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September 30, 2006

Second half surge pushes Florida past Alabama

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -Florida coach Urban Meyer learned all he needed to know about the Southeastern Conference last season against Alabama.

"You better have a great defense because everybody else does," Meyer said.

The Gators' D was on display Saturday.

Ryan Smith had two interceptions, Reggie Nelson returned another pick for a touchdown and the fifth-ranked Gators beat the Crimson Tide 28-13 to avenge last season's embarrassing loss.

Meyer said his players and coaches thought they had everything figured out heading into the Alabama game last year. But they were humbled by the Crimson Tide's speedy and swarming defense. Meyer tweaked his coaching philosophy following the loss, going to more conservative play-calling and relying on his defense in close games.

It worked to perfection in the rematch.

"It's no secret that we have some very good players on defense right now," Meyer said.

The Gators pressured John Parker Wilson into three turnovers, converting two of them into fourth-quarter touchdowns and turning a one-point game into a comfortable win.

"It's the same struggles we've had all year," Wilson said. "We couldn't get in the end zone. We've got to make more plays. They threw a lot of stuff at us - a lot of different stunts and blitzes. I got knocked around quite a bit, but I thought we did a pretty good job of picking them up."

Not good enough.

Florida (5-0, 3-0) overcame a 10-7 halftime deficit to beat Alabama for just the second time in nine tries in Gainesville, extending its home winning streak to 12 games. The Crimson Tide (3-2, 1-2) has lost two straight. The Gators, meanwhile, are 3-0 in the SEC for the first time since Steve Spurrier's final season in 2001.

Spurrier was on hand for the start of this one.

The South Carolina coach was inducted into the school's Ring of Honor along with Emmitt Smith, Danny Wuerffel and Jack Youngblood prior to kickoff.

The Gators, wearing throwback uniforms to the late 1960s, hardly looked like the offensive juggernaut Spurrier created in the 1990s. But the defense kept it close - and sealed the victory in the end.

"We had a little something out for them because of what happened last year," Florida linebacker Earl Everett said, referring to the 31-3 loss in Tuscaloosa a year ago. "We had a little revenge to get. We wanted to prove we were better than that."

It showed, especially in the fourth quarter.

Smith, a graduate transfer from Utah, tipped a pass to himself for his second interception of the game. He fumbled a second later, but Nelson recovered in Alabama territory.

"That was the biggest play of the game," Smith said of the recovery. "It was big interception, but if he doesn't recover that, it's still 14-13 and they're trying to score."

Chris Leak connected with Dallas Baker three plays later for a 21-yard touchdown that pushed the lead to 21-13. Leak finished 14-of-20 for 174 yards with two touchdowns. He also had a career-best 45-yard run that set up Tim Tebow's 2-yard TD run just before halftime.

On the possession after Baker's TD catch, Nelson stepped in front of Wilson's deep pass and returned it 70 yards for a score.

Wilson finished 21-of-40 for 240 yards, nearly half of it to DJ Hall (6 catches for 117 yards). Wilson threw three interceptions and was sacked three times.

"Any time you throw three interceptions, it's tough to win," Wilson said. "I put it on myself. I've got to bounce back from that and get ready for next week. We can make a lot of excuses. I didn't make plays I needed to make."

The Crimson Tide managed just two field goals on offense - points that would have helped last week at Arkansas but not enough at Florida. The team's lone touchdown came when Leak fumbled a snap late in the first quarter, and Prince Hall returned it 50 yards to give Alabama a 7-0 lead.

Freshman Leigh Tiffin missed three field goals and an extra point in a double-overtime loss last week. He was on the bench for this one, replaced by Jamie Christensen.

Christensen hit from 21 and 26 yards, and missed a 51-yarder at the end of the first half.

Florida, meanwhile, still hasn't made a field goal all season - a concern heading into a three-game stretch against LSU, Auburn and Georgia. Chris Hetland missed a 36-yarder that would have tied the game early in the third.

Luckily for the Gators, the defense made amends.

"I know they're playing with more confidence," Alabama coach Mike Shula said. "It's a tough loss, difficult to swallow."

For more coverage of the Florida Gators, visit GatorBait.net; for more on the Alabama Crimson Tide, visit BamaOnLine.com.



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