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Sigh of relief in Swamp

Gators' trampled defense rises up on final play to preserve hopes of a title finish.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published November 12, 2006


GAINESVILLE - Charlie Strong couldn't bear to watch. His heart told him he had made the right decision, but his head was saying otherwise.

With his defense having given up more than 400 yards against South Carolina on Saturday afternoon, the Florida co-defensive coordinator made a gut-wrenching decision: He allowed junior defensive end Jarvis Moss to stay in the game as the Gamecocks prepared to attempt a 48-yard field goal to win the game.

Moss had played every down in the game, and Strong feared he was exhausted. Moss promised Strong that if the coach let him back in the game, he'd take care of everything.

He made good on that promise.

As defensive ends Steven Harris and Ray McDonald drove South Carolina's offensive guards backward, Moss who has a 40-inch vertical leap jumped and used his right palm to block Ryan Succop's field-goal attempt with eight seconds remaining to give No. 6 Florida a 17-16 victory over South Carolina and former coach Steve Spurrier in front of 90,703, the third-largest crowd in school history.

"How many has he blocked this year?" Spurrier said. "Don't tell me that's his first."

It was.

"We all just talked about what we were going to do so we could execute it well, and we executed it well," said Moss, who also blocked an extra-point attempt in the fourth quarter. "That's something coach (Urban) Meyer always talks about, being accountable and not letting your team down. It felt good not to let the team down tonight. It was huge."

With the win, Florida (9-1, 7-1 SEC) kept its national title hopes alive and avenged last season's loss at South Carolina that knocked it out of the SEC championship game. And the Gators cast a little light on the shadow cast over the program by Spurrier's legend and legacy.

For second-year coach Urban Meyer, defeating the man who brought championships and national prominence to Florida, and who earned Meyer as a fan more than a decade ago, it was an emotional victory.

"It means a lot, probably more than I'll ever give in to," Meyer said. "... We're just trying to carry on the legacy. Probably more than anybody will ever know, that's how much it means to me and my family."

Florida had one of its most productive offensive days of the season, including a season-high 28 first downs (16 in the first half), 61 offensive plays and 401 yards, yet with 8:13 left in the game, the Gators trailed by six.

South Carolina running back Mike Davis scored on a 14-yard run to give the Gamecocks a 16-10 lead. Moss blocked Succop's extra-point attempt, one of three blocks in the game for Florida.

Then came one of the biggest drives of the season. Florida, which hadn't scored in the fourth quarter in the previous four games, drove 80 yards on 11 plays, capped by a 12-yard run from freshman quarterback Tim Tebow with 3:03 remaining and the extra point by Chris Hetland to give the Gators a 17-16 lead. The drive included two crucial runs of 17 and 8 yards by quarterback Chris Leak and a 6-yard run by Tebow on fourth and 1 at Florida's 29 with 5:56 left in the game.

"I looked them (teammates) in the eyes before I went out there and they had the confidence in me to get it, and I just didn't want to let them down," Tebow said.

Florida, the most penalized team in the SEC, had just four penalties for 49 yards, while the Gamecocks had 10 for 85. One may have cost them the game: In the final 30 seconds, quarterback Blake Mitchell's pass to Sydney Rice put the Gamecocks on Florida's 7-yard line, but a false start negated the play.

"I guess it just wasn't meant to be, fellas," Spurrier said.

The Florida defensive coaches said early in the week that they were committed to stopping the run; the plan was to force Spurrier's Gamecocks to win it in the air. But the Gamecocks rushed for 135 yards, opening up the pass for Mitchell who was 24-for-33 for 275 yards. The Gators had no sacks and no interceptions.

"We didn't play very well on defense," Strong said. "I was very disappointed."

Leak was 19-for-27 for 254 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Baker.

"It was a very satisfying win," Leak said. "It was electric out there."

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