From The Opening Play, This One Was Different

JACKSONVILLE --- From the opening play of the game, this one was different than what we've seen in the seven previous games. This was a Florida football team that came out playing hard, playing with purpose, determined and for once, ready to take the fight to an opponent on the first drive of the season. It was quite a difference from the post-game scene two weeks ago.

Two weeks ago in Baton Rouge, Urban Meyer broke down emotionally, frustrated and heart broken that his Gators were so close yet so far away in a 21-17 loss to LSU. Saturday evening, the same coach faced a packed media room full of reporters, many of whom were there when he lost it momentarily in Baton Rouge, only this time Meyer had a signature win under his belt and a football team that apparently used last week's open date to rediscover its confidence and find some much needed maturity.

"A lot of times in bye weeks you take off shoulder pads," said Meyer in his post game conference after Florida defeated fourth-ranked and previously unbeaten Georgia at AllTel Stadium Saturday. "We couldn't do that. We were out there hitting and grinding and trying to figure out how to block people. And add some offense and defense. I am not sure I have been with a group that has gone through what this one has. If you look at the schedule and tight games, the away games. I have great respect for our players."

The Gators played like a mature team Saturday, showing resilience in the face of adversity that was missing in road losses at Alabama and LSU. Instead of wilting when the pressure was at its peak, the Gators fought back and this time, they were the ones who made the big plays. Call it attitude if you will, but the Gators came out like the school yard bullies on their first two drives of the game, slapping Georgia around like a 90-pound weakling for two scores and a quick, 14-0 lead. Even though Georgia would tighten up, regroup the troops and make its bid to pull out a win, the Bulldogs never recovered from the two touchdowns that hit with the effect of a left and a right combo from a heavyweight.

Quarterback Chris Leak #12 of the Florida Gators scrambles in the second quarter against the Georgia Bulldogs at Alltel Stadium on October 29, 2005 in Jacksonville, Florida. Florida defeated Georgia 14-10. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

How the Gators got those two touchdowns is worth noting. Entering the game, the Gators were the only team in the SEC that had not scored even a field goal on its first offensive drive of the game. Starting games in an offensive funk was the 900-pound gorilla on the backs of the Florida coaching staff, so they spent last week's off week and the week prior to the Georgia game tweaking the offense, dumbing it down if you must. The spread was still there, but the option disappeared. Oh, the Gators did try it once, but after a bobbled pitch that came close to turning the ball over to the Bulldogs in Florida territory, we never saw that one again. The five-wide was there but not as often, and when the Gators did go five-wide, the ball left Chris Leak's hands quickly enough to frustrate Georgia's blitzers.

Florida stuck with the basics. The Gators pounded the ball between the tackles with DeShawn Wynn working as a battering ram, softening the middle for the speed back, Markus Manson, who finally got into a game when it really mattered. Wynn finished the day with a season-high 109 yards and Manson got nine carries for 49 more.

The basics included giving Leak some much-needed protection. Sacked 21 times in the previous seven games, there was no quarterback in American who needed and deserved some protection. Georgia got to him once for a nine-yard loss but by the time their pass rushers got to him, he had already established a passing game based on the premise of getting rid of the ball quickly. The final numbers were modest --- just 108 yards on 15 completions in 20 attempts --- but Florida didn't need gaudy on this day. The Gators only needed steady and that's what they got.

Leak threw the football with confidence, his feet set, his eyes seeing the entire field and not just a single receiver. He set the tone on his first pass of the game. Leak had tight end Tate Casey wide open down the sideline and even though the pass was overthrown, it sent a clear message to Georgia that there would be receivers not named Dallas Baker and Chad Jackson involved in the offense. That one overthrow probably did more for Florida's offense than any other pass play in the game. Unlike LSU and Alabama, which totally ignored Florida's tight end, the Bulldogs had to devote one player entirely to coverage and that contributed to the overall Florida effort.

Georgia quarterback Joe Tereshinski, left, attempts to get away from Florida defender Jarvis Moss on a fourth-quarter run, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2005, in Jacksonville, Fla. Florida won, 14-10.(AP Photo/Phil Coale)

He threw to Casey twice on that first drive, both times incomplete but he did find Baker open twice and DeShawn Wynn open on another play. That opened the doors for Jemalle Cornelius to split the coverage on a post pattern into the end zone which resulted in a pass interference call that gave the Gators a first down on the Georgia 12. The touchdown came on a three-yard scoring run by Leak, who made a statement of his own by somersaulting into the end zone with 9:00 remaining in the first quarter to cap Florida's 13-play, 80-yard opening drive.

Leak's leap told the Georgia sideline that this wasn't the same quarterback who was intimidated at Alabama and LSU.

Another sign that this was Florida's day came on Georgia's first punt of the game. The Florida defense turned in a three and out which brought on Georgia's vaunted special teams. Entering the game the Bulldogs had given up just 43 punt return yards in seven games. Vernell Brown nearly had that with his first punt return, a 29-yarder that set up the Gators on the plus side of the field. Taking over on the Georgia 41, the Gators moved with near surgical precision: a 20-yard Leak-to-Baker pass, a 19-yard Wynn blast off the heels of left guard Tavares Washington, a one-yard dive by Wynn and a rollout pass that Leak threw to Tate Casey for the touchdown with 1:32 remaining in the first quarter.

