Late call snuffs Iowa rally; Gators hold on for Outback win

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- When Urban Meyer talks about Florida football, he singles out Vernell Brown.

"If there's a poster or something out there that says 'Florida Gators,' I want his mug right there," Meyer said after Brown, who broke his leg two months ago, came back Monday and scored on an interception to help Florida beat No. 25 Iowa 31-24 in the Outback Bowl.

"I want people to see Vernell Brown," the coach said of his cornerback. "He's what we stand for."

Chris Leak threw for 277 yards, while Dallas Baker scored on passes of 24 and 38 yards and finished with 10 catches for 147 yards for the 16th-ranked Gators (9-3). With the victory, Meyer matched Ray Graves (1960) and Steve Spurrier (1990) for most victories for a coach in his first season at Florida.

Brown, who broke his left leg against Vanderbilt on Nov. 5 and missed the last two games of the season, picked off an overthrown pass and returned it 60 yards. Tremaine McCollum ran 6 yards with a blocked punt for another TD to help the Gators build a 24-7 halftime lead.

"Vernell Brown's a guy who was told, 'You can't do this, you can't do that.' Broke leg. Told he won't be back," Meyer said. "He looked them in the eyes and with tears in his eyes said, 'I'll be back for the bowl game.' He was back for the bowl game and played his heart out."

Meyer also singled out the senior cornerback in making the point that he wants players who are committed to staying in Gainesville, not those who come to Florida to spiff up their NFL resumes.

"We don't stand for five stars," Meyer said. "We don't stand for highly recruited guys that maybe get too much credit. We don't stand for the guys who come out early."

Drew Tate and the Iowa offense had success moving the ball, but the blocked punt on the fifth play of the game, Brown's interception and two costly penalties during an 80-yard touchdown drive Florida put together just before the half left the Hawkeyes (7-5) in a hole too deep to escape.

"We did a lot of stuff that didn't look like us in the first half," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

Tate completed 32-of-55 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns. He rallied his team from a 31-7 deficit in the fourth quarter with TD throws of 4 and 14 yards to Ed Hinkel and then moved Iowa into position for a 45-yard field goal to pull the Hawkeyes
within a touchdown with 1:24 remaining.

"You can't ask anything more from our defense. They played extremely well against that offense," Tate said. "I gave them a touchdown, special teams gave them a touchdown. If we just take care of business, those two touchdowns are off the board, and it's a totally different game."

The Gators, making their third Outback appearance in the past four years, had not ended a season with a victory since beating Maryland in the Orange Bowl in 2002. They lost to Michigan in Tampa in the 2003 Outback and to Iowa two years ago -- a game for which some Florida players felt the team was ill prepared.

Iowa salvaged its season by rebounding from losses to Michigan and Northwestern to beat Wisconsin and Minnesota to receive its school-record fourth straight trip to a January bowl -- a huge boon for recruiting.

Still, five losses has to be a disappointment after going 10-2 and sharing the Big Ten championship with Ohio State in 2004.

"You look at the whole season, we experienced some ups and downs," Ferentz said. "The bounces didn't go our way at times, but guys never hung their heads and never got discouraged."

Florida's season hit a low point with a 30-22 loss at South Carolina. Meyer held a team meeting during the plane ride home, and the Gators responded two weeks later with a dominating 34-7 rout of Florida State that underscored the coach's belief that the program is headed in the right direction.

Brown was a freshman wide receiver three years ago when he threw an interception on a trick play that sealed Florida's eight-point Outback loss to Michigan under former Gators coach Ron Zook. He's flattered that Meyer considers him the face of the program.

"That means a lot to me," the 5-foot-8 cornerback said. "I just try to come out everyday and live up to it."

Meyer replaced Zook after last season, moving to the Southeastern Conference after highly successful stints at Bowling Green and Utah. His arrival, however, also brought questions about whether his offense would work in a major league such as the SEC.

Leak looked lost in the scheme at times early in the season. But with Monday's win, as well as victories over Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State in the same year for only the fourth time in school history, Meyer's first season was a success.

"It was a great win for us. It was good to finally get a bowl win under our belts," Leak said. "Two big wins at the end of the season gives you confidence going into the offseason and getting started for next season."