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So close, still so far out of reach

Vols DBs: If there was a breakdown on UF's score, it was by referees.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Willie Miles entered the game with a broken left wrist. He left it with a broken heart.

The Tennessee defensive back thought he had made a potential game-saving play in the waning seconds Saturday at Neyland Stadium, getting a piece of the football with a hand wrapped in a cast.

Miles believed he had knocked the ball from the grasp of Florida receiver Jabar Gaffney, who ever-so-briefly got his fingers on the 3-yard pass from Jesse Palmer.

For Tennessee, the play meant the difference between a possible victory and defeat.

The line judge, Al Matthews, signaled touchdown.

And the Gators had an improbable 27-23 victory.

"The world knows it wasn't a catch," Miles said afterward. "I can't do anything about it but keep my head up. The world knows. ... I thought I got a hand in there and he dropped it."

Miles thought for a moment that the officials were going to change their mind. They conferred. "I saw them talking right in front of me. The one dude didn't know. ... All I know is, the world knows the truth."

Replays seemed to indicate that Gaffney did not have possession of the second-down pass. ... But there were still 14 seconds remaining. ... Who knows what still could have happened?

"It's irrelevant," said UT coach Phillip Fulmer, who suffered just the 15th defeat of his career but the seventh to Florida. "We can bounce that Ping-Pong back and forth all day. We aren't going to hang anything on one play or one official. It's done."

Tell that to the record crowd of 108,768, most of whom were clad in orange but seeing red afterward. A huge replay screen occupies one end of the stadium. Vols fans could watch again what they thought they viewed the first time.

Yet there were other aspects of the game too hard to believe.

For one, the team that led the game in rushing did not win for the first time in 11 series meetings. The Vols outrushed Florida 203-39. Travis Henry led UT with 175 yards on 37 carries.

But it wasn't enough.

Twice in the first half, the Vols had the ball inside the UF 10, only to fumble on third down. Instead of scoring a touchdown or getting a first down, they settled for field goals. At the end of the half, the Vols again got inside the 10, only to mismanage the clock and settle for another field goal and a 12-7 halftime lead.

"We had plenty of chances to score, but came out of there with field goals," Henry said. "It's tough."

"I can't say we didn't have our chances," quarterback A.J. Suggs said. "Three points isn't bad, but we need to work on getting seven."

With all those missed opportunities, there came yet another in the fourth quarter. After intercepting a Palmer pass, the Vols had the ball at the UF 31. But after an 11-yard gain by Henry, UT could get no closer, and settled for a 42-yard field goal to make it 23-17.

And when Henry couldn't get one yard on a pitch with 2:25 left, it gave UF one last opportunity.

UF took advantage, completing a third-and-10 pass to keep the drive alive, going 91 yards in nine plays for the winning touchdown -- which long will be debated.

"He flat-out dropped the ball," UT safety Tad Golden said.

"It's unreal," Miles added.

Asked how long he had possession of the football, a smiling Gaffney said: "Long enough for them to call it a touchdown."

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