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Rexceptional

Improvising at times, QB Rex Grossman leads Florida over Auburn.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000


photo
[Times photo: Kevin White]
Rex Caldwell entertained the Florida Field fans with his first-half heroics against Auburn.
GAINESVILLE -- Florida quarterback Rex Grossman knows how to count to three. Honest, he does. Cross his heart and hope to throw an interception, he meant to take a five-step drop.

He had no choice.

A linebacker was in the way.

Of the five touchdowns Grossman threw in No. 10 Florida's 38-7 dismantling of No. 19 Auburn at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, his 10-yard pass to Gaffney in the back of the end zone was the most remarkable.

And the most symbolic.

Marching toward their goal of winning the Southeastern Conference championship, the Gators are so in sync they're turning doomed plays into touchdowns.

"The play sent in was a quick slant -- one, two, three, throw," Florida coach Steve Spurrier said. "I said, "Why'd you take five steps?' He said, "The dude was in the way there, so I let Jabar go on the other side and hit him. I said, "Makes sense to me.' "

Florida (6-1, 4-1 SEC) remained tied with South Carolina for first place in the Eastern Division. It has an open date before facing arch-rival Georgia in a key division game Oct. 28 in Jacksonville.

Coming off a 41-9 feel-good victory against Louisiana State, the biggest issue for the Gators on Saturday was whether they could repeat that complete performance against a nationally ranked opponent.

They did not.

Nope, they were even better.

The offense scored on its first five possessions, punting for the first time with 1:12 left in the first half. Grossman was 14 of 23 for 232 yards with touchdown passes of 8 and 2 yards to Reche Caldwell, and 18, 8 and 50 yards to Gaffney.

Florida led 35-7 at halftime.

"That shows what this offense can do when everyone is playing well," Grossman said. "It's never been that easy. I think the scout team at least stops us one out of five in practice."

Gaffney, who has eight touchdowns in the past three games, continued to showcase his skills, burning an Auburn corner on a streak route for the 50-yard score and leaping high to pull in Grossman's improvised pass to the back of the end zone. It almost looked as though Grossman was throwing the ball away.

He promised he was not.

"Nah, I just wanted to see how high he could jump," Grossman said. "And he can jump pretty high."

Gaffney broke the SEC freshman record for touchdown catches in a season with his eighth, ninth and 10th. Auburn's Ronney Daniels had nine last season. His 37 receptions is a UF freshman record, surpassing Jack Jackson's 35 in 1992.

"We came out with a lot of emotion," said Gaffney, who had four catches for 101 yards, his third straight 100-yard game. "We scored five quick touchdowns and kept rolling from that."

The defense, embarrassed in a 47-35 loss at Mississippi State on Sept. 30, played with emotion for the second straight game. It surrendered 133 yards to Rudi Johnson, the SEC's leading rusher, but harassed quarterback Ben Leard and forced three turnovers.

The Gators have committed just eight turnovers this season, none the past two games. The defense has forced 24, the most in the SEC, for a league-leading margin of plus-16.

"The emotion is contagious," linebacker Marcus Oquendo-Johnson said. "You can feel it as well as see it. Everybody is jumping around having a good time."

Auburn's touchdown was aided by a late-hit penalty against linebacker Mike Nattiel, who rolled over Johnson at the end of a 1-yard loss that would have made it third-and-11 at the Auburn 16.

The Tigers (5-2, 3-2) sustained a 13-play drive capped by Leard's 13-yard pass to Deandre Green on the first play of the second quarter to make it 14-7.

But Florida needed just 10 plays to score its next three touchdowns, all Grossman-to-Gaffney connections.

"We got overwhelmed in the first half," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "I've never seen so many big plays. They have an explosive team, and we found that out awfully early."

And the biggest explosions come on plays that appear to be imploding. A week after Grossman retrieved a shotgun snap over his head, spun and hit Gaffney with a 9-yard touchdown pass, the duo struck again Saturday with some customized tweaking of Spurrier's play book.

"Rex turned a three-step drop into a five-step," said Spurrier, his amazement evident. "I've never had a quarterback do that. I didn't know what was going on out there, but it was okay. It worked out."

And how.

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