Florida Clinches Share of Eastern Crown

The Gators defeated South Carolina in its conference finale, overcoming a first-half deficit....

COLUMBIA, S.C. – It would take only one more win. Just one more defeat against one more conference opponent, and No. 15 Florida would clinch a tie for the Southeastern Conference East crown.

For about one hour Saturday, the task seemed too much to overcome. However, just as they have all season, the Gators rallied again to overcome a 9-point halftime deficit in a 24-22 win at South Carolina.

"We don't make it easy," Coach Ron Zook said. "It's kind of been that way all year. I told our football team we've come a long way. Six or eight weeks ago, we wouldn't have won that game."

But as the nation continues to learn, this certainly isn't the same group of Gators as they were at the season's start. As a result of their fifth consecutive win, Zook's comeback crocks will now wait on the fait of Tennessee and Georgia to find out whether they will play for a SEC title.

Bound in a three-way tie, the Volunteers must lose to either Vanderbilt or Kentucky if the Gators will make it to Atlanta.

"I don't wish bad about any team, but I hope they get their butts kicked," offensive guard Shannon Snell said. "We want them to get beat. We finished our business, now we have to play the waiting game."

This time, the Gators overcame a 16-7 deficit at halftime mostly because of the play of tailback Ciatrick Fason. The sophomore picked up 190 yards on 20 carries in the best performance of his career.

Fason's breakout was specifically important because of the early struggles of Florida's passing game. At the half, quarterback Chris Leak had thrown just six completions on 11 attempts for 48 yards.

Despite the mediocre performance, the true freshman built off of Fason's momentum, scored on a 9-yard run and threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Ben Troupe.

"That's a special trait," Zook said. "Things weren't going his way with the safety and the three-man rush. For a guy to collect his thoughts and get back in it like he did is a tribute to the offensive staff, Ed Zaunbrecher and Chris Leak."

But the most telling story of this game had less to do with the play of the Gators. Instead, it was an odd coaching call by Lou Holtz which turned the game into Florida's favor.

With a 16-14 lead in third quarter, Holtz faked a punt on a fourth-and-one situation from the Gamecocks' 26-yard line.

"I honestly felt in my heart it would give us momentum," Holtz said.

It did far from that. Punter Josh Brown threw a pass that turned into a five-yard loss.

On the next possession, the Gators ended up kicking a field goal for a 17-16 lead. The edge would be enough to give Florida the win.

"We like to make things exciting," wider receiver Carlos Perez said. "We came out slow, but we know how to win now. Before the Ole Miss game, we didn't know how to win. When something bad happened, we would just blow it. I don't think we would have won this game before."

This time around, the Gators didn't flinch. Leak finished with 121 yards on 12 completions, while another true freshman, linebacker Channing Crowder, led the defense with 14 tackles. Wide receiver Kelvin Kight led all receivers with 52 yards.

"Our team needs to get smacked in the mouth before we start stepping up," offensive tackle Max Starks said. "As long as we win, that's all that matters. There's nothing better than being in the lion's den by yourself. You have to fend your way if you want to survive. That's the way you do it." ###

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