Spurrier pulls Palmer, then Grossman fires three touchdowns during a 55-0 thumping of Middle Tennessee State.
By JOANNE KORTH
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 2000
GAINESVILLE -- From his vantage point on the sideline, Steve Spurrier saw a wide open receiver, an easy touchdown. Quarterback Jesse Palmer was looking somewhere else.
"Did you see that?" Spurrier asked backup quarterback Rex Grossman, standing next to him. Grossman said he did. Spurrier made a few quick gestures, diagramming pass routes in the air, and asked Grossman another question.
"Can you do that?"
No. 8 Florida (2-0) provided plenty of answers with its 55-0 trouncing of Middle Tennessee State before a crowd of 84,311 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday. But just in time for this week's showdown at No. 12 Tennessee, the Gators have a new, yet familiar question.
Who is the quarterback?
Leading 24-0 late in the second quarter, Spurrier replaced Palmer with Grossman in mid-drive. Two plays later, Grossman threw a 16-yard touchdown to receiver Alex Willis. Palmer did not return, sparking what is sure to be spirited debate over who should play against the Volunteers.
Or maybe -- gasp! -- both?
"It would be very simple if we had a guy who was clearly our best player," Spurrier said. "Some time this week we'll have to figure it out."
Still looking for a quarterback who executes the Fun "n' Gun offense to his liking -- the last one was named Wuerffel -- Spurrier lasted all of 51/2 quarters before stirring up controversy.
"I was hoping Jesse could go the distance," Spurrier said. "I hoped he would fire it in there the way he's capable and he would be our quarterback the whole year. But he didn't do that. I have to pull the strings, one way or the other."
Palmer was 15 of 23 for 193 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in just more than a quarter and a half -- numbers many quarterbacks around the country would like to have after four quarters. He guided UF to touchdowns on its first two drives, completing 5 of 6 for 82 yards with a 17-yard score to Taylor Jacobs.
But, as always with Palmer, the good was tempered with just enough bad to give Spurrier pause. He didn't throw any visors, but, then again, it was raining.
Palmer, a senior, continued to struggle with timing on deep routes and fumbled an exchange on first down at the MTSU 16, UF's first red-zone failure of the season. Palmer made his last bad decision when he opted for a well-covered sideline pass to Bo Carroll rather than the open receiver Spurrier spied.
In its second Division I-A season, Middle Tennessee State (0-2) was in no position to make Palmer pay for his mistakes. Spurrier was.
"It was coach's decision," Palmer said. "It was an easy decision for him to make."
Grossman, a redshirt freshman from Bloomington, Ind., made a dandy first impression. His first attempt was his first career touchdown, a throw that split two defenders to find Willis in the end zone. Grossman soon added scoring passes of 19 and 14 yards to tight end Aaron Walker, and finished 9 of 14 for 95 yards.
"I was totally shocked," Grossman said. "He didn't give me any indication I was going in to play. He asked, "Can you do that?' and I said, "Yeah.' He said, "Go give it a try.' It was a blast."
Grossman was not perfect, either. Midway through the third quarter he threw the season's first interception, zinging the ball well over the head of Brian Haugabrook. Palmer, who played late into the 40-19 opening victory, has not thrown an interception in 69 attempts this season.
"Hopefully Jesse's confidence is not knocked down too much," Spurrier said. "I thought there were some plays we should have hit and I thought his decisions could have been better. Rex, his decisions weren't all that good the second half, but he had some good throws."
Overshadowed by the startling shakeup was the defense's first shutout since 1996. UF forced five turnovers, including four fumbles. Todd Johnson's 76-yard fumble return for a touchdown was UF's first since 1997.
Lito Sheppard returned a punt 54 yards for a touchdown. Earnest Graham, a starter because of Robert Gillespie's sprained toe, ran 12 times for 85 yards.
Everything seemed to fall into place, with one obvious exception.
"We didn't pitch it around as well as I'd hoped," Spurrier said. "This team's got a chance, but we need to get the quarterback situation settled."