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The catch (or is it the drop?)

The often-dominated UF offense drives 91 yards to win a last-minute thriller.

[AP photo]
Jabar Gaffney, who said he had the ball "long enough for them to call it a touchdown," fends off Willie Miles for the winner with 14 seconds left.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Florida quarterback Jesse Palmer stepped into the huddle, glanced at the orange-and-white checkerboard end zone 91 yards away and calmly made a suggestion to his teammates.

"Let's make memories," he said.

What happened next, no one could forget.

Palmer thrust himself into Gators football lore when he drilled a controversial 3-yard touchdown pass into the chest of freshman Jabar Gaffney with 14 seconds left, lifting No. 6 Florida to a 27-23 victory against No. 11 Tennessee. A record crowd of 108,768 at Neyland Stadium fell silent -- stunned.

"I've never had a two-minute drill in my life," said Palmer, who completed six passes accounting for all 91 yards of the drive. "In 14 years of football that was the first time. That's a dream come true. I've waited for that opportunity all my life. I'll always remember it."

Florida (3-0, 1-0 SEC) reaps the customary rewards that come with winning this annual Southeastern Conference clash. It assumes the driver's seat in the Eastern Division and remains in the hunt for the national championship. But the prevailing opinion is that the Gators stole this win.

"We were very fortunate," Florida coach Steve Spurrier said. "Tennessee outplayed us, outhit us, ran the ball up and down the field on us. But, somehow, we scored more points."

Tennessee (1-1, 0-1) failed to take full advantage of its opportunities, settling for five field goals by Alex Walls. Tailback Travis Henry rushed for 175 yards and freshman A.J. Suggs, making his first career start, threw for 140.

Leading 23-20 with under three minutes left, Tennessee could have run out the clock, but failed to pick up a crucial first down on third-and-1 at the UF 47 when safety Todd Johnson and lineman Buck Gurley tackled Henry for a 1-yard loss on a sweep toss.

The stage was set.

Florida took over with 2:14 left, after a 50-yard punt rolled dead at its 9. Though the offense had been far from dominant to that point -- the Gators had one yard of offense in the first quarter and finished with 39 yards rushing -- everyone in the huddle oozed confidence.

"The end zone was far, far away, but I could see it in everyone's eyes," Palmer said. "Everyone wanted to score a touchdown."

Palmer, a senior, completed passes of 8, 12, 33, 21, 7 and 3 yards to four receivers on the drive. After three inconsistent seasons in which he has struggled to endear himself to fans, and his own coach, this should do the trick.

"Jesse made a lot of good throws," Spurrier said. "Hopefully he will gain confidence from this and it will send him off for a big year. He's our quarterback."

There remains some debate about whether the UF offense scored either touchdown with which it was credited. Replays of Earnest Graham's 1-yard run in the second quarter showed his knee may have been down before the ball crossed the goal line. And Gaffney had possession of the winner for only an instant.

"If the guy called it a touchdown, then it must be a touchdown," Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer said. "We're not going to hang our heads on one play."

UF's defense, which had trouble tackling Henry, scored the Gators' only undisputed touchdown on a 19-yard interception return by Lito Sheppard in the third quarter. Kicker Jeff Chandler made field goals from 24 and 31 yards.

The thrilling finish marked the first time UF won in the final minute since a freshman named Danny Wuerffel found Chris Doering in the end zone for a 24-20 win at Kentucky in 1993. Wuerffel won the Heisman Trophy as a senior.

Palmer, who faced questions last week about whether Rex Grossman would replace him, is content to win a big game and, just maybe, quiet the critics who spent last week calling for Grossman.

Despite at least half a dozen dropped passes, Palmer was 20 of 43 for 290 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The interception came on a tipped pass that hit Gaffney in the hands.

"I've had some ups and downs, but I've been waiting and Coach Spurrier gave me an opportunity," Palmer said. "That's a lot of weight off my shoulders. But it's just one game. I have to come out next week and play well again."

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