Friday, December 13, 2002
No. 8 Florida 28, No. 17 Auburn 6
ATLANTA -- Florida is back on top in the Southeastern Conference.
The No. 8 Gators pummeled No. 17 Auburn for the second time in seven weeks, with Rex Grossman throwing four touchdown passes for a 28-6 victory Saturday in the SEC Championship Game.
Earnest Graham gave Florida (10-2) a lethal ground-air attack, rushing for a career-high 169 yards, and the Gators' ball-hungry defense came up with three critical turnovers in the first half.
Florida won its sixth conference title in 10 years but the first since 1996, when the Gators also claimed the national championship.
"It's nice to get carried off the field again," coach Steve Spurrier said.
Auburn (9-3) had a successful year just by winning the SEC West after two straight losing seasons. The Tigers were denied their first conference championship since 1989.
"They're an excellent football team," coach Tommy Tuberville said. "They whipped us pretty good again."
Florida, which earned a spot in the Sugar Bowl, didn't quite match the efficiency of its 38-7 victory over Auburn on Oct. 14. That day, the Gators reached the end zone on their first five possessions to quickly turn the game into a laugher.
But Auburn never seriously threatened in the rematch, dooming itself with two fumbles and an interception before halftime. The Tigers will settle for a spot in the Citrus Bowl, their first New Year's Day appearance since 1995.
Grossman, selected the most valuable player, was 17-of-26 for 238 yards with one interception. He has shared playing time with senior Jesse Palmer much of the season. But coach Steve Spurrier followed through with his plan to start the redshirt freshman and stick with him; Palmer was on the field for only two plays.
"You can stay in there a long time if you play well and do what you're supposed to do," Spurrier said. "Rex is an excellent passer. Hopefully, he will get a lot more knowledgeable ... If he gets it all down, he has a chance to be pretty good some day."
Grossman compared Auburn's defense to the Florida scout team after the first meeting. While that provided plenty of bulletin-board fodder for the Tigers, it had no impact on the rematch.
"Once we get in a groove, things seem to click," Grossman said.
Auburn fumbled on its first possession and Florida capitalized. On third-and-goal from the 10, Grossman threaded a touchdown pass to Reche Caldwell through a crowd of defenders.
Caldwell scored again before the first quarter ended, this time on a spectacular 66-yard catch and run. He delivered a brutal straight-arm to one would-be tackler and outraced the rest of the Auburn defense down the right sideline.
The Gators made it 21-0 when Grossman hooked up with another receiver, Jabar Gaffney, for a 27-tard touchdown pass. The young quarterback delivered a perfectly placed pass over the head of safety Rob Pate, who was running just behind Gaffney but never looked back to pick up the ball.
Auburn finally got on the board when Damon Duval kicked a 44-yard field goal on the final play of the first half. But that wasn't enough to make up for all of the Tigers' mistakes.
With first down at the Florida 22, Auburn squandered a chance to get back in the game when Ben Leard's errant pass was intercepted by Lito Sheppard at the 7.
The Tigers drove deep into Florida territory on their next possession, converting fourth-and-5 at the 29 on Leard's 15-yard pass to Lorenzo Diamond.
On the very next play, Rudi Johnson was hit by Travis Carroll and lost the ball, which rolled all the way to the 3 before Mike Nattiel fell on it for the Gators. It was his second fumble recovery of the game.
Not surprisingly, Florida led the nation by causing 40 turnovers this season.
After Duval kicked another field goal from 21 yards in the third quarter, Grossman sealed the victory with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Brian Haugabrook.
About the only thing upsetting to the Florida contingent at the Georgia Dome was when the referee mistakenly said, "Timeout, Georgia" instead of the Gators. Georgia was favored to win the SEC East but fell from contention with a 34-23 loss to Florida on Oct. 28.
Florida shut down Johnson, who came in as the SEC's leading rusher with 1,520 yards. The junior managed just 47 yards on 17 carries, only the second time this season he was held under 100 yards.
Leard completed 17-of-30 for 158 yards before he was knocked out of the game with about four minutes remaining in the third quarter, the victim of a sprained right foot.
"Our offense hurt our defense today," Leard said. "We put them in very difficult situations. It's tough to get this far and come out with a loss."
Jeff Klein finished up at quarterback, but nothing much changed. Sheppard came up with his second interception late in the game.
The game had no impact on the national championship race. Florida was eliminated with a 30-7 loss to No. 3 Florida State two weeks ago.
But the Gators, who won four straight SEC titles from 1993-96, looked primed to start another run. Grossman and Gaffney are redshirt freshmen; Graham, Caldwell and Sheppard are only sophomores.
"We don't have many seniors," Spurrier said. "Most of the guys doing the important part of the ball-playing are young guys. That gives us a chance."
|Lorenzo Diamond is brought down by the Florida defense. Three first half turnovers prevented the Tigers from winning the SEC title game.|