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Ability to rally natural for UF

A veteran-laden bunch of Gators learns to stay calm, taking cues from coach Urban Meyer, for four comeback wins this year.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published October 7, 2006


GAINESVILLE - Brandon Siler remembers looking up at the scoreboard in Neyland Stadium last month as he and his Florida teammates prepared for the second half.

The scoreboard loomed in the background: Tennessee 10, Florida 7.

Siler walked up and down the sideline, shouting at his defensive teammates.

"I was telling some of the other guys, 'Now when I get my interception, ya'll just block,' " the junior linebacker said. " 'No clipping, just clean blocks, so I can take it all the way. That's the way we were thinking; we were loose and joking around. We weren't panicked at all."

If there's a prevailing theme this season, it's that old, overused cliche: It ain't over till it's over.

These are the new Gators, the 2006, second-year-under- Urban Meyer version.

The No. 5 Gators have trailed in four of their five games, including double-digit deficits against Tennessee and Alabama.

Yet they have won them all. With 22 seniors who have gone four years without competing for a championship, the veterans have taken over.

They spent the offseason trying to change the culture and the mind-set. Eleven seniors have started at some time this season - and they refuse to let the younger players fall apart, no matter the circumstances.

"That's where the biggest difference is between this year and last year," senior center Steve Rissler said. "All the young guys are looking at the older guys seeing how they react when something happens. And none of us are putting our head down. We're all yelling, 'It's not over yet.' "

These days, they believe what they speak.

Florida has overcome 10-point deficits twice this season (vs. Tennessee and Alabama), the first time that has happened since 1995. Last season, the Gators were 0-2 when trailing after three quarters.

Florida (5-0, 3-0 SEC) hosts LSU (4-1, 1-1) this afternoon in the first of three consecutive games against ranked opponents. The Gators are trying to extend a 12-game home winning streak and are trying to open 6-0 for the first time since 1996.

If ever there was a time for Gator resilience, it is now. No. 9 LSU has the nation's top defense in total yards (193.4 per game) and one of the SEC's leading quarterbacks in JaMarcus Russell.

"Definitely it's really important now we keep going like we have," senior linebacker Earl Everett said. "Very important. But we've shown we're not a team that panics when adversity comes. We've shown we'll stick together."

In his four-year tenure, Everett has seen a coach fired, tons of controversy and no championships. He has played on teams that when the going got tough, players didn't.

So this team's attitude, the one that says as long as there's time on the clock "it's all good," is a welcome relief.

"In the past, a lot of times when we were playing and we got down, guys on our team seemed like they just gave up, they just weren't there," Everett said. "This year, guys are still out there competing whether we're down or not. The game is not over until the end of the fourth quarter. This year, those games we were down, nobody lost their composure. That was one of the big things in the previous years, guys would lose their composure, getting mad and arguing with each other. But this year, everybody keeps everybody going."

It's a mentality that begins at the top, the players said. Many of the previous staff were high-strung, outwardly emotional people. When adversity hit, emotions ran high and things deteriorated quickly. But under Meyer and veteran coaches such as co-defensive coordinators Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison, and cornerbacks coach Chuck Heater, there's a sense of calm in the face of adversity.

"What'll happen is a team will start taking on (the personality of) its coach," ESPN analyst Chris Spielman said. "And the coach, especially a strong leader like Urban Meyer ... if the coach sets those things and reiterates those points, then you have success in coming back and automatically that's credibility and confidence on the sidelines. And that's by no accident, that's an Urban Meyer coached team in the second year."

Meyer admits: "I panicked last year a little bit because I didn't trust and I had no idea where we would be. I think there's enough players you can trust now."

Like chemistry and other intangibles, players believing they're never out of the game is a component that can't be measured, some say.

"I don't think it's a habit you want to get into, falling behind in all the games you play because sooner or later it may not go the way you want," ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge said. "But I think there is something to the fact that when you get in that situation you don't panic and you don't say, 'Here we go again, the bottom's falling out.'

"Because, let's face it, if you want to be a championship-level team, you're going to have to battle through some adversity."

So far, the Gators are winning the fight.