Wilhoit FG nips Gators

Tennessee's James Wilhoit made one of the greatest, and quickest, goat-to-hero transformations in college football history Saturday night against Florida.

Moments after he appeared to lose the game by missing a conversion kick, he drilled a 50-yard field goal with 6 seconds left to win the game in heart-stopping fashion, 30-28.

Freshman quarterback Erik Ainge had hit Jayson Swain with a 13-yard touchdown pass to pull Tennessee within 28-27 with 3:25 remaining. But Wilhoit, who was 50-for-50 on PATs as a Vol to that point, pushed this one wide right.

''Kicking an extra point, you don't even think about it; you just expect it to go in,'' he said. ''When I pushed that one right, I couldn't believe it. I was shocked, just like the 108,000 (fans) in here.''

Wilhoit was a picture of dejection on the Vol sidelines. He could only hope the Vols would give him a chance to atone.

They did.

''Over on the sidelines, everybody was trying to keep me up,'' he said. ''We played such a good game I was just praying I'd get another opportunity.''

Wilhoit acknowledged that he owed a great debt to his teammates for getting the ball in scoring position one last time. Starting their final possession with 43 seconds left, the Vols moved from their 39-yard line to the Florida 33 in just 31 seconds. There were 12 seconds left when Wilhoit lined up to kick his game-winning field goal.

''If they hadn't given me that opportunity,'' he said, ''I'd be sitting here talking about a missed extra point instead of a 50-yard field goal.''

Wilhoit split the uprights on the game-winner, the ball clearing the crossbar with probably five yards to spare.

''All I know is, it went straight,'' he sighed, emotionally spent from the wild finish. ''Once I saw it going in, I don't know if I was thinking about anything else but going crazy.''

The kick was the fulfillment of a dream for Wilhoit, who once was asked if his greatest thrill would be to kick a game-winning, last-second field goal at The Swamp in Gainesville. He recalled telling the interviewer: ''No way. I'd rather have it at home, so we could rush the field.''

The Vols did just that Saturday night, incurring a 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration. The penalty was moot, however, when Florida's ensuing kickoff return was stifled near its 10-yard line.

Ainge directed three fourth-quarter scoring drives -- the first two producing touchdowns and the last one setting up the winning field goal. When asked what went through his mind during those clutch drives, however, he admitted that couldn't remember much of anything.

''When you get in that zone, you're just kind of playing and you don't really know what's going on,'' he said. ''You're just out there making plays.''

Ainge finished 16 of 24 for 192 yards and three touchdowns. Starting QB Brent Schaeffer was 3 of 4 for 40 yards. He also rushed seven times for 38 yards. Gerald Riggs led the rushers with 15 carries for 63 yards. Cedric Houston rushed nine times for 59 yards before reinjuring his ankle. Chris Hannon, a native of Sarasota, Fla., led all receivers with 89 yards on eight catches. Tony Brown, who hails from Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., chipped in 47 yards on three grabs.

Florida quarterback Chris Leak completed 22 of 31 passes for 286 yards and three TDs. Ciatrick Fason rushed 15 times for 84 yards, DeShawn Wynn 15 times for 61 yards. O.J. Small was the Gators' top receiver with eight catches for 76 yards.

Florida led for much of the game. The Gators jumped on top 7-0 by driving 34 yards after recovering a first-quarter Derrick Tinsley fumble. Leak hit Small from five yards out for the score.

Tennessee pulled even on a 12-play, 80-yard drive. Houston had gains of 11 and 14 yards, Riggs gains of 11 and 12, and Schaeffer added an 11-yard keeper to the Gator 2-yard line. Jabari Davis dived over from the one moments later, and it was 7-7.

Tennessee went up 14-7 early in the second quarter. Ainge, rolling to his left, zipped a strike to tight end Justin Reed, a native of Punta Gorda, Fla. Ainge hit Hannon with a 13-yard pass to open the drive and Houston ripped off a 15-yard gain along the way.

Florida roared 97 yards on its next possession to tie the score, however. Leak completed 7 of 8 passes for 72 yards on the march, hitting Jamal Cornelius from nine yards out for the TD.

When Ainge threw an interception moments later, Florida had the ball at Tennessee's 30-yard line. Leak hit Andre Caldwell for 29 yards, then Wynn scored from the 1 as the Gators went up 21-14.

Schaeffer guided the Vols to Florida's 17-yard line but fumbled when he was sacked. Recovering at their 23-yard line, the Gators marched to a first-and-goal at the Tennessee 1-yard line. The drive stalled, however, and Matt Leach missed a 21-yard field goal.

After a scoreless third quarter, Ainge hit Bret Smith with a 23-yard strike two minutes into the fourth period to tie the score at 21-all. Florida bounced back immediately, however, as Leak found Chad Jackson with an 81-yard TD bomb that produced a 28-21 lead.

Ainge directed another 80-yard touchdown drive to pull Tennessee within 28-27. When Wilhoit flubbed the PAT, however, the Big Orange's gallant comeback seemed destined to fall short. Tennessee got the ball back with 43 seconds left, though, and the Vols needed almost every one of them.

Vol center Jason Respert probably summed it up best:

''Thank God football is a 60-minute game.''

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