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Gators return to lofty perch

LSU helps Florida clinch a berth in the SEC title game.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published November 5, 2006


NASHVILLE - Shortly after Florida's 25-19 victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday afternoon, quarterback Chris Leak said, "We're huge LSU fans right now."

Odds are, the Gators are even bigger fans today.

With LSU's 28-24 victory over Tennessee on Saturday, Florida clinched its first SEC East title since 2000 and will play in the SEC championship Dec. 2 in Atlanta.

"That hasn't happened in a long time around here," junior receiver Andre Caldwell said. "To accomplish something like that, that's a big statement for Florida football. It has been a long time."

Some Florida players were hoping the game would end just as they arrived in Gainesville to cut down on the suspense. They got their wish. The charter flight was landing as LSU's JaMarcus Russell was throwing the winning touchdown.

"That'll be real good if that would happen by the time we touch down in Gainesville," senior defensive tackle Steven Harris said, "especially for my senior year and being that our whole class hasn't won one since we've been here."

Before LSU sealed the deal, the Gators 8-1, 6-1 SEC had to take care of its own business. And at times, it wasn't easy.

Florida overcame three interceptions by senior Chris Leak and a fourth-quarter rally by the Commodores (4-6, 1-5) in front of 38,134 at Vanderbilt Stadium.

"In the SEC, if you get a win on the road, it's big. It's huge," said Leak who was 18-of-25 for 237 yards and tied Shane Matthews with his 30th 200-yard passing game. "It gives you a lot of confidence, especially coming back home for a big game (against South Carolina on Saturday). Morale is high, and guys are really excited to get back home."

Florida took an 8-0 lead 2:39 into the game on the first of two 4-yard scoring runs by Leak. After holder Butch Rowley bobbled the snap on the extra point, he picked it up and threw to tight end Tate Casey for the two-point conversion.

Vanderbilt answered with a 13-yard run by Cassen Jackson-Garrison, but its two-point conversion failed.

Senior Dallas Baker had a season-best game with seven receptions for 135 yards and one touchdown, and Caldwell had eight for 68 yards.

"I thought our receivers played tremendous," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "They are our best players right now."

Florida led 25-6 at the end of the third after Chris Hetland hit a 29-yard field goal with 16 seconds left, only his second of the season. But the Commodores rallied with two touchdowns in the fourth, a 10-yard pass from Chris Nickson (27-of-44 for 298 yards) to George Smith 3:27 in and a 31-yarder to Earl Bennett with 2:30 left.

The Commodores missed one other scoring opportunity with 6:06 left, when they went for it on fourth and 2 at the Florida 11. Jackson-Garrison was stopped short by Ray McDonald.

Cornerback Ryan Smith had his SEC-leading sixth interception and also blocked a punt, and Reggie Nelson blocked his second punt of the season.

"It shouldn't have been as close as it was in the fourth quarter," Smith said. "I felt that we came out and played a good first half. And had we come out and played the same way in the second half, it wouldn't have been close."

The Gators gained just 125 rushing yards but had 242 passing yards.

Meyer said the Gators are not playing championship-caliber offense right now, but at this point in the season "a win is a win."

"It was a great win," Meyer said. "It's great to be 8-1. Obviously, we've got a lot of work to still do, but I think our guys fought. We're facing some personnel and injury issues guys are fighting through."

Antonya English can be reached at (813) 226-3389 or english@ sptimes.com.