<
>

Florida keeps SEC East hopes alive

11/8/2003

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- While Florida's victory was short of
stunning, the standings sure look good to the Gators.

Ciatrick Fason scored twice and Keiwan Ratliff returned his
record-setting interception for a touchdown Saturday to help No. 17
Florida keep its Southeastern Conference title hopes alive with a
grinding 35-17 victory over Vanderbilt.

With their fourth straight win, the Gators (7-3, 5-2 SEC) --
largely considered a lost cause a month ago -- nudged into sole
possession of first place in the SEC East.

"I'm happy about it," offensive lineman Shannon Snell said.
"At the beginning of the year, we were creeping toward the bottom.
We had to climb out of that cellar and it means a lot to be sitting
on top at this point."

Granted, Florida's first-place spot is more of a statistical
quirk than anything else -- at least right now. Because Florida has
played more games than its main competition, the Gators are one
game ahead of idle Georgia (4-2) in the win column and two in front
of Tennessee (3-2), which won a big nonconference game at Miami on
Saturday.

Still, nobody on this team is going to nitpick -- either with the
standings or the less-than-overwhelming nature of the latest
victory against Vandy (1-9, 0-6), which lost its 23rd straight SEC
game.

Chris Leak threw for 179 yards and Ran Carthon ran for 79 more
to lift Florida. The Gators put together two good-looking 80-yard
touchdown drives. Yet with 5:46 left, Florida led only 28-17 and
Vanderbilt, courtesy of Florida's fourth turnover, was trying a
32-yard field goal that would have made it a one-score game.

Patrick Johnson missed it wide left and the threat was over.

A few minutes later, Ratliff set the school record with his
eighth pick of the season, and returned it 52 yards for the last
score, making a competitive game look more like a runaway, which it
wasn't.

Ratliff, who muffed a punt early that led to Vandy's first
touchdown, broke the record of seven interceptions held by three
players, most recently Will White in 1990.

"As a playmaker, you hope you can step up and get your name
called," Ratliff said. "Early, I made a mistake that put the
defense on bad terms. I wanted to make up for it."

Seven of Ratliff's interceptions have come in the last four
games.

Equally hot is Fason, who finished with 53 yards rushing and 17
yards receiving. The sophomore was so upset with his playing time
last month that he walked into coach Ron Zook's office and said he
was quitting.

Zook talked him out of it, and Fason has responded with five
touchdowns over the last four games. His second score Saturday gave
Florida a 28-10 lead in the third quarter. His first was a 12-yard
reception, his third touchdown catch during the streak.

"A year ago this time, he was the last guy we'd want to throw
the ball to," Zook said.

Then again, the Gators have been full of surprises this season.

Last month, they were 3-3 after home losses to Ole Miss and
Tennessee and many of the faithful were wondering if they'd win
enough games to make a bowl.

Now, they're in the hunt for the title, and in hopes of being
part of that nutty three-way tiebreaker scenario, which SEC
athletic directors decided Friday would be broken by using the Bowl
Championship Series standings. No. 18 Tennessee's victory over No.
6 Miami certainly helped the Vols in the polls, which are a major
component in the BCS.

"All I'm worried about is South Carolina," Zook said, speaking
of Florida's SEC finale next week. "If we don't beat South
Carolina, none of this makes any difference."

To win at South Carolina, the Gators will surely need to clean
some things up.

Besides the four turnovers, Florida kept Vanderbilt around with
an assortment of mistakes, a few of them somewhat embarrassing:

Mike Degory snapped the ball high over Leak's head in the third
quarter, a play that resulted in a 35-yard loss and third-and-45
from the Florida 23.

After offsetting personal fouls were called following a
second-quarter punt, Zook and the Gators got confused by the
officials and declined Vandy's penalty, allowing the Commodores to
net 15 yards in field position.

"Sometimes it's just good to get the mistakes out of the way,"
said tackle Max Starks, who acknowledged being confused by the refs
when he declined that penalty.

Against Vanderbilt, though, mistakes are tolerable. Despite
playing a decent game, the Commodores stayed in line to lose 11
games for the first time in their beleaguered history.

Behind Jay Cutler's 189 yards passing and 36 running, Vanderbilt
controlled the ball for 36:26, but couldn't exploit enough of
Florida's mistakes.

The Gators played a part in that. Daryl Dixon had two
interceptions and Cory Bailey made a great break for another.
Bailey's came in the third quarter with the Commodores inside the
Florida 15 and looking to cut into a 21-10 deficit.

"I'm very proud of our guys for not quitting," Vandy coach
Bobby Johnson said. "But we're not looking to play close, we're
not looking to keep the score down. We are looking to win."

The search continues next week against Kentucky.