The Florida coach, Galen Hall, said some of it was sloppy. But who's complaining? His quarterback's strong-armed passing led the fifth-ranked Gators to a 35-23 victory over the Miami Hurricanes tonight before a crowd of 80,227 in the Orange Bowl.
Kerwin Bell, the young fellow who Hall described as "exceptional" and "excellent" and "good" when it was over, completed 20 of 28 passes for 248 yards and four touchdowns. The Gators extended their winning streak to 10 games, longest in the nation after Brigham Young's 25-game streak was ended tonight by UCLA.
"I like to rise to the challenge and be the man with the ball," Bell said. "I have a lot of confidence in myself and always will and that keeps me going throughout the game."
Bell, a sophomore, played like a veteran well beyond his years, but the big intrastate rivalry also featured the play of Vinny Testaverde, the fourth-year junior who replaced Bernie Kosar as quarterback for the Hurricanes.
Testaverde's lack of playing experience was not the difference in the game, however. He completed 24 of 40 passes for 278 yards and drew raves from Bell, who said, "The man did a good job. He played winning football."
Bell threw his fourth touchdown pass of the game to wide receiver Frankie Neal, floating behind coverage in the corner of the end zone with 2:45 left. The eight-yard scoring pass ended a drive of 66 yards, and Jeff Dawson's extra point put the Gators up, 35-21.
Miami's last drive and final threat died when Testaverde passed 12 yards to wide receiver Brett Perriman, who fumbled the ball on the Florida 10 and into the hands of defensive back Curtis Stacy.
To end the scoring, Florida punter Ray Criswell stepped out of the end zone with 36 seconds left and conceded the safety rather than attempt to kick the ball away.
But late in the third quarter, the game was not that far out of reach for Miami.
Testaverde took advantage of good field position after the Gators, punting from their five, kicked short to the Florida 42. Testaverde showed a finely honed throwing arm and terrific scrambling ability in leading the Hurricanes on a nine-play scoring drive. It ended when Testaverde broke out of the pocket and ran 13 yards for the touchdown with 14:45 left in the game. Kicker Greg Cox's extra point put the Hurricanes ahead, 21-20.
Miami apparently had stolen the momentum from a Florida team that failed to make a first down in the third quarter. In that dead period, the Gators managed three yards rushing.
"We let it get away in the third quarter," Hall said. "But our offense finally got better field position and we came back."
Bell didn't take long to rejuvenate the Gators, who answered Testaverde's heroics with a touchdown with 7:50 remaining. The drive covered 79 yards in 11 plays and saw Bell throw passes of 28 and 16 yards to Ricky Nattiel, the latter for a touchdown. Neal Anderson ran for the two-point conversion and put Florida up, 28-21.
"They played an error-free ball game," Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson said. "We made mistakes, we turned the ball over. They didn't."
Early on, Bell showed the enormous potential of the Florida offense. On their opening drive, the Gators moved 80 yards in 14 plays for the touchdown, which came at 8:31 of the first quarter when Bell passed 18 yards to Nattiel.
There was no other scoring in the first quarter, and Miami did not get going until its first possession of the second quarter. Testaverde passed 33 yards to Perriman to move into Florida territory. For the touchdown, Warren Williams went off left guard for four yards with 11:46 remaining in the second quarter. The drive covered 81 yards in nine plays, and after Cox's extra point, the game was tied, 7-7.
Bell and the Gators' offense were at their toughest on the subsequent drive, which ended with a field goal.
Bell's first pass went for 12 yards to Ray McDonald, his second 21 yards to Nattiel, and his third 10 yards to Bret Wiechmann. Those passes wrecked the Hurricanes' defense and put the ball on the Miami 19.
The next time Bell passed, the Gators were looking for a big play while stalled on the Miami nine. Bell passed to Nattiel racing across the end zone, but cornerback Don Ellis bumped Nattiel and was called for pass interference. That gave Florida a first down at the two, but the Gators had to settle for Jeff Dawson's 17-yard field goal. Anderson twice tried diving off tackle, but was stuffed back by defensive ends Daniel Stubbs and John McVeigh. Dawson's kick, ending a 14-play, 71-yard drive, came with 4:10 left in the half to give Florida a 10-7 lead.
Fullback Alonzo Highsmith fumbled a quick draw on the Hurricanes' next possession, and Vernall Brown recovered for the Gators at the Miami 41 with 31 seconds left in the first half. Bell passed for 14 yards to Wiechmann on the sideline and 24 yards to tight end Walter Odom, who was pulled down at the Miami three. Bell then passed to John L. Williams for the touchdown with six seconds on the clock. Dawson's kick put Florida ahead, 17-7.
Florida followed with John David Francis' onside kick, recovered by Gerold Dickens for the Gators. Dawson made a 46-yard field goal as time ran out to give the Gators a 20-7 lead.
Miami scored the only touchdown of the third quarter when Highsmith capped a 10-play, 74-yard drive by pushing in from two yards out. Cox's extra point pulled Miami to within 20-14.
"We still have a lot of things to improve on," Hall said. "But it's nothing that can't be corrected. I'm just glad we made these mistakes in a tough game and still came away with a win."