By JOANNE KORTH
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 8, 2000
|[Times photo: Kevin White]
Alex Brown leaps on linebacker Mike Nattiel after Nattiel's second interception against LSU.
GAINESVILLE -- This is how legends begin.
With a bad snap, a busted play and an improvisation. With a receiver thinking on his feet and a quarterback staying on his. With a touchdown pass no one could believe.
And no one will forget.
It was late in the second quarter when a shotgun snap sailed over Florida quarterback Rex Grossman's head on third-and-goal. Rather than take a loss, Grossman collected the bouncing ball, spun and saw receiver Jabar Gaffney out of the corner of his eye. With two Louisiana State players bearing down on him, Grossman fired into the end zone.
"That will go down as an all-time play in the Swamp," coach Steve Spurrier said.
Sparked by Grossman's cool-under-pressure completion -- a single play perhaps altering a season and launching a career -- No. 12 Florida beat LSU 41-9 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday.
Still in first place in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division, the Gators (5-1, 3-1) bounced back from last week's 47-35 loss to Mississippi State by having fun for the first time this season. And Grossman is their new quarterback.
"This is the best game we've played all year -- offensively, defensively, special teams," Spurrier said. "Maybe we've got the right chemistry."
Senior quarterback Jesse Palmer, who started the first five games, was hindered in practice the past two weeks by hip and ankle injuries. He played against LSU, but only in the fourth quarter with the game already decided. Hoping to extend the Gators' good karma, Spurrier said Grossman will start against Auburn.
"He's a beautiful passer," Spurrier said. "He throws it right where you can catch it. He did some really good things. Hopefully he can build on this."
Unflappable in his first career start, Grossman was 18 of 28 for 276 yards and three touchdowns, all to Gaffney. But none was more spectacular than the busted play.
"I was going to throw it away, but I saw Jabar break over there and I threw it in his general direction," Grossman said. "He made a great play on it."
Sensing from the groan of the crowd that something had gone wrong, Gaffney broke off his route to the middle of the end zone and headed for the left side.
"Rex has a lot of confidence," said Gaffney, who had eight catches for 128 yards. "He doesn't get irritated. If it's a bad snap, he'll pick it up and make a play."
The play was so dramatic, it already has a soundtrack.
Searching for a way to lift his team's spirits, Spurrier came to practice Wednesday armed with musical motivation. He'd watched the Country Music Awards on television, where I Hope You Dance by Lee Ann Womack won song of the year.
"He's a big country music guy -- and probably not a lot of our players watched -- but he challenged them all," defensive coordinator Jon Hoke said. "He said, "Let's come to the dance; let's go dance.' "
Several players admitted they were unfamiliar with Womack's inspirational ballad about living life to its fullest, but that didn't stop them.
"We said, "Let's go out there and have fun,' " junior safety Marquand Manuel said. "We didn't worry about anything. We just had fun. This is the same game we've all been playing since we were eight years old, there's just bigger coaches involved."
How quickly things change.
A week ago, Florida surrendered 517 yards in a listless effort against Mississippi State. But against Louisiana State, the Gators were as spirited as they were stingy, holding the Tigers (3-3, 1-2) to one touchdown, flying to the ball and inciting the announced crowd of 85,365. The Gators intercepted four passes.
"We'd take a shot and throw an interception," first-year LSU coach Nick Saban said. "We'd put a drive together and throw another interception. We moved the ball well enough to score more points than we did."
Florida's offense, which hit rock bottom last week when it took an intentional safety against MSU, was productive and efficient: 298 passing yards, 175 rushing yards and no turnovers. As a result, the Gators have a new leader.
"For right now, maybe," Grossman said.
Whether he develops into Florida's next great quarterback -- joining the likes of Spurrier, Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel in UF lore -- remains to be seen. But his legend is off to a pretty good start.
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