What the hail?

Miracle play turns game's momentum

Published: Sunday, September 21, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, September 21, 2003 at 12:30 a.m.
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Tennessee wide receiver James Banks celebrates his Hail Mary touchdown at the end of the first half Saturday at Florida Field.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun
The post-game scene on the field turned into an instant replay from two years ago.
There stood Casey Clausen on top of the orange sideline wall, directing the Tennessee band through the 1,000th playing of "Rocky Top."
There were the Vols, smiling and celebrating and posing for some pictures.
There were the thousands of UT fans who, of course, stayed until the end, mocking Florida with the Gator chomp cheer.
And there went the dejected and downtrodden Gators, heading toward the locker room tunnel, heads bowed in bitter defeat.
But this loss to No. 12 Tennessee in The Swamp was much different than two years ago. And what everybody remembers from this one won't be that orange-and-white celebration in the southeast corner of Florida Field.
This is what they'll remember: The Hail Mary. And No. 17 Florida's offensive blunder that allowed it to happen at the end of the first half.
Those are the signature moments, the two defining plays, that will be committed to memory from this Tennessee win - a 24-10 victory before a record crowd (90,332) in The Swamp.
"It seemed to lift them up," UF senior cornerback Keiwan Ratliff said. "After that, they were more energized than us. I guess they wanted it more than us."
That one scenario in the closing seconds of the first half changed everything, changed it completely. The momentum, the energy, the emotion, the crowd, the way the rest of a hot, steamy day played out.
One coaching blunder, followed by one Hail Mary.
There was a lot of football left to be played after that. But the game never felt the same.
After the Florida offense failed to kill the final seconds of the first half - when it could have, should have - and Clausen then launched a prayer with no time left on the clock, and wide receiver James Banks turned it into a miracle touchdown and a 7-3 UT lead, the pervading feeling in The Swamp seemed to be that this game now belonged to Tennessee (3-0).
And it did. "There's supposed to be one jumper on the play," senior free safety Daryl Dixon would say later. "But everything got discombobulated. The ball bounced off Keiwan's back and pretty much landed in (Banks') lap."
Said Ratliff: "(Strong safety) Guss (Scott) knocked it down and it hit off me. It was just one of those things that happens. Luck was on their side. We wanted to let it die (in the halftime locker room). We didn't want it to linger into the second half."
But it did. And so will the questions about why UF coach Ron Zook and offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher didn't run out the clock when they could have, keeping the ball away from Clausen and the Vols, and keeping the momentum on the UF sideline.
Leading 3-0, the Gators (2-2) got the ball back on their own 20 with only 52 seconds remaining, and UT had only one time out.
After redshirt freshman tailback DeShawn Wynn gained seven yards on a draw play, UF inexplicably called time out. On second down, Ingle Martin threw incomplete, stopping the clock again. When tailback Ran Carthon then gained only 1 yard on third down, UT called its final timeout with only 27 seconds remaining.
Following a 46-yard punt by Eric Wilbur, the Vols had the ball on their own 39 with only 16 seconds remaining.
After UT tailback Cedric Houston gained 13 yards on a pass play and Clausen quickly grounded a pass, there were only four seconds remaining.
Clausen then launched a pass into the right corner of the end zone as time expired and it fell into the arms of Banks for a 48-yard touchdown play.
After the game, Zook defended his decision to try and score more points instead of running out the final 52 seconds.
"With 52 seconds to go, we've got a chance to get three points if we can get to their 35," Zook said. "In that situation, my thinking was to try and get some points. I felt their defense was a little bit tired. I felt we had a chance to get down there.
"There will be a lot of criticism of that series. I made (the decision) and that's the way it is. It's a situation (with four seconds left) where they made the play and you have to give them credit. We didn't stop it. We work on that play. We just didn't get it done."
Banks said he didn't expect the Hail Mary to work.
"It's one of those plays you work on, but you never think you're going to run it in a game or that it will work," he said. "I just thank the Lord I was in the right position at the right time and the ball came down in my hands. It never works in practice."
The radical turn of events in the closing seconds pumped new life into the Vols and seem to deflate the Gators and what had been a raucous crowd.
"The momentum changed after that play," Clausen said.
In the third quarter, the Vols took over, building a 17-3 lead on a 51-yard field goal by James Wilhoit and a 1-yard run by Jabari Davis.
UF cut it to 17-10 with 5-yard TD run by Wynn with 14:00 left in the game, but the Vols answered with a 76-yard scoring drive that culminated with another Davis TD run, this one from nine yards out.
The Gators had three more scoring opportunities in the final seven minutes, but one drive ended when Chris Leak threw an interception and the other two ended when Ingle Martin threw incompletions on fourth-down plays.
"That was a team loss," Zook said. "We all got credit for that - the defense, offense, special teams and coaches.
"You go back to work. Thankfully, we play next Saturday (at Kentucky). Our guys will rebound from this. There's a lot of ball to play and we're going to get better."
You can reach Robbie Andreu by e-mail at andreur@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5022.

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