"There's no excuse for that," said Croom. "Absolutely none." The sentiment was shared by all members of the kicking and covering squads after an embarrassing afternoon at Florida Field.
"We take a lot of pride in our special teams," said punter Blake McAdams, "it hurts when it doesn't go the way you planned it to."
Certainly State did not plan on kicking away a chance to be competitive with the #13-ranked hosts. And even with the offensive unit struggling through another SEC contest—they ended up short of 300 yards for the fourth time in league play—the Dog defense was keeping Florida's potent attack in check. But breakdowns in the third area of the game were more than MSU could overcome.
"We made too many mistakes in the kicking game that gave Florida added opportunities," Croom said. For much of the afternoon the Gators actually needed the gifts to keep the scoreboard tilted their way, and even after yet another grueling third quarter State's defense made the home team earn everything. It took a 68-yard touchdown drive ending early in the last quarter to finally settle things, with a blocked punt-touchdown passing the final margin.
"I'm real proud of our players, they played with a lot of heart," the head coach said. "We made some mistakes, the biggest mistake was I didn't do a good enough job on the sideline to help them out."
What Croom could have done to help the kicking corps would be a good question. Because after placekicker Keith Andrews knotted the first-quarter score 3-3 with his 49-yard field goal, there wasn't a lot for any special unit to be proud of. Even a 46.7-yard punting average by McAdams meant little in terms of field position, and Gator Eric Wilbur was better at 47.3 yards anyway. The Gators had gotten their first three points at 8:22 of the opening period on a 44-yard effort by Chris Hetland. So far, so good…but when things turned bad for the Bulldogs they turned entirely.
Because after losing ground on swaps of punts State's Jonathan Lowe was ready to catch another, and should have at the 15-yard line. Instead he let it bounce by and be downed by Gator coverage at the one-yard line. On 3rd-and-5 the Dogs tried to move the chains but on the rollout quarterback Omarr Conner was chased, grabbed in the end zone by Jarvis Herring, and force to unload at the sideline. The throw didn't get past the line of scrimmage, a safety giving Florida a 5-3 lead at 7:38.
Dogged defense didn't let Florida make use of the free-kick field position, but another Lowe error did as he tried to fair-catch Eric Wilbur's punt only to let it go off his hands. Reggie Nelson recovered at the 13-yard line and on the first snap halfback Deshawn Wynn broke around left end for a touchdown and 12-3 lead at 6:16. The Bulldogs were fortunate to trail by no worse an intermission margin after the ensuing kickoff was also fumbled after Derek Pegues collided with Lance Long on the catch and Long had to dive on the ball at State's 12.
They were even luckier when the Gators gave away a touchdown upon getting the ball punted back, as wideout Chad Jackson turned a screen pass from quarterback Chris Leak into a 13-yard dash to the right corner. But as he tried to stick the ball inside the pylon before going out of bounds he dropped it, and after seeing a replay on the stadium jumbotron Croom called time to allow an official replay. "If I hadn't seen the replay I wouldn't have called it." The ruling was a fumble and touchback.
But State was still luckless in putting up points of their own because kicking would fail to trim the deficit before halftime. With the clock winding inside twenty seconds Mike Henig, taking over for an injured Conner, hooked up with end Keon Humphries for a 56-yard pass play that got the ball to Florida's 18 with two ticks left and Andrews needing only knock through a 35-yarder. He pushed it wide to the right. "It looked closer from our sideline but on replay it wasn't close," Croom said. So even a big play was wasted and the Dogs deflated going into their locker room, instead of being within 12-6. "Then it's a different ball game," Croom said.
Sadly for State the third quarter brought more of the same misplays, though Florida had their own miscue as well when a 60-yard punt return was negated on a block in the back. That only made it more bitter when halfback Jerious Norwood's own 71-yard runback (he was replacing the hapless Lowe) came back because teammate Aubrey Bell blocked a Gator from the wrong side also. ("I told him don't worry about it, just don't do it no more!" Norwood reported. But the Bulldog foul meant being pinned at their eight-yard line, a short series, and punt.
