UF toughs it out for 5-0 record


Florida quarterback Chris Leak runs the ball down to the 2-yard line against Alabama in the second quarter Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The Gators won, 28-13.

TRACY WILCOX/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
There was some talk earlier in the week about payback. But payback does not come easy in the Southeastern Conference. Sometimes it doesn't come at all.
Sometimes it comes down to simply surviving.
That's the situation the Florida Gators faced in the second half Saturday against Alabama.
It didn't come down to revenge or payback for last season's embarrassment in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
It came down to surviving. And like they did in Knoxville a few weeks ago, the No. 5 Gators toughed it out, made the plays when they had to and rallied in the fourth quarter to pull out a huge SEC win.
Getting big plays from their offensive playmakers - and even more big plays from their defensive playmakers - the Gators managed to slip past the Tide 28-13 on Saturday before 90,671 emotionally drained fans in The Swamp.
"Thank you to our players. They toughed it out," UF coach Urban Meyer said. "They were challenged at the beginning of the season. They were challenged maybe six, seven or eight thousand times on their toughness. That's two games they've come from behind and won.
"The adrenaline surge that The Swamp gives you assisted, but our guys really toughed it out."
The victory atones for last year's 31-3 loss to the Tide and moves the Gators to 5-0 on the season and 3-0 in the SEC. Alabama falls to 3-2 and 1-2.
After an awful start Saturday, this was a game that could easily have gotten away from the Gators. They trailed 10-0 early in the second quarter and had less than 50 yards of total offense.
But UF gained a much-needed lift and a much-needed score by driving 95 yards for a TD in the closing minutes of the first half. Then, in the second half, the Gators took control with some huge plays on offense and some even bigger plays on defense, the biggest being safety Reggie Nelson's 70-yard interception return for a touchdown that put the Gators up 28-13 with only 4:19 to play in the game.
"That was my first interception for a touchdown," Nelson said. "It was a great feeling getting into the end zone."
It was appropriate that the Gators clinched this victory with a big play on defense.
While the offense was stumbling around in the first half, the defense kept the Gators in the game.
Then, in the fourth quarter, the defense helped win the game.
Leading only 14-13 midway through the quarter, cornerback Ryan Smith intercepted a John Parker Wilson pass on the Tide 34. Smith fumbled the ball, but Nelson came up with a big recovery.
Three plays later, quarterback Chris Leak threw a jump ball into the end zone that wide receiver Dallas Baker juggled and turned into a 21-yard TD reception with 6:47 to play.
"We never got down on ourselves when we were losing," senior outside linebacker Earl Everett said. "We got back in the game and continued to fight. We are a different team this year."
When the Gators faced adversity in Tuscaloosa last season, they folded in the first half. This time they held on and played their way back into the lead late in the third quarter and made it hold up with some clutch plays on both sides of the ball.
"Our coaches did a great job of adjusting at halftime," said Leak, who threw for 174 yards and two touchdowns. "And our guys did a good job understanding the adjustments. We kept our composure and made all the necessary adjustments we needed to make."
Leak gave the Gators their first lead of the game with 2:39 to play in the third quarter when he found Andre Caldwell open in the right flat and Caldwell juked a defender and went 16 yards for a touchdown. Officials reviewed the play to make sure Caldwell did not lose possession of the ball as he dove into the corner of the end zone. After an anxious few minutes, the play was ruled a touchdown and The Swamp erupted with its loudest cheer of the day.
"I was worried about Coach Meyer getting on my butt (if the officials had ruled it a touchback and given the Tide the ball on the 20)," Caldwell said. "I was very relieved."
So was the crowd, which had seen the Gators playing from behind since late in the first quarter when Alabama linebacker Prince Hall scooped up a fumble and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 Tide lead.
Alabama went up 10-0 early in the second quarter on a 21-yard field goal by Jamie Christensen.
The Tide looked in complete control at that point because the UF offense had done nothing.
"That was an awful first quarter," Meyer said.
The Gators put some much needed make-up on an ugly half with the drive of the day, going 95 yards to finally crack the Tide defense. Leak set the offense up with a 45-yard run to the Alabama 3, then true freshman quarterback Tim Tebow bulled his way into the end zone on third-and-goal from the 2.
"Our guys made plays when they had to," Meyer said. "We were dead in the water. Someone asked me on the field (after the game), if you had to say what was the turning point, it was taking the ball 95 yards against that defense. Chris really mixed it up well and had that big run. He did a nice job."
Once Leak and the offense finally took the lead, the defense took over from there.
"When the offense scored, (junior middle linebacker) Brandon Siler gathered up the defense and said, 'The offense did what they needed to do. It's on us now,' " defensive end Jarvis Moss said. "We stepped up and ended up coming through."
The Gators survived - and now it's on to an even bigger game. LSU in The Swamp on Saturday.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 374-5022 or andreur@gvillesun.com.

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