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Florida Pulls Out the Stops, Holds Off Tennessee, 23-21

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a week of so much talk, it turned out all you had to do was watch the game unfold.

Don’t listen, don’t look at the scoreboard.

No amount of post-victory yapping, and not even the final score of Florida 23, Tennessee 21, told the real story of how the fourth-ranked Gators defeated the second-ranked Volunteers at Florida Field Saturday night.

Florida’s defense won this game. Plain and simple. A better performance by the offense--and the head coach--and the score would not have been that close.

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Tennessee’s first two touchdowns came after Florida turnovers and covered a total of 48 yards.

Twice Florida Coach Steve Spurrier elected to go for it on fourth down inside the Tennessee 25-yard line, even though their kicker, Jeff Chandler, had connected on attempts of 23, 33 and 41 yards. Twice they ended up giving the ball to the Volunteers.

A late pass play down the sidelines, in what Spurrier later acknowledged was a bad play call on his part, resulted in a Tennessee interception that gave the Volunteers one last chance to win.

It proved to be the defense’s final opportunity to shine. The Gators stopped Tennessee running back Jamal Lewis short on third- and fourth-down attempts with 2:02 remaining.

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From there it was a matter of running out the clock, which set the fans at Florida Field roaring. Even amid the din of 85,707 fans, you could hear players continuing the week-long theme of verbal jousting.

Earlier, Florida players basically said the Volunteers were lucky to win last year’s meeting in overtime, a game that featured five Florida turnovers. Tennessee players questioned the athletic ability of the Gators and insinuated that Florida Field--aka “The Swamp"--isn’t a difficult place for an opponent to play.

After the Gators (3-0) made the Volunteers (1-1) the 30th consecutive visitor to leave the Swamp as losers, Florida defensive end Alex Brown said: “If we’re playing in here, we do not lose. We’re gonna win.”

Brown practically delivered this victory on his own. He had seven tackles, including five sacks, one forced fumble, one interception and two passes broken up.

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Even the players who did not play such pivotal roles in the victory felt free to talk.

Florida quarterback Doug Johnson completed 21 of 44 passes for 338 yards and two touchdowns, but he also had three interceptions and made a couple of bad passes that cost the Gators touchdowns.

“The defense won this game,” Johnson conceded.

But oh, did it feel good to be on the right side in the latest edition of this huge rivalry. For years, Florida stood between Tennessee and a national championship before the Volunteers snapped a five-game losing streak to the Gators last year.

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“One out of seven times, they beat us,” said Johnson, who, like many Gators, dismissed last year’s game as a fluke. “They’re not in our league. We know that, they know that.”

What everyone knows for a fact is that the winner of the Florida-Tennessee game went on to claim the national title in two of the previous three seasons, making this a pivotal matchup.

But there were other matters at stake. The Florida defense had been questioned after giving up 784 passing yards in the first two games against Western Michigan and Central Florida. It’s a growing unit; 15 of the 22 players on the two-deep roster were underclassmen. Saturday the Gators snapped Tennessee’s 14-game winning streak by holding the Volunteers to 278 yards in total offense. Running back Jamal Lewis has had 11 100-yard games in his career, but he could muster only 90 in 22 carries against the Gators.

“We made a statement that we can play defense,” Brown said. “We’re still the mighty Gators. We’re just young. That doesn’t say that we’re not athletic, you just don’t see the numbers, that we had that many tackles, this many tackles last year.”

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Tennessee’s only sustained drive came when it moved 97 yards to score on Lewis’ second touchdown, pulling within two points and putting a scare into the Florida crowd with 5:10 left.

Spurrier implied this week was a little easier for his team’s defense because Florida’s two previous opponents used more receivers and formations.

“Tennessee’s going to be Tennessee, as their coach says,” Spurrier said. “We can stack up against the run.”

The Volunteers tried to use the same formula that won them a national championship last year: a tough defense and safe, ground-oriented offense. The difference is now they don’t have the game-breaking abilities of Peerless Price around anymore, making points harder to come by.

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It was a sloppy game. Tennessee was penalized 15 times for 112 yards and Florida was penalized 10 times for 112 yards--including two penalties that wiped out touchdowns.


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