Florida responded with a 73-yard drive as Leak, ineffective throwing downfield in the first half, used screens and shovel passes to get the ball to his play-makers. "That's all they were really running, little quick stuff," linebacker Clarence McDougal said. "They spread you out and make you make a lot of one-on-one plays. And they made their share."
Such as a 28-yard screen to Dallas Baker that put the ball on State's 12-yard line. Leak ran out of the pocket for nine yards and on 3rd-and-1 dove straight ahead for not only the needed distance but all three remaining yards for the touchdown at 5:31. Even down 19-3 the Bulldogs were not finished, as the second play after kickoff Norwood turned a simple handoff into a career-long, 76-yard touchdown jaunt. "I kind of banged around in there and all of a sudden I saw daylight. I was kind of surprised and took off running." Hard enough that on a cut-back at the ten-yard line he tweaked a hamstring. The two-point attempt was too high for Will Prosser to catch but the margin was down to 19-9.
When the defense held at their own 35-yard line a comeback still seemed possible…until the punt was downed on the one-yard line again. The Gators came after Henning on third down and caught him rolling right, with Brandon Siler catching up by the sideline still in the end zone. "That was a stupid mistake on my part," said Henig, "I should have thrown it out of bounds, I just drew a blank as I was rolling out. Both my receivers were covered and I didn't want to throw an interception."
Instead he gave the Gators two more free points, the first time in MSU records the Dogs had surrendered a pair of safeteys.
Florida needed no help with the last offensive touchdown, or not much in a 68-yard drive that took less than three minutes. Another screen to Chad Jackson got 42 of the yards, though a foul at the end moved the ball back 15 to State's 32 as the quarter ended. It didn't matter as at 13:07 of the fourth period Leak had time to throw to Baker a step in front of David Heard for a 15-yard score. And just to round out the perfectly awful afternoon, one more kick play accounted for the margin of victory.
Punting from his own end zone McAdams barely got the ball off his foot before rushing ‘joker' Demetrice Webb blocked it and Terrence Holmes made the first-hop grab for the touchdown.
To say those un-special teams errors ‘won' the game for Florida might be a stretch, since after a slow start the Gators did end up with 480 yards and an eight-minute bulge in possession time. Leak shrugged off a 7-of-16 first half to hit 11 of 17 throws in the last half, finishing with 244 yards. He still was not sharp, though, with two passes picked off and a third that should have been. Kevin Dockery had one of the interceptions and Keith Fitzhugh muscled in front of a target for the other, when Florida was still throwing into the end zone despite the big lead. He nearly had a third ball picked in the backfield by defensive end Willie Evans, who got two hands on a shovel pass but couldn't find a handle that would have allowed a touchdown return.
Most of his stats came off those shorter flips to backs and tight ends who got their big yards after the catches. Baker finished with 123 yards on seven receptions while Jackson had 78 yards on the same number of balls. On the ground Markus Manson had 45 yards and seven Gator runners combined for 191 yards.
Norwood's one big dash accounted for most of his 111 net yards on 13 rushes, and he was held out after straining the hamstring in the third quarter. For his part Conner was out by halftime, having taken a helmet to the breastbone on a tag-team sack by Siler and Marcus Thomas, and went for a x-ray just in case. "I was hurting so bad I had my eyes closed." Conner was only 2-of-5 passing for 15 yards, was sacked twice, and he returned the first-quarter Leak favor by throwing a tipped ball intercepted in the end zone by Kyle Jackson on the carom.
Henig was 9-of-20 for 119 yards but was also sacked four times as the Gators "sent the house, everybody they had. Safeties, corners, everything." #2 halfback Brandon Thornton ended up the leading receiver with five catches for 35 yards, but other than Humphries' big play—which was wasted—no Dog got more than 13 yards on any grab.
Croom knew where to focus his frustration. The defense was outstanding for one half and competitive for another, and even the offense showed some signs of improvement in a few areas that only coaches could see. But when the third leg of the gameplan broke, the entire team went tumbling down. Even the errors that didn't produce UF points, such as a 12-men penalty on a punt return, had the head coach fuming to his staff and players alike. It's something that will come up often during this week's most-welcome open date.
"Guys are working hard and playing hard," said Croom. "But we're not playing smart."