like sometimes we don't get breaks," said Perez who had five catches for 102 yards. "But thank God we got one (Saturday)."

Two huge breaks.

The stats say Florida had 354 yards, but it struggled offensively for most of the game. The defense gave up 175 rushing yards and 179 passing but came up big when needed most, including a sack on the final drive and a partially blocked 49-yard field goal with 44 seconds left.

The special teams gave up a touchdown on a punt return by Derek Abney, but it was negated by a penalty.

Leak wasn't spectacular, but he survived. He was 20-of-35 for 268 yards and two interceptions.

"This experience will stay with me for the rest of my life," Leak said. "This really was a great experience for me because you don't get to do this too many times."

In the postgame locker room, Zook described himself as "drained but euphoric." Elated players said they always believed they could come back. But coming off last week's loss to Tennessee and facing an 0-2 conference record, they said they knew what was at stake. A loss would have been devastating.

Zook challenged the players at halftime to step up, ordering his seniors to take over and lead.

"What we did was a tribute to Coach Zook," safety Daryl Dixon said. "He challenged us to come out and play the way he knew we could, and we did."

"If we had lost this game, we would have been really down on ourselves," running back DeShawn Wynn said. "It would have been pretty embarrassing if we had lost this game. We needed this win."

[Last modified September 28, 2003, 01:49:44]


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