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It's ugly; it's a win; it'll do

Florida ends its three-game skid, sloppily, with a 40-19 victory over Ball State.

[Times photo: Kevin White]
Florida wide receiver Reche Caldwell, a former Jefferson High star, tumbles while trying to haul in Jesse Palmer's errant pass in the first half.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2000


GAINESVILLE -- They almost forgot how it felt.

For eight long, merciless months, the Gators bore the burden of a three-game losing streak. They fretted. They grimaced. They shook their heads in disbelief. Two-hundred sixty-five days went by without a win.

Until Saturday.

It may not have been much to brag about, but No. 9 Florida's 40-19 opening victory against overmatched Ball State before 85,095 at Florida Field served one important purpose. The Gators are on a one-game win streak.

"We won us a ballgame," coach Steve Spurrier said.

Gone is the frustration of the late-1999 collapse. Snapped is the longest losing streak in Spurrier's 11-year tenure. Over is the seemingly endless wait for a fresh start.

The victory handed Ball State its 18th consecutive loss (longest in the nation), which means the Cardinals will have to wait at least one more week to experience such a thrill. It also means Florida cannot be too proud of itself.

The Gators were 45-point favorites at kickoff, but when the fourth quarter started the first-string offense was still grinding away and the lead was just 33-19.

photo
[Times photo: Kevin White]
The Gators' Robert Gillespie celebrates his second touchdown.
"Obviously, we didn't play real super, so we won't be real full of ourselves," Spurrier said. "We've got a lot of improving to do."

For a while, though, it felt like old times in the Swamp. The game started with a gimmick as Spurrier called for kicker Jeff Chandler to dribble the kickoff and scoop it up after 10 yards.

From there, a quarterback wearing jersey No. 7 piloted the offense to a blistering start. It wasn't Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel pitching it around, but senior Jesse Palmer, who after three turbulent seasons was in a hurry to show fans he can handle the job.

Palmer completed passes on UF's first four plays, for 9, 17, 20 and 8 yards, the last a touchdown to tight end Kirk Wells 1:10 into the game. Chandler shanked the extra point for a 6-0 lead.

Florida scored quickly on its second possession, going to tailback Robert Gillespie on three consecutive carries for 35 yards, the last a 13-yard score. The conversion failed for a 12-0 lead with 9:57 left in the first quarter.

Gillespie finished with a career-high 112 yards on 17 carries, but he may not play against Middle Tennessee State after spraining a toe late in the game.

"Those first two drives we went up and down the field with ease," Spurrier said. "Jesse was sharp early, then he struggled for a bit. He started off super, but he needs to play better. And he knows that."

Palmer was 21-of-46 for 327 yards with three touchdowns, all career highs. He did not throw an interception and scored his first official rushing touchdown on a 1-yard sneak. But statistics do not tell the full story, because they could have been much better.

"I was okay," said Palmer, who missed a number of open receivers on deep routes. "I got off to a good start, but there was a lack of execution. A couple of balls got away from me. In the middle of the game I became a little too hesitant. Overall, it wasn't very good, but it was enough for the win."

That goes for the whole team.

With a Sept. 16 showdown at Southeastern Conference rival Tennessee looming, coaches have plenty of sloppy plays to bring to the Gators' attention when they review the game tape.

The offense produced points on eight of 16 possessions, but two of those scores were for Ball State. Palmer fumbled on a blind-side hit by blitzing lineman Cornelius Bowick, who recovered for a touchdown to make it 12-7 with 6:35 left in the first quarter. Midway through the third quarter, Gillespie was tackled by Evan Triggs for a safety.

"I don't ever want to feel upbeat after losing, but our kids kept battling back and playing hard," Ball State coach Bill Lynch said. "We won some wars."

Defensively, a pair of missed tackles by Florida led to Ball State's longest plays, a 31-yard run by Marcus Merriweather and a 49-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Talmadge Hill to Corey Parchman.

On special teams, Chandler missed his first two kicks, an extra point and a 37-yard field goal try. Punter Alan Rhine, slow to handle low snaps, had two punts blocked.

And, after a 16-yard personal foul and 11-yard sack of Palmer, a disgusted Spurrier punted on third and 25 rather than watch his offense run another bumbling play.

"In a lot of ways it was a typical first game," defensive coordinator Jon Hoke said. "We've got a lot to work on."

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