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Rally saves UF title shot

UF 24, S. CAROLINA 22: Gators score 17 in the third; now they must wait to find out if they will play for the SEC championship.

Published November 16, 2003

COLUMBIA, S.C. - With his team trailing South Carolina 16-7 and its four-game win streak on the line, Florida coach Ron Zook decided the closing speech of Saturday's halftime needed to be handled by someone other than himself.

As their SEC East title hopes hung in the balance and facing the specter of losing the final conference game, Zook turned the floor over to his seniors. It was their season, their final road game. How it would end depended heavily on them.

"Zook just told all the coaches to get out," senior tight end Ben Troupe said. "It's not about the coaching staff. It's all about the team. Coach Zook and all the coaches, they aren't out there playing. They are calling plays, and we've got to make those plays work."

Two quarters later, they had managed to make just enough of those plays work.

Florida scored 17 third-quarter points then held on for a 24-22 victory against South Carolina in front of 81,523 at Williams-Brice Stadium.

With the victory, Florida (8-3, 6-2) clinched at least a share of the SEC East. Now it's in the hands of Georgia and Tennessee. For Florida to be the SEC East representative in the conference title game, Tennessee must lose one of its final two SEC games (to Vanderbilt or at Kentucky) and Georgia must beat Kentucky on Saturday.

"It has been like this all year long," Zook said. "We don't make things easy for us. But we have come a long way. Six to eight weeks ago, we might not have won this game. We played a very good team. South Carolina had a great plan, and coach (Lou) Holtz definitely had his team prepared to play."

South Carolina (5-6, 2-6) didn't make it easy, and Florida didn't help its cause. Running backs DeShawn Wynn and Ran Carthon fumbled in the red zone. Troupe dropped a pass in the end zone, and the Gators missed an opportunity to recover a fumble and dropped two interceptions.

And South Carolina's Chavez Donnings returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown as time expired in the first half.

"Everybody was pretty much in shock," senior guard Shannon Snell said. "We didn't expect them to return a punt for a touchdown, but things like that happen. When we got in the locker room, all the coaches left, and we had that meeting and came out with a different attitude. The seniors on this team keep making plays. I'm so proud of these guys. I'm proud of myself. We've stuck together."

South Carolina took a 2-0 lead when George Gause tackled freshman quarterback Chris Leak in the end zone for a safety. The Gamecocks led 9-0 at the end of the first quarter after a 1-yard touchdown run by Cory Bailey with 5:18 left. Florida was 1-of-3 on third-down conversions in the first quarter and had the ball for just 4:23.

Florida rallied by mounting its longest scoring drive of the season, 90 yards on seven plays, culminating with a 9-yard run by Leak to trail by two.

With Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong making his first return to Columbia - he was Gamecocks defensive coordinator for four seasons - the Gator defense struggled early, giving up 119 rushing yards in the first half.

"We didn't tackle very well," Strong said. "We didn't stop the run very well, but then we had a stretch there where they had seven straight punts. So we got better. Give them credit. Their backs ran very well."

Florida opened the second half with an 80-yard drive and cut it to 16-14 on a 7-yard pass from Leak to Troupe. Then South Carolina made a critical error. Facing fourth and 1 at its 26, it faked a punt, but the pass to Jamaica Jackson was short of the first down. Florida took over at the 20 and settled for a 20-yard field goal by Matt Leach to take a 17-16 lead.

"The play was set to roll right and throw left to (Jackson)," punter Josh Brown said. "Florida had it sniffed out completely. I could have tried to run it or punt it, but the guy was right on me."

Wynn made it 24-16 on a 10-yard run with 1:01 left in the third.

South Carolina scored once more, a 4-yard run by quarterback Dondrial Pinkins with 10:08 left in the game. But on the two-point conversion, freshman defensive tackle Marcus Thomas stopped Pinkins just outside the end zone on an option to the right.

"That was a big play for me," Thomas said. "I had read it was going to be a run, so I just attacked the quarterback. If I didn't make that play, who knows."

Florida running back Ciatrick Fason rushed for a career-high 190 yards, and Leak finished 12-of-20 for 121 yards. The Gators had 364 yards and the Gamecocks finished with 331. Florida safety Keiwan Ratliff picked up his ninth interception to end the game.

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