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Gators SECure East

A fake punt, two blocks and two bounce passes play key roles in UF's win over South Carolina.

[Times photo: Kevin White]
Gator QB Jesse Palmer gets a hug from coach Steve Spurrier after an emotional win over South Carolina, Palmer's last game at Florida Field.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 12, 2000


GAINESVILLE -- Surreal.

That's the word Florida offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker was searching for to describe what he had just witnessed. The tumult, the wackiness, the deliciousness of it all.

"Crazy game," he said, shaking his head. "Real crazy game."

No. 5 Florida rallied from an 18-point, second-quarter deficit for a 41-21 victory against No. 21 South Carolina at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday, claiming the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division title for the seventh time in nine seasons.

photo
[Times photo: Kevin White]
Jabar Gaffney celebrates as he scores on a 70-yard passing play.
The Gators (9-1, 7-1 SEC) are heading to all their usual places -- a showdown at No. 3 Florida State on Saturday with national championship implications, then the Southeastern Conference championship Dec. 2 in Atlanta. But the route they took was anything but ordinary.

"It was like a dream," Walker said.

This was the Gators' recipe for victory: a successful fake punt on the heels of surrendering two blocked punts for touchdowns, a ricochet reception off a defender's helmet, a touchdown catch by a 299-pound lineman, a punt return for a touchdown and a resilient backup quarterback/hero who got the wind knocked out of him.

Yep, just another day at the ballfield.

"I think I understand why the elections were all fouled up," South Carolina coach Lou Holtz said of the Florida's presidential recount. "I've never seen anything like this election. I've never seen anything like this football game."

South Carolina (7-3, 5-3) led 7-3 when things got bizarre.

The Gamecocks' Brian Scott blocked Alan Rhine's punt and Carlos Spikes returned it 14 yards for a touchdown and 14-3 lead with 1:29 left in the first quarter.

Ninety-three seconds later, South Carolina did it again.

Derek Watson reached out with his left arm to backhand Rhine's next attempt, corralled it at the UF 2-yard line and dove into the end zone for a 21-3 lead with :06 left.

"Looking at the scoreboard, 21-3, you have your doubts," UF offensive lineman Mike Pearson said. "But we said, "Hang in there; it's a long game.' "

One that got weirder.

Early in the second quarter, Florida faced fourth and 2 at its 28. Spurrier seemed to consider going for it rather than risk another blocked punt, but finally sent Rhine onto the field. The game's goat, Rhine took the snap and dashed 26 yards for a first down.

"It was a good feeling to have the momentum back in our hands," Rhine said. "And it was good that our punt team turned it around."

On the next play, senior quarterback Jesse Palmer's sideline pass bounced off the helmet of cornerback Sheldon Brown and into the hands of receiver Jabar Gaffney for a 40-yard gain to the USC 6. Palmer hit Reche Caldwell in the end zone, cutting the margin to 21-10 with 13:12 left in the half. On the next possession, Palmer hit Gaffney with a 5-yard slant that, after one missed tackle, blossomed into a 70-yard touchdown, trimming the deficit to 21-17.

The ultimate absurdity -- one even Holtz smiled about -- came when UF took the lead for good on a 6-yard pass. Palmer threw into the chest of blitzing linebacker Andre Offing, but the ball boomeranged into the hands of offensive guard Tommy Moody, who barrelled into the end zone.

UF led 24-21.

"I got an early Christmas present," Moody said. "Offensive linemen aren't supposed to catch touchdowns. It's a dream."

South Carolina's nightmare wasn't over.

Hoping they could run out the clock and slink into the locker room, the Gamecocks were forced to punt when UF called timeout with 19 seconds left. Sophomore Lito Sheppard returned the kick 57 yards for a 31-21 halftime lead.

Game over.

"It's the wildest game I've ever seen or been a part of," said Palmer, who was 15 of 27 for 250 yards and three touchdowns after relieving Rex Grossman.

Florida racked up 508 yards, the most South Carolina has allowed in two seasons under Holtz, and threw one more touchdown pass than the Gamecocks had allowed all season (two).

The most suspenseful event of the second half was when Palmer got the wind knocked out of him on a sack. Trainers knelt over him for several minutes, but, like everything else for Florida, he turned out okay.

"I'm proud of our guys for winning the East," Spurrier said. "It's not as easy to win the East as everybody thinks it is."

Obviously not.

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