Just three more yards. The way Tennessee Coach Phil Fulmer saw it Saturday night, three yards stood between the Volunteers and their chance to continue their quest to repeat as national champions, their chance to break a 28-year drought on Florida's home field and their chance to hold on to their No. 2 ranking.
The three yards never came. Playing on fourth down at the Gators 42-yard line, workhorse running back Jamal Lewis tried to rush behind his left tackle, but got nowhere. With two minutes remaining, Florida took possession and ran out the clock to claim a 23-21 victory. Fulmer never got the chance to get his team in field goal position, leaving many of the Volunteers' hopes for this season sitting on the field, deposited somewhere in the middle of those three yards.
With the result, Tennessee's ranking dropped to No. 7; Florida's hopped from No. 4 to No. 3. Further south, Miami's ranking dropped from No. 8 to No. 9, after the Hurricanes fell victim to a last-minute comeback from Penn State. The 27-23 Penn State win propelled the Nittany Lions, who had been No. 3, into Tennessee's old spot at No. 2.
"Obviously nothing feels good about a loss, although I was pleased with the fight and character of our football team as they continued to battle back and give us a chance at the end," Fulmer said yesterday. "The sacks, the penalties and general poor execution really just killed us in the course of the ballgame."
The loss broke Tennessee's 14-game winning streak, although it extended several streaks for Florida. The Gators have now won 30 games in a row at home, and have held the Volunteers without a win at Florida Field--the noisy, swirling, humid stadium better known as The Swamp--since 1971.
Fulmer believes the atmosphere at The Swamp, especially the noise made by the 85,707 spectators, played a key role because his tackles were often unable to hear quarterback Tee Martin's snap counts. He credited Gators defensive end Alex Brown with getting a jump on his lineman several times, leading to Brown's five sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and seven tackles. Brown's performance keyed a breakout game for the young and inexperienced Florida defense, which found itself bailing out a turnover-prone offense late in the game.
"I talked a little bit this week, so I had to go out and back it up--I think I did that," Brown said after the game. As for preserving the home winning streak, he said, "We are the mighty Gators. We always come out hard every day, and if we're playing here we're going to win."
The victory over Tennessee has certainly given the Gators confidence, although Coach Steve Spurrier still has some concerns about both his offense, which was alternately explosive and mistake-prone Saturday, and his defense, which has struggled when facing shotgun teams this season. In fact, Spurrier believes the Volunteers would have had more success against his team if they had been more flexible in their offensive game plan.
"That's their favorite line that, 'We're going to be Tennessee,' and it almost worked again [Saturday]," Spurrier said. "They say, 'Don't beat yourself and hopefully something good will happen in the fourth quarter.' That worked to perfection last year; something good always happened. Last night, it looked like something was going to happen again, until we stopped them on that fourth down.
"Their style and ours is a little bit different. We try to beat you by three or four touchdowns if we can. We may make some errors and mistakes along the way, but that's the way we do it."