Gators get shot at Ole Miss' shook-up secondary

Updated: October 2, 2003, 5:00 PM ET

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Mississippi gave up 661 yards passing last week and ranks dead last among the nation's 117 Division I-A teams in passing defense.

It might seem like the perfect time for Chris Leak, the freshman quarterback for No. 24 Florida, to let it fly and build some confidence.

Of course, Florida coach Ron Zook has a knack for applying his own brand of logic, and he says we won't base his plan for the Ole Miss game Saturday around the fact that Texas Tech lit up the Rebels (2-2, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) last week.

"You can't get caught up in that," Zook said. "Texas Tech is pretty good. They've got a quarterback who's been in that system for four years. ... The one thing we've talked about all year long, and all in the offseason, is that I don't want to put it all on the quarterback."

But clearly, Leak is the man now. And as it showed in his first career start last week, a come-from-behind 24-21 win over Kentucky, it's going to be an up-and-down season for the freshman.

Leak's 268 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions don't tell the entire story.

He started the game timidly, missing receivers and making shaky decisions. Florida fell behind 21-3. By the end, however, he was playing with confidence -- and was gaining the confidence of his teammates.

"He kept his composure in the huddle," offensive lineman Max Starks said. "It was good to see he didn't get frazzled or down on himself or trying to gun the ball and do more than necessary. He didn't start putting it on himself."

On the other side of the field is Eli Manning, a quarterback who has no trouble putting it all on his shoulders. He is, after all, considered a top candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

His 322 yards per game leads the SEC. He ranks fourth in the nation in total offense. Yet he only has two victories to show for it, and last week, the Rebels lost 49-45 to Tech.

"I know our defense is trying," Manning said. "They were trying to make plays and were doing the best they could. You don't like the other team to keep scoring points and making first downs. It can get frustrating, but I know our defense is doing its best."

Although few teams actually look forward to facing Florida, Ole Miss figures Leak can't do any more damage than Texas Tech's B.J. Symons did. Running the most productive passing offense in the country, Symons went 44-for-64 for 661 yards and six touchdowns, more than nullifying a 409-yard game from Manning.

"I don't want to jinx myself," Rebels defensive coordinator Chuck Driesbach said. "I'm sure they're licking their chops right now. A younger quarterback certainly helps."

With Leak in the lineup, the Gators showed more willingness to throw downfield, something lacking in their 24-10 loss to Tennessee. Carlos Perez caught a 69-yard pass in the game that set up Florida's first field goal.

"He threw it like 50 yards off his back foot," Perez said. "That was an amazing throw. We just opened up the offense. Everybody said that was the question. We did it on that play. Hopefully there's more to come."

Of course, expecting this to be an offensive show could be a mistake.

Last year, Mississippi came in with Manning and a bad defense and won a tightly fought 17-14 game in Oxford. When the Gators look back on last season, in which they finished one game behind first-place Georgia in the SEC East, they point to the Ole Miss loss as the reason.

"It leaves a sour taste in your mouth when you're walking off the field and people are out there trying to tear down the goal posts and stuff," Starks said.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index