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Grossman settles down, UF cruises after halftime

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Gator DB Todd Johnson intercepts a Vandy pass, one of five Vandy interceptions of the day.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000


NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Every time Rex Grossman made a mistake Saturday, Florida's defense sent its freshman quarterback a sincere and concise message.

Here, try again.

The defense intercepted five passes, a luxury that allowed Grossman to turn a shaky start into his first 300-yard passing game as No. 6 Florida pulled away from pesky Vanderbilt 43-20.

"We let Rex sort of feel his way through there," UF coach Steve Spurrier said. "He needed the experience of going through that. He bounced back nicely."

Florida (8-1, 6-1) heads into a stretch that will define its season. A victory against No. 22 South Carolina on Saturday would put the Gators in the Southeastern Conference championship on Dec. 2. In between, national championship hopes will be on the line at No. 4 Florida State on Nov. 18.

Just in time, everything seems to be falling into place for Florida. Against Vanderbilt, the defense was dominant, the offense was explosive and Grossman -- the only remaining question mark after throwing three interceptions in a 34-23 victory against Georgia -- was in control.

Eventually.

Confused by Vanderbilt's blitzing defense, Grossman made plenty of early mistakes -- an interception, a fumbled snap, four sacks and some bad decisions at the line of scrimmage. But unlike last week, when Spurrier benched him in the second quarter against Georgia, Grossman was able to learn from his mistakes.

And correct them.

"At the beginning, I was a little confused," Grossman said. "I knew their defense on paper, but once you get out there and see exactly what they're doing, it gets easier to check off. As the game went on I felt really comfortable with everything. I fought through mistakes and I'm a better quarterback because of it."

Twice, Grossman got away with losing control of the ball deep in Florida territory. Officials ruled linebacker Jamie Winborn sacked Grossman before the ball squirted out of his hand on one play and that his arm was moving forward for an incomplete pass on another.

"Those were close calls," Spurrier said.

Vanderbilt (2-7, 0-6) led 13-10 with 2:38 left in the first half when Grossman seemed to settle down. He completed five consecutive passes, the last a 2-yard fade to Reche Caldwell in the end zone, to give Florida a 17-13 halftime lead. It never trailed again.

Florida took control in the third quarter, scoring on its first three possessions for a 33-13 lead with 3:39 left in the period. Grossman finished 21 of 34 for 334 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. And no one was happier than the UF defenders.

"It's hard to play when you know if you make a couple mistakes you're going to get yanked out of the game," defensive end Alex Brown said. "Rex didn't jeopardize the game. I was glad Coach Spurrier let him stay out there after he made a couple mistakes."

So confident was Spurrier that the game was in hand he put backup quarterback Brock Berlin in to start the fourth quarter. Norval McKenzie intercepted Berlin's first attempt, returning it 25 yards for a touchdown to cut UF's margin to 36-20 with 11 minutes left.

Grossman returned to finish the game.

"I made a bad mistake substituting too early," Spurrier said. "We get one picked off and they're 16 down with 11 minutes left. I told the guys I screwed up on that. We don't substitute that early in the game."

Not to worry.

Florida's defense still had two interceptions to go. The Gators' five interceptions -- by Travis Carroll, Todd Johnson, Tron LaFavor, Daryl Dixon and Bam Hardmon -- were one shy of the school record, against Clemson in 1952.

Florida has forced 33 turnovers, the most in Spurrier's 11 seasons.

"Our job is to give the offense the ball," Brown said. "We knew in the second half we had to get control of the ball game. And we know that if our offense isn't clicking to start, eventually it will be."

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