By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
Defense, not the high-flying offense, lifts the Gators one year after a controversial loss to the Vols.
GAINESVILLE - This time, the controversial play went Florida's way, the Florida defense played like it promised and it was Tennessee that missed the critical field goal.
This time, Florida came out a winner.
Still bitter over the memory of a last-second loss to the Vols last season, No.6 Florida exacted revenge with a 16-7 win over No.5 Tennessee in front of 90,716 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday. The victory was bittersweet.
Starting receiver Andre Caldwell broke his right leg on the second-half kickoff, and defensive tackle Ray McDonald tore his ACL in the first half. Caldwell will have surgery Monday, and McDonald's status is unknown.
"It was a great day for Florida football and a great day to be a Gator," coach Urban Meyer said. "The Gators won, but the loss of those two players is devastating."
Whether Meyer's spread offense will be as successful in the SEC as it was at Bowling Green and Utah still remains to be seen.
At least for today, Florida fans are most likely saying, who cares?
With the win, the Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC) got a leg up in the SEC East and will likely move into the Top 5 for the first time since 2001.
"That was a big-time win against a very talented team," Meyer said. "They showed me something." Last season, a controversial personal foul against Florida led to the winning field goal and dominated talk after the game. This year, Vols fans will most likely point to instant replay as the turning point.
With the score tied at 7 and the Gators with the ball, Meyer made a decision that could be called gutsy or insane. He went for it on fourth and 1 at the Florida 44. The quarterback sneak by Chris Leak failed, and the Vols took over. "What the hell?" Meyer said. "You can't get 6 inches? We'll correct that next week. And we'll do it again because this is the University of Florida, and that's who we are." Tennessee (1-1, 0-1) took over and drove to the Gators 11, highlighted by consecutive runs by Gerald Riggs of 8, 9, 16 and 2 yards. But a dead-ball foul, incomplete pass and delay of game pushed the Vols back to the 19. On third and 18, Erik Ainge threw a pass to Bret Smith at the 1. But officials overturned the catch after the replay showed the ball hit the ground first. Cornerback Dee Webb then blocked James Wilhoit's 37-yard field goal. "What a great job by our defense to get us out of that," Meyer said.
Florida won despite sloppy play. Twice it had the ball inside the Vols 30 but self-destructed with penalties and an inability to stop a four-man rush.
Still tied at 7, Florida got its first big break of the second half when long snapper James Smith recovered a fumble by Jonathan Hefney on a punt. Florida took over at the Vols 28. But Leak was sacked for a 9-yard loss on the first play, and Florida couldn't pick up a first down. The Gators settled for a 38-yard field goal by Chris Hetland to take a 10-7 lead.
One possession later, the Gators got another break when the Vols botched a fake punt. Florida took over on the Vols 31. But three penalties marred the drive, and Hetland came in for a 35-yard field goal to make it 13-7 with 5:14 left in the third. The Gators went 13 yards in seven plays on the drive.
After being penalized 13 times in the first two games, Florida committed 10 for 63 yards Saturday. "I'm going to wait until I see the film, but we had an inordinate amount of penalties," Meyer said.
The Gators held the Vols to 213 yards (66 rushing) and have given up just one touchdown in the first half this season.
"Our defense played outstanding," Meyer said.
Leak was 17-of-26 for 179 yards. "We made some big-time plays when we needed it," Leak said.
"I thought we played well enough to win defensively, but offensively we did not," Vols coach Phillip Fulmer said. "It's a loss, but it's not the end of the season."