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Gators tough it out

Florida, as predicted, plays solid defense and rallies from a 17-7 second-half deficit to defeat Tennessee 21-20 in the SEC opener.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published September 17, 2006


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Nobody's making fun of Tony Joiner now.

The junior safety said last week he believed Florida had one of the best defenses in the nation, giving bulletin board fodder heading into Saturday night's showdown with Tennessee.

No. 9 Florida might not have the best defense in the nation, but it was just good enough.

The Gators held No. 13 Tennessee to minus-11 rushing yards on 23 carries and junior cornerback Reggie Nelson intercepted an Erik Ainge pass with 2:47 left to give Florida a 21-20 come-from-behind win over the Vols in front of 106,818 at Neyland Stadium.

Florida secured the victory when senior DeShawn Wynn converted a third and 6.

"That was one of the finest team efforts I've ever seen," Florida coach Urban Meyer said.

The win gives Florida (3-0, 1-0) a leg up in the SEC East and at least for now answers if it can win a big game on the road. Florida entered 1-3 under Meyer in road games.

Meyer said last week it was a matter of toughness. The tougher team would win.

Florida answered that challenge.

The Gators rallied from a 17-7 deficit on two touchdowns from senior Chris Leak to senior Dallas Baker - a 4-yarder with 1:16 left in the third and a 21-yarder with 6:30 left in the game.

"This time last year, Dallas Baker wasn't the Dallas Baker we see now," Meyer said.

Hanging precariously to the lead, Nelson intercepted Ainge on fourth and 16 from the Gator 45

"I tried to sneak one over to (Robert) Meachem, but it didn't work out," said Ainge, who was 17-of-32 for 183 yards. "We got ourselves in a lot of bad situations, and we just didn't get it done."

Florida entered searching for answers to several questions, including if its running game be productive and Leak could run Meyer's offense well enough to win on the road.

Wynn, nursing a sore shoulder, had 22 carries for 104 yards. Leak was 15-of-25 for 199 yards and three touchdowns. Freshman backup quarterback Tim Tebow had seven carries for 29 yards, including multiple third-down conversions.

Florida had 121 yards on 41 carries, marking the 15th time in the past 17 seasons of the series the team with more rushing yards won. The Vols had 231 passing yards.

"Offensively we had a struggle," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "You're going to have a hard time winning in this league if you can't rush the ball better than that."

Florida managed to keep the sold-out crowd partially subdued for about the first 23 minutes, but the Vols regained the momentum. With the Gators driving for a touchdown early in the second quarter, Leak was sacked third and 15 at the Tennessee 27. The 8-yard loss led to a 52-yard field goal that Chris Hetland missed short and left.

On the ensuing possession, the Vols took advantage.

Receiver Lucas Taylor took a handoff then lobbed a pass to Lucas Taylor, who sprinted 48 yards for a touchdown that put the Vols up 10-7 with 7:57 left in the first half. There wasn't a Florida defender within 30 yards.