FLORIDA 16, GEORGIA 13: The once down-and-out Gators move into a tie for first in the SEC East.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published November 2, 2003
[Times photo: Willie Allen]
Matt Leach leaps into the arms of Casey Griffith after his 33-yard field goal gave Florida a 16-13 lead with 33 seconds left.
JACKSONVILLE - Since the day he walked onto Florida's campus two years ago, Matt Leach has dreamed of kicking a winning field goal.
He has envisioned it many ways against many different teams.
Saturday, he discovered something surprising: Dreams don't even begin to match the reality.
The junior hit a 33-yard field goal with 33 seconds left to help the Gators to a 16-13 victory against No. 4 Georgia, sending him into a wild celebration in the arms of his teammates and into Florida-Georgia folklore.
"I can't describe this. It's the best feeling ever," said Leach, who made 3 of 4 field goals. "It's unbelievable."
Georgia fans couldn't agree more.
Florida now has won 13 of the past 14 against the Bulldogs, including six in a row.
Leach's kick kept Florida's hopes of an SEC championship alive. Florida (6-3) is tied with Georgia in the SEC East at 4-2, a half-game ahead of Tennessee. And after a 3-3 start, it has qualified for a bowl.
"I'm just really proud of our football team," Florida coach Ron Zook said. "They beat a good football team. Georgia played well. Their defense played well. But I believe we're a good football team, too."
Georgia entered No. 1 in the nation in total defense, holding opponents to 243.38 yards per game, and third in scoring defense (11 points per game). But Florida gained 324 yards, including 235 through the air, and mounted the 10-play, 66-yard drive in the final three minutes to win.
"Honestly, they all looked stunned," said Florida cornerback Keiwan Ratliff, who had an interception. "I think they figured that this would be the year they got the Gators.
"We came in with three losses on our record, and that's not common for a Gator team. I don't think any of them thought they could lose."
For a while, it looked like they might not.
After playing to a 3-3 tie in the first half, Florida took a 10-3 lead with a 34-yard catch by Carlos Perez. The Gators added three more on a Leach field goal with 12:10 left in the game after Georgia held Florida to 6 yards on three carries on first and goal from the 7.
Then the Georgia offense that struggled for most of the game started running and throwing at will on the Gators. Kregg Lumpkin's 1-yard touchdown run with 9:18 left (capping a 10-play drive) and Billy Bennett's 21-yard field goal with 3:49 left tied it.
Florida allowed 390 yards (202 rushing) on 81 plays. But on the drive that counted most, the Florida defense that has struggled late in games by allowing opponents to mount big comebacks, held its own. With first and goal at the 8, the Bulldogs gained only 4 yards and settled for the tying field goal.
After the winning field goal, time ran out on Georgia's last possession. Sacrifice. Achieve. Win. That was the slogan defensive line coach Jerry "Red" Anderson gave the defense in a meeting Friday night.
"We have that bend but don't break attitude," defensive end Travis Harris said. "We just kept saying it's a 100-yard field. That's what I love about these guys. We always talk about withstanding the onslaught, and that's exactly what we did."
With the score tied at 13, Florida took over with 3:49 left, led by a freshman quarterback who had never played in this 81-year-old storied series.
The players stepped into the huddle, looked into the eyes of 18-year-old quarterback Chris Leak and said they never doubted him for a second.
"We believe in him, and he didn't let us down," offensive tackle Shannon Snell said.
"He does it all the time in practice, and he just stepped up and did it (Saturday)."
"Georgia has a great defense, but we knew we just had to go out there and play our game," said Leak, who was 13-of-23 for 235 yards and one touchdown and became the only Florida freshman quarterback to defeat three ranked opponents in consecutive games. Three weeks ago, nearly everybody in the country had written off Florida as a lost cause. The murderer's row pundits predicted would take it out has turned into a dream scenario. The Gators have won three consecutive games against ranked opponents - No. 6 LSU, No. 11 Arkansas and fourth-ranked Georgia.
While Georgia remains in the SEC race, Saturday's loss was tough to take, coach Mark Richt said.
"I told the team there's not a thing you could say to try to make them feel better," Richt said. "And I didn't even try."