Friday, December 13, 2002
No. 4 Florida 27, No. 9 Tennessee 23
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Rocky Top hit rock bottom against the Florida Gators.
Jesse Palmer threw a disputed 3-yard touchdown pass to Jabar Gaffney with 14 seconds remaining, lifting No. 4 Florida to an unlikely 27-23 victory over Tennessee on Saturday.
"No question, God was smiling on us because the other team outplayed us," Gators coach Steve Spurrier said. "And somehow we got more points."
With nearly all of a Neyland Stadium-record crowd of 108,768 cheering on the ninth-ranked Vols, they failed to hold off the Gators' game-winning, 91-yard march that brought an end to Tennessee's 23-game home winning streak.
"Right now our pride is hurt," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said, "And we're really disappointed."
It was the Vols' inability to score touchdowns in the first half that eventually led to their downfall. And the defeat couldn't have come in a more demoralizing fashion.
On the winning play, a first-and-goal from the Tennessee 3, Palmer threw a quick strike to Gaffney just over the goal line. Gaffney had the ball for an instant and then it was knocked loose by cornerback Willie Miles. But line judge Al Matthews ruled Gaffney made the catch, and the call stood after a brief conference with referee Al Ford.
"I had it long enough for it to be a touchdown," said Gaffney, who finished with six catches for 91 yards.
Mills had a different view.
"I saw the ball fall," he said. "I'm not a ref. What I think doesn't matter. The Gators won but the world knows about the last play. I thought they were going to overrule. I don't think they were sure."
The officials were not available for comment.
What was certain, though, was the Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC) had beaten the Vols (1-1, 0-1) for the 12th time in the last 15 meetings and now have the upper hand in the SEC East race. The winner of this game has won the division six times and the loser twice in the eight years since the league went to division play.
Palmer is familiar with game-winning passes, but it's the first time in a real game he has pulled it off.
"I've been in that situation five million times in PlayStation," Palmer said, "but never in person. It's something I've dreamed about."
Florida took over on its own 9 and Palmer hit Gaffney for 33 yards to the Gators' 38, and then found Reche Caldwell for 21 yards to the Vols 5. A 5-yard penalty and a 7-yard completion later, Palmer hit Gaffney.
"In the huddle, we said 'Let's go make some memories,' " Palmer said. "You know you're a long way away but you can see it. You can see you can get there."
When the game ended, the crowd booed and the Gators celebrated on the field.
Trailing 23-17 after Alex Walls kicked a school-record tying fifth goal -- a 42-yarder early in the fourth quarter -- the Gators closed to 23-20 on Jeff Chandler's 32-yard field goal with 7:35 left.
And that field goal set the stage for the final dramatic moments in one of the SEC's fiercest rivalries. In the last three years, this game has been decided by a total of eight points -- the Vols won 20-17 in OT in '98 and the Gators won last year, 23-21.
The loss offset a magnificent performance by Tennessee's Travis Henry, who carried 37 times for 175 yards and a touchdown. A.J. Suggs, starting his first game, was 17-of-29 for 140 yards.
Palmer, who was replaced for a time by Rex Grossman in last week's win over Middle Tennessee, was 20-of-43 for 290 yards and had at least a half-dozen passes dropped in the first half.
Florida took its first lead, 17-12, with 8:50 left in the third period when cornerback Lito Sheppard stepped in front of Suggs' pass intended for Cedrick Wilson and ran 19 yards for a touchdown.
Three plays earlier, Chandler pulled the Gators within two at 12-10 on a 24-yard field goal.
Henry scored Tennessee's only touchdown on a 1-yard dive with 1:43 left in the third quarter. The 2-point conversion pass from Suggs to Wilson made it 20-17.
The Vols led 12-7 at halftime thanks to field goals of 36, 19, 29 and 19 yards by Walls. On three occasions, Tennessee reached the Florida 6, 1 and 2 and each time came away with a field goal.
Florida managed just 79 yards-- 62 passing, 17 rushing -- in the first half, while the Vols piled up 226.
With the power running of Henry and safe, short swing passes by Suggs, Tennessee had field goals on four of its six first-half possessions.
After moving 78 yards to the Florida 19 on their second drive, the Vols settled for a 36-yard field goal by Walls with 3:30 left in the first period. The first drive ended in a fumble by Wilson on the Florida 37.
Tennessee was back in business at the Florida 45 after Eric Parker returned a punt 18 yards. But Henry fumbled on third down at the 1 and Walls kicked an 19-yarder 3:20 into the second period.
After the Gators went three-and-out for the fourth straight time with Palmer at the controls, the Vols were on the move again after another strong punt return by Parker, this one for 21 yards to the Gators 25. Henry nearly scored from 13 yards out, but was tripped up by linebacker Byron Hardmon at the 6. Henry fumbled on the next play, but the Vols recovered and Walls made it 9-0 on a 29-yard field goal with 7:57 to go in the half.
While defense kept the Gators in the game, the offense led by Palmer didn't pick up a first down until 7:34 remained in the half on a 30-yard pass to Alex Willis. Florida made the most of the opportunity and cut the lead to 9-7 on Earnest Graham's 1-yard TD run one play after Palmer hit Taylor Jacobs for 25 yards.
Suggs then completed passes of 14 yards to Parker, 9 to Bobby Graham, and 6 to Wilson, before Walls come on for another 19-yarder on the final play of the half.
|Florida's Kirk Wells couldn't hold on to this pass Saturday courtesy of a hit by Tennessee linebacker Eric Westmoreland, but the Gators won.|
Phil Fulmer says the Vols had chances to beat Florida on Saturday.
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Jesse Palmer wanted the ball with the game on the line.
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