Florida gave up a field goal to Georgia in the second quarter, giving Georgia a very non-satisfactory ending to a drive that showed so much promise until it got inside the Florida 15. On third down at the Florida 14, Georgia's Joe Tereshinski went for the end zone and Mohammed Massaquoi only to see Dee Webb defend the pass and Reggie Nelson finish off the Bulldogs' wide receiver with a devastating shoulder to shoulder hit.

Florida receiver Tate Casey, right, catches a first-quarter touchdown pass against Georgia as quarterback Chris Leak, left, watches, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2005, in Jacksonville, Fla.(AP Photo/Phil Coale)

Florida had a chance to put the game away in the final minute of the first quarter. A 21-yard run by Wynn, a 15-yard Leak to Casey pass and a 21-yard Leak to Chad Jackson pass set up the Gators on the Georgia six but Wynn fumbled on the next play. A score would have sucked whatever life remained in Georgia's restless faithful but DeShawn Wynn's fumble with 54 seconds left was recovered by Tony Taylor. Instead of a killing blow, Georgia was off the mat.

In the previous two road games, that would have been the beginning of the end for Florida, but not on this day. The team that showed up in Tuscaloosa and in Baton Rouge couldn't have fought through adversity but this one did.

There was a time when Georgia always came back against the Gators. In the pre-Spurrier years, Vince Dooley and the Bulldogs always came back or so it seemed. No one expected Georgia comebacks when Steve Spurrier was at Florida, but against this Gator team that had lost those two SEC road games, this was a crowd of 84,501 that was prepared for Florida to fold.

In the Dooley era, Georgia won games on things like an end-around pass in the rain and mud of 1976 and the improbable Belue to Lindsay Scott in 1980. There were gremlins in Jacksonville in those days, always fighting the Gators tooth and nail. The gremlins disappeared during the Spurrier era, a tribute to the visored one's intimidating attitude, but they reappeared Saturday. This time, however, the gremlins were working in Florida's favor.

University of Florida running back DeShawn Winn (21) outruns the Georgia defense for a 21-yard gain Oct. 29, 2005 during the second quarter in Jacksonville, Fl. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton)

Evidence was in the kicking game. Georgia placekicker Brandon Coutu came into the game with 16 field goals in 19 attempts, but he hooked one wide left early in the third quarter and then hit the upright on a 52-yarder with 7:41 to go in the game. In the Dooley era, those two field goals go dead center.

Florida survived a shanked punt by Eric Wilbur and the Gators got a 20-yard run on a fourth down fake punt by Wilbur with 1:31 remaining in the third quarter. Old timers remember things like "Fourth and Dumb" back in 1976, back in the days when the gremlins were always on Georgia's side.

The Gators also survived a drive that stalled when a false start penalty changed a promising drive into a punt from the 28 yard line. The fact that Florida would punt in that situation was indicative of the confidence that Meyer had in his defense and the maturity that this team found in the past two weeks. Meyer thought about attempting a 45-yard field goal but opted to send his defensive warriors on the field one more time.

"I thought about it," he said. "I saw Georgia had only two timeouts left. The way our defense played throughout the game, I said let's go out and play great defense."

It was a strategy that could have backfired, especially considering a five-yard penalty that wiped out a Wilbur punt that would have pinned the Bulldogs on the eight. Wilbur's second punt nearly nailed the Bulldogs at the one but it sneaked past Nelson and into the end zone, giving Georgia the ball at the 20.

In other years, at other times, that kind of break would have allowed Georgia to rally back. Even two weeks ago, that's probably what would have happened. But not on this night. Not against this team.

Florida finished off the Bulldogs with two minutes of ferocious defense that turned the ball over on downs to UF with 1:39 remaining. Florida simply ran the clock out and ended any Georgia hopes of a national championship. Georgia now fights for its SEC championship hopes in two weeks against Auburn, a team perfectly capable of scoring the win.

There are still three games remaning for the 6-2 Gators, a lot of football for certain. Because the Gators won, they're still in the hunt for the SEC East championship although the Gators will have to have assistance from Auburn. Florida cannot control what Auburn can do but the Gators can build on what happened on this one evening to finish this season in a memorable way.

It's a team that is still a work in progress with an offense that is neither polished or completely installed. The ship may not be completely righted but it's not taking on water anymore. It is a team that got just the shot of confidence it needed Saturday at just the right moment.

It is a team that grew up a bunch Saturday afternoon, still not the team Urban Meyer wants to build at Florida, but a giant step closer.

Markus Manson #2 of the Florida Gators and teammates celebrate after defeating the Georgia Bulldogs at Alltel Stadium on October 29, 2005 in Jacksonville, Florida. Florida defeated Georgia 14-10. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

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