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Bullied!

"We got what we deserved, I guess,'' coach Steve Spurrier said.

[Times photo: Kevin White]
Florida coach Steve Spurrier talks to Rex Grossman as Brock Berlin (9) and Jesse Palmer wait their turn in the second half.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 1, 2000


STARKVILLE, Miss. -- It's true.

For weeks, Florida players and coaches tried to warn us, insisting they were not the Mighty Gators anymore. But did they really mean it? And did anyone take them seriously?

Well, believe it.

Reeling from the start, No. 3 Florida bumbled its way through a college football comedy of errors Saturday with tragic results -- a 47-35 loss at Mississippi State that left the Gators sullen and shaken.

And mighty humble.

"We'd been flirting with disaster," Florida coach Steve Spurrier said. "We had a lot of bad things happen, a lot of bad things. We got what we deserved, I guess."

photo
[Times photo: Kevin White]
"Mississippi State ought to be embarrassed for tearing down the goal posts for beating this team," Spurrier said. "They need to wait on a good, solid, tough team to come in here, because we're not that at all."
The loss was Florida's first to an unranked team in Spurrier's 11 seasons, snapping a streak of 72 consecutive victories. The Gators (4-1) remain tied for first in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division at 2-1.

Florida's goals of winning the SEC and national championships remain alive, but there may not be enough time left in the season to correct all the things that went wrong Saturday.

"We need to come out and play like every game is a championship game," said senior quarterback Jesse Palmer, out the second half with a sprained ankle. "Maybe this was good for our team. Maybe this was a wake-up call."

Mississippi State (3-1, 1-1 SEC) remains a contender in the West and likely will move into the national rankings.

"This was not an upset," MSU quarterback Wayne Madkin said. "We just played our hearts out and they had it coming to them."

In so many ways.

Florida's defense gave up 517 yards -- fifth-most in the Spurrier era -- to the league's worst-ranked offense. The Bulldogs gutted the middle of UF's defense with not one, but two 150-yard rushers: Dicenzo Miller, 172 yards and Dontae Walker, 156 yards.

"Obviously, we're not very good defensively right now and that's my responsibility," coordinator Jon Hoke said. "I've got to evaluate what we're doing and what I'm doing."

But the defense wasn't alone.

On UF's first drive, fullback Rod Frazier dropped a swing pass on fourth and 1 at the MSU 37. Lito Sheppard had a kickoff return for a touchdown brought back by a holding penalty against Kirk Wells.

Palmer was sacked for a safety. He twisted his right ankle on the play and, despite attempts to return, yielded to freshmen backups Rex Grossman and Brock Berlin.

Palmer (7-of-20, 106 yards and an interception) is doubtful for Saturday's game against Louisiana State, Spurrier said. That means Grossman (13-of-16, 231 yards, two touchdowns) and Berlin (13-of-19, 148 yards, two touchdowns) will need to do a little better than their efforts on UF's first two possessions of the second half. "I've never had two quarterbacks fumble on back-to-back plays for turnovers," Spurrier said.

In a nifty bit of trickery, UF receiver Reche Caldwell, a high school quarterback, took a reverse and threw back to Grossman, wide open on the right sideline. But the pass was underthrown. Grossman made a shoe-string catch, only to turn upfield and fumble.

"We execute that in practice, but Reche couldn't get it out of his hand," Spurrier said. "We've been running that play for seven weeks now, saving it."

photo
Spurrier's first loss to an unranked team was too much for him to watch at times.
Berlin got the next chance, but a blitzing linebacker sent him scrambling toward the sideline. Tackled from behind, he fumbled right in front of Spurrier. Eight running plays later, MSU's Walker dove in from the 1 for a 24-10 lead.

Still, Florida fought back.

Grossman threw passes of 45 and 13 yards to Jabar Gaffney for a two-play touchdown drive to make it 24-17. On the next series, Grossman hit Gaffney with a 23-yard scoring pass. The extra point would have tied it.

But tailback Robert Gillespie drew a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct -- he celebrated the score by conducting the UF pep band -- and Jeff Chandler missed the point-after from 35 yards.

"I thought that was a chicken-crap call," Spurrier said.

UF, despite its pratfalls, trailed 31-23 midway through the third when center David Jorgensen made it clear the Gators were in over their heads.

From first-and-10 at the 50, Jorgensen snapped the ball over Grossman's head in the shotgun -- twice. Losses of 29 and 18 yards made it third-and-57 at the UF 3, a down and distance for which even Spurrier does not have a play. Disgusted, he had Grossman run out the back of the end zone for a safety and 33-23 MSU lead.

"Two points, at that time, didn't seem like a lot," Spurrier said.

Jorgensen's snaps and six sacks left UF with a team record minus-78 yards rushing. Any UF hope vanished when Walker dashed 60 yards on MSU's next possession, setting up a 1-yard run by Madkin for a 40-23 lead with 8:16 to play.

Defeat was imminent.

As time expired, fans from the record crowd of 43,816 stormed Scott Field to tear down goal posts. "Mississippi State ought to be embarrassed for tearing down the goal posts for beating this team," Spurrier said. "They made a mistake. They need to wait on a good, solid, tough team to come in here, because we're not that at all."

And he means it.

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