In the aftermath of a bitter defeat, UF players and coaches mull what might have been.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2001
GAINESVILLE -- Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen stood in the stands near the 30-yard line at Florida Field, directing the school band in a spirited rendition of Rocky Top while several thousand Vols fans cheered themselves into a frenzy.
At the same time Saturday night, Florida coach Steve Spurrier was standing inside the locker room trying to console shocked players who had their championship hopes smashed by a hated Southeastern Conference rival.
"It was very quiet in the locker room," defensive end Alex Brown said. "People were pretty upset."
An 18-point underdog, Tennessee stunned Florida 34-32, snapping an 11-game home win streak. More importantly, the Vols' win ended Florida's hopes of playing for an SEC championship this weekend in Atlanta and for a national championship Jan. 3 in the Rose Bowl.
"It hurts," Spurrier said. "We knew what was on the line. I don't know what else to say. It wasn't meant for us to be. We're very disappointed we didn't win anything. We had a pretty good year, decent record, but we didn't win anything."
For Florida's players, especially the seniors, thoughts of what might have been blended with reality.
"I'm never going to forget this," senior defensive back Marquand Manuel said. "All the way down to the last play, the onside kick. I told the guys if you know you played your hardest, then it's okay. But it was all the little mistakes that got us. Right now, we're just hurt that we lost."
"Everybody was talking about the Rose Bowl and there were rose petals all over the place," receiver Taylor Jacobs said. "Honestly I wasn't even thinking about all of that. I was just worried about winning this game. But that's over. The roses? They're gone."
The Vols (10-1, 7-1) came to Florida Field and rushed for more yards than any team all season (242) and scored more points than any UF opponent this season. Travis Stephens' 226 rushing yards was the second-best total against Florida.
The Gators defense entered the game giving up 85.9 rushing yards a game and had surrendered 14 touchdowns in 10 games. Tennessee scored two touchdowns in the first quarter.
Florida's decision to play an eight-man front didn't pan out. The Gators (9-2, 6-2) couldn't stop the run and never got serious pressure on Clausen, who was 17-for-25 for 168 yards. The front four managed 4 1/2 tackles.
"I don't know where all of our guys went," Spurrier said. "It looked like Colorado running against Nebraska."
Florida defensive coordinator Jon Hoke said the Gators used variations on defense, but the biggest problems were broken gap assignments, missed tackles and lack of execution.
"We tried a lot of different things, but you have to give Tennessee credit," Hoke said. "It's tough, it's tough. I feel really bad for the seniors on this football team, especially the defensive seniors because that's who I'm closest to. They have worked hard for this program and they deserved better. There was a lot of hurt in that locker room."
Without injured starting tailback Earnest Graham, the rushing game was nearly nonexistent. Spurrier said last week the Gators needed about 100 yards to have a chance to win the game. Florida got 36 net yards rushing.
Quarterback Rex Grossman had his 10th 300-yard plus passing game, but the Vols defense kept the Gator wide receivers from dominating.
"Obviously everybody is down, but everybody is proud of everybody," Grossman said. "We gave it a lot of effort, but we came up short."
Florida will take several days off before it begins preparations for a bowl game, likely the Orange Bowl if Tennessee wins the SEC championship.
But the pain of Saturday night may take much longer to heal.
"In four years, I figured I'd have at least a couple of (SEC titles) rings," junior offensive lineman Mike Pearson said. "All I have is one. That's pretty bad."
Added Brown: "When will I get over it? I don't know. But I know I'll never forget it."
HAVE INVITE, WILL TRAVEL: Since Florida won't be playing in Atlanta on Saturday, Grossman said he will attend the Heisman ceremony in New York if he is invited. "It'll be quite an accomplishment (to win), but I'm not even thinking about that right now," Grossman said.