- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The SEC debut of the Urban reclamation project at Florida was more effective than it was impressive.

In a game that was only slightly more exciting than rest-home bingo night, first-year Florida coach Urban Meyer and his No.6 Gators parlayed four special teams’ snafus by No.5 Tennessee into a 16-7 victory last night before a record crowd of 90,716 fans at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the largest crowd to ever witness a game in the state of Florida.

Meyer’s ballyhooed spread option offense never showed up at the Swamp last night, at least not in the form of anything resembling innovation. The Volunteers defense held the Gators to just 247 yards of total offense, sacked Florida quarterback Chris Leak five times and allowed the Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC) just one visit to the end zone.

But that was enough, thanks to a stingy, underrated Florida defense that stiffened in the 90-degree heat as the game wore on, and some shockingly poor special teams play from the Vols (1-1, 0-1).

“That was a big-time win against as talented a team as I’ve ever coached against,” said Meyer after the victory. “Our offense still has miles to go, but I thought our defense played great tonight. … We are not a great football team. But that was a great win tonight.”

The game’s momentum changed just before the half with the game tied 7-7, and Tennessee seemingly rolling toward a go-ahead score behind the running of Gerald Riggs Jr. and the arm of sophomore quarterback Erik Ainge. The Vols faced a second down at the Florida 9-yard line when things began to dissolve. Perhaps rattled by the din created by the record crowd, left tackle Arron Sears jumped offsides. After an Ainge incompletion, the disorganized Vols were hit with a delay-of-game-penalty. After yet another Ainge incompletion on a near-diving grab from Bret Smith at the 1-yard line that required replay to rightly negate, the Vols suddenly faced a 37-yard field goal attempt.

Completing the sudden shift toward the Gators, junior sensation Dee Webb exploded around the right edge of the Tennessee line and deflected the kick from James Wilhoit to keep the score tied at halftime.

The Vols’ Keystone Cops routine on not-so-special teams continued in the second half. After the Vols’ defense held Leak (17 of 26 for 179 yards) and Co. to a three-and-out possession on the first series after intermission, Tennessee safety Jon Hefney muffed the resulting punt at his own 30-yard line, gifting Florida a short field. The Gators gained just three yards on that possession, but kicker Chris Hetland converted the first of his three second-half field goals to give the Gators a 10-7 lead with 11:41 remaining in the third quarter.

On its very next possession, Tennessee handed Florida more points on special teams, typically arch-conservative coach Phil Fulmer calling a fake punt on fourth-and-9 from his own 32. Tennessee punter Britton Colquitt briefly had a receiver open in the flat. But seeing the uncovered gunner and sensing a bust and potential big play, reserve safety Tony Joiner sprinted out of the middle of the Gators’ formation and deflected Colquitt’s pass at the last second.

Once again, Florida’s attempt at a red-zone knockout punch was uninspiring. But another field goal from Hetland, this one from 35 yards out, gave the Gators a 13-7 cushion with 5:14 left in the third.

The final UT special teams miscue followed in near-comical fashion. After driving to the Florida 48 to potentially flip the field in a game that looked to be shaping up as a field-position slugfest, Colquitt shanked a punt just 8 yards to give the Gators a relatively short field. This time, Florida took advantage against a tiring Tennessee defense, Leak maneuvering the Gators 68 yards in a clock-murdering 16 plays to set Hetland up for a 20-yard chip shot that gave the Gators the final 16-7 margin with 8:02 left in the game.

After a night of rather pedestrian play, Leak was excellent on the door-slamming series, hitting two long passes on third down and double-digits to keep the drive alive.

Ainge and the Vols could muster no response down the stretch, sputtering to a series of anemic possessions that never came close to reaching midfield, much less the end zone..

The Vols entered the game attempting to become the first team since LSU in 1986 to defeat the Gators for a third consecutive time at the Swamp. But Florida struck first with a vintage bit of Meyer misdirection to conclude an 80-yard scoring drive late in the first quarter.

On first down from the Tennessee 18-yard line, Leak sprinted left and then pitched to slotback Andre Caldwell on a reverse, catching overzealous Tennessee defensive end Parys Haralson inside. Caldwell breezed around the hapless defender and sprinted down the sideline untouched to put the Gators up 7-0 with 4:14 left in the first frame.

The Vols were not dismayed by the score nor the chaotic record crowd at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, however, and responded almost immediately on the arm of Ainge.

The 6-foot-6, 215-pound sophomore lost his starting role to senior Rick Clausen thanks to a miserable performance two weeks ago in Tennessee’s suggish 17-10 win over UAB. But last night the Vols’ offense was completely uninspiring in two series with Clausen under center, gaining only 22 yards. And Vol boss Phil Fulmer wasted little time in handing the leather back to his more talented youngster.

With the Gators’ first SEC score under Meyer still reverberating around the Swamp, Ainge led the Vols on an 83-yard march to tie the affair, completing six of seven passes for 64 yards and closing the series with an 8-yard touchdown toss to Smith on a fade route to the right corner of the end zone with 9:29 remaining in the half.

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