tampabay.com

Gators pull away, but Meyer miffed at offense

Thrust into early hole, stingy defense holds on as offense works out yet more kinks. Meanwhile, coach looks for big-gain potential in young stars.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published September 3, 2006


GAINESVILLE - Happy, yet disappointed.

That was how Florida coach Urban Meyer summed up his feelings after No. 7 Florida managed a 34-7 win over Southern Mississippi in front of 90,043 Saturday night at Florida Field.

Meyer had warned all week that the Golden Eagles (0-1) were not an easy opponent, that they wouldn't play the role of season-opening sacrificial lamb. For nearly three quarters, Southern Miss proved Meyer correct.

The Gators (1-0) scored 20 second-half points to secure the win, but it was only the third time in the past 14 seasons Florida did not score at least 40 points in a season opener - the second consecutive season.

"I was extremely upset with the way it started, I felt like we could have played so much better," Meyer said. "But last year we might not have dug ourselves out. We were very disappointed with the start; that is not Florida football. But it's another win, and we take great pride in that."

Florida's "start" included an interception on the third play of the opening possession by senior quarterback Chris Leak (aided by a badly run route by freshman receiver Percy Harvin). Three plays later, Southern Miss quarterback Jeremy Young threw a 6-yard touchdown to Damion Carter for a 7-0 lead.

"I don't think you can write a script as great as that," Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower said. "It was a very good start."

But Florida's defense rose to the occasion.

"The offense put us in a bad position early, but that's why we're a team," said cornerback Reggie Lewis, who had an interception and a 35-yard return with 25 seconds remaining in the third quarter. "Coach told us we could have some adversity early, and we did, but after that we said we weren't going to let them score any more points, and we didn't."

The defense held Southern Miss to 119 yards rushing and 176 passing yards, and also grabbed three interceptions.

"We were considered the weak link coming in, so we wanted to prove everybody wrong," Lewis said.

Here's what the Gators can safely say after one game: Harvin has the potential to be a big-time receiver; cornerback Reggie Nelson is as versatile as the coaching staff has been saying (he had four punt returns for 39 yards and a third-quarter interception) and Florida's defense is clearly its strong suit.

But the Gators won despite the lack of multiple big plays Meyer had hoped for and without two of its running backs. Senior DeShawn Wynn left the game with a shoulder injury (seven carries, 47 yards) and backup Markus Manson also suffered a thigh bruise, leaving Moore (12 carries for 56 yards) as the lone rusher, prompting Meyer to say, "I'm still disappointed in the tailback position."

"I knew I had to pick things up, but it was tough because I had to stay out there," Moore said. "I had no backup."

Leak was 21-for-30 for 248 yards and three touchdowns: a 21-yarder to senior receiver Dallas Baker, a 29-yard pass to Jemalle Cornelius and a 16-yard pass to Moore. Baker, the senior receiver was a bright spot with nine catches for 123 yards. Not quite enough, Meyer said.

"Big plays, gosh darn it, we've got to have some hits in this offense," Meyer said. "We've got to find a way to do that."

Junior receiver Andre Caldwell and defensive end Ray McDonald returned to the lineup after season-ending injuries; Meyer called both "rusty" and said he expects them to be better next week.

"We practiced a lot better than we showed out there tonight," said Caldwell, who had three catches for 16 yards. "We left a lot of points out there."

Meyer's biggest concern was that freshman quarterback Tim Tebow didn't see as much playing time as he had hoped. Tebow came in on the last play of the third quarter and later scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to give Florida a 27-7 lead with 14:12 remaining in the game. Meyer said if Tebow practices well this week, he'll "be in in the first half" against Central Florida.

"He's going to be a good player," Meyer said. "That was a lot of fun to watch him run. There are some growing pains, but he's going to be a terrific player."