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Doing what it takes

Florida's defense produces a dominating all-around effort and caps it with an interception return for a score, helping the undefeated Gators win their 12th straight at Florida Field.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published October 1, 2006


GAINESVILLE - When junior cornerback Reggie Nelson intercepted Alabama's John Parker Wilson with 4½ minutes left in the game and Florida leading by eight, senior Earl Everett had just one thing on his mind: Do whatever it takes to get Nelson in the end zone.

Everett made a block, then got up, ran downfield and made a second block, freeing Nelson for a 70-yard interception return for a touchdown to seal the Gators' 28-13 victory Saturday in front of 90,671 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

It was a stellar example of a team defensive effort. With Florida trailing by 10 with 12:44 left in the second quarter, the defense held Alabama to one field goal the rest of the game and the Gators mounted their second straight come-from-behind win.

No. 5 Florida (5-0, 3-0 SEC) has now won 12 consecutive games at Florida Field. It has won seven straight overall dating to last season, the first time since 1988.

"Just hustling," Everett said to describe his efforts for Nelson. "I was just trying to make a way to get Reggie in the end zone. I knew if I threw a couple of good blocks that Reggie was going to score. So my whole mind-set was just to get Reggie in the end zone."

And on this particular Saturday, the defense's mind-set was to do whatever it took to win. It didn't completely shut Alabama down but did what was necessary. The Gators gave up 240 passing yards but just 83 rushing, including a season-high 76 for Alabama's Kenneth Darby.

The defense had three sacks for minus-33 yards and three interceptions and caused three fumbles (though it recovered none). On four possessions Alabama got within Florida's 35-yard line and ended up with an interception, one missed field goal and two made field goals (21 and 26 yards by Jamie Christensen).

Nelson had five tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery that was also key. He fell on the ball after cornerback Ryan Smith intercepted a pass, then fumbled with 8:23 left in the game and Florida leading by one. Three plays later quarterback Chris Leak threw a 21-yard pass to senior receiver Dallas Baker to give the Gators a 21-13 lead with 6:47 left.

"That was the play of the game," Smith said. "If he doesn't recover that ball, they still have it and they can go down and score. We don't get that touchdown."

Nelson's career night was slightly dampened by the fact that his mother was unable to make it to the game. Mary Lakes is battling breast cancer and wasn't well enough to attend.

"That'll be the first person I call when I get out of here," Nelson said.

Forget all the hype about the dual-threat quarterbacks, the improved running game and offensive line. The Florida defense was the real star Saturday night.

"We know going out that pretty much any game we play, the defense has to be ready," said Everett, who had seven tackles (four solo). "We're willing to carry the team whether we're up or down. That's what Gator defense is all about. We're always willing to carry the team."

Alabama's only touchdown was compliments of the Florida offense. With third and 11 on the 48-yard line, Leak was motioning to teammates on the line when center Steve Rissler snapped the ball, hitting Leak in the shoulder. Linebacker Prince Hall picked it up and ran 50 yards for a touchdown, giving the Tide a 7-0 lead with 2:47 left in the first half. Alabama never got into the end zone again.

Freshman quarterback Tim Tebow's 2-yard run gave the Gators their first touchdown with 1:45 left in the half, then the rally continued with a 16-yard pass from Leak to Andre Caldwell with 2:39 left in the third quarter for Florida's first lead, 14-10. Leak was 14-of-20 for 174 yards and two touchdowns, which moved him into second place on Florida's all-time career passing touchdowns list (79) ahead of Rex Grossman (77). Tebow threw one pass for 23 yards and also rushed nine times for 28 yards.

"They toughed it out," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "They were challenged the beginning of the season, maybe 6,000, 7,000 or 8,000 times they were challenged on their toughness and that's two (straight) games they've come from behind and won. They toughed it out."