8:00 PM ET, September 17, 2005
BEN HILL GRIFFIN STADIUM, GAINESVILLE, FL
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- Urban Meyer jogged across Florida Field and received a seemingly endless standing ovation.
This was exactly what the Gators wanted, what they needed.
"This is what we've been waiting for," safety Jarvis Herring said. "We've been through so many ups and downs."
No. 6 Florida held fifth-ranked Tennessee scoreless in the second half, took advantage of three special teams errors and won 16-7 Saturday night to give Meyer a resounding victory in his Southeastern Conference debut.
Meyer was hired by Florida for his innovative offensive mind, but maybe his defense and special teams should have been getting all the hype.
"That was two sledgehammers swinging at each other all night," Meyer said of a game controlled by the defenses.
The Gators had lost three of the last four against the Volunteers, including two in a row at Florida Field. They ended that streak and got an early edge in the Eastern Division race.
Since the SEC adopted its 12-team, two-division format in 1992, the winner of the Tennessee-Florida game has won the East nine times and advanced to the championship game.
"It's a tough loss, but it's not the end of the season," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, whose team plays at LSU next week.
For the Gators to get to the Georgia Dome, they probably will need to get more production from their offense.
Meyer's spread offense was the biggest story line entering the game: could it work against one of the nation's top defenses?
The answer was not very well Saturday, but Florida was able to overcome its offensive shortcomings.
"Our offensive line is not playing well," Meyer said. "We've got to get that taken care of. It's nonsense. We've got to get better."
The Gators (3-0, 1-0) did prove to have a strong defense, a unit that had several late collapses the last three seasons under former coach Ron Zook. But special teams turned out to be the deciding factor in front of a record crowd of 90,716 -- the largest to ever watch a football game in the state.
"We are not a great football team," Meyer said. "That was a big win by a good defense and good special teams."
Florida got three second-half field goals from Chris Hetland, a walk-on kicker who was benched after missing an extra point last week against Louisiana Tech. Each of his kicks followed a special teams blunder for Tennessee (1-1, 0-1).
"We are a team, and we are all on the same ship," Vols linebacker Kevin Simon said. "If special teams break down, it hurts me, too. I appreciate their effort, but it wasn't good enough tonight."
Jonathan Hefney fumbled a punt after Florida's opening possession of the third quarter. Florida's James Smith hit Hefney after the gaffe, preventing him from picking up the ball, and Tremaine McCollum recovered it.
The Gators had the ball at the 28, but Chris Leak got sacked on the first play and they had to settle for a field goal and a 10-7 lead.
Tennessee made an even bigger miscue on the ensuing possession.
The Vols tried a fake punt on fourth-and-9 from their 32 -- a rare trick play for Fulmer. Punter Britton Colquitt's pass was nearly picked off by Tony Joiner. Nonetheless, the Gators got great field position again. But Leak was sacked for the fifth time, and Florida settled for another field goal to go up 13-7 with about 5 minutes to play in the third.
The Vols got the ball back, but their next drive ended with an 8-yard punt. Florida got close to the end zone, but ended up with a 20-yard field goal.
Special teams also blocked a field goal in the second quarter after a replay overturned a completion that would have given Tennessee a first-and-goal. Dee Webb came off the corner untouched and batted down the kick in the backfield.
The Gators' defense was even better despite losing end Ray McDonald for much of the game. He injured a ligament in his right knee early in the second quarter and did not return.
Even without him, the unit got good pressure on quarterback Erik Ainge and stuffed running back Gerald Riggs in the second half.
Ainge, who replaced starter Rick Clausen after the first two series, looked good at times but also struggled under heavy pressure late.
He was 14-of-29 passing for 147 yards with a touchdown. Riggs ran 17 times for 86 yards, but he had 73 yards at the half.
"We left a lot of plays on the field, whether it was a bad route, bad throw or dropped pass," Ainge said. "I thought we played pretty good, but pretty good isn't enough against Florida."
Leak was solid for Florida despite getting sacked five times. He was 17-of-26 for 179 yards.
The Gators took an early lead with some trickery of their own.
Leak faked an option left, then pitched to receiver Andre Caldwell going the other way. Dallas Baker delivered a key block, and Caldwell scampered 18 yards for a 7-0 lead.
"Our defense played their hearts out," Simon said. "We just made more mistakes than Florida's defense did."
Top 25 Overview
It was over when... Walk-on Chris Hetland kicked his third second-half FG to push the Gators ahead by nine in the fourth quarter.
Gameball goes to... Florida's defense. The Gators D limited Tennessee to 213 yards and held the Vols scoreless in the second half.
Stat of the game... 1: Urban Meyer's first SEC win was a big one.
The Fan Pick
65.6% of College Pick'em players picked Florida to win the game.
Team Stat Comparison
|3rd Down Conversions||3-13||8-18|
|4th Down Conversions||0-3||0-2|
|TD||4:14||ANDRE CALDWELL 18 YD RUN (CHRIS HETLAND KICK)|
Drive info: 8 plays, 80 yards.
|TD||9:29||BRET SMITH 8 YD PASS FROM ERIK AINGE (JAMES WILHOIT II KICK)|
Drive info: 12 plays, 83 yards.
|FG||11:41||CHRIS HETLAND 38 YD FG|
Drive info: 4 plays, 7 yards.
|FG||5:14||CHRIS HETLAND 35 YD FG|
Drive info: 7 plays, 13 yards.
|FG||8:02||CHRIS HETLAND 20 YD FG|
Drive info: 16 plays, 68 yards.