VETTEL: Hard Earned Win to Start SEC Race

I’ll admit it. It was among many who kind of discounted the Tennessee game in assessing Florida’s chances in 2006. The Vols just fell apart last season and it was hard to see that changing completely so quickly. But as it turns out, the boys from Rocky Top are a more formidable team than expected; just not quite formidable enough for beat the Florida Gators.

It was the kind of game where every play seemed to mean so much. Every official’s call could be the difference. Every busted assignment could send the other team home with a win. It was a gut-check for the Orange and Blue and Urban Meyer’s team came through.

The game wasn’t settled until DeShawn Wynn took consecutive snaps for ten yards and a first down. Up till then, my cell phone never stopped ringing as friends and acquaintances alike couldn’t wait to discuss the latest ebb of a game with a load of ebb and flow.

Leak Overcomes Mistakes Late

For Gator senior quarterback Chris Leak it was a perfect example of veteran poise at the most crucial moments. Leak’s early interception put life in what was an increasingly moribund Vols squad. His second crucial mistake, an interception for a touchdown, was wiped away by a roughing the passer call. Leak took a critical grounding penalty on the Gators’ second touchdown drive only to connect with Cornelius Ingram for 38 yards on the very next play. Leak even came through to almost wipe away the memory of ANOTHER slide short of the first down mark on the final scoring drive.

Two years ago Leak was devastated when the Gators let the game in Knoxville slip away. After all, it was the perceived mistreatment of his brother C.J. that convinced Leak to rule out playing in Rocky Top. Now, for the second year in a row, Leak leads the Gators on a crucial fourth quarter to beat the Vols. He’ll never let on how much it meant to him, but trust me. This is the highlight of Chris Leak’s career.

Gator Defensive Front Stout

Did David Cutcliff call Jeff Bowden for advice on his running game? Probably not, but the Vols were just about as effective running the ball as the ‘Noles have been this season. When an offense becomes one dimensional, it rarely can score under the most distress. That’s precisely how it played out on Tennessee’s final possession where Florida had no concern at all about the Vols putting the ball on the ground.

After the Vols got to the Gators’ 39 with a first down, a balanced attack could run and get closer to field goal range for clutch kicker par excellence Jason Wilhoit. Shoot the only needed five yards for a potential game-winning kick. But the Vols had no balance, so the Gators blitzed, forcing intentional grounding and pushing the Vols back into their own half of the field.

Brandon Siler was the man putting on the pressure for the biggest defensive play of the season. You know, Siler has been pretty quiet in the early going of this campaign, but Florida’s middle linebacker showed why he is such a leader. It’s not all verbal and it’s not all in the weight room. For a leader to truly lead, he sometimes has to make the play when it MUST be made.

Hetland a Happy Camper

Is there any Gator, except maybe Leak more relieved by the outcome of this game than Chris Hetland? The senior place kicker missed two field goals while Wilhoit made both of his tries. It had to be killing Hetland, a walk-on for four years of his UF career, to look at that scoreboard knowing the difference in the game was the difference in the field goal kickers.

Obviously that’s an oversimplification, but there’s no doubt that’s just how he felt. But when Leak hit Dallas Baker for a touchdown with 6:40 to play, Hetland was taken off the hook. Well, he was off the hook IF he could connect on the extra point. He did, Florida led 21-20 and the defense made it stand up.

It was not a great day for Florida’s special teams including a penalty (iffy, I agree) that negated a Brandon James punt return for a touchdown. But that play shows why James is going to be a productive player for the next four years. The kid just has a feel for how to do it, and that’s something you just can’t teach.

Plenty of Work Ahead

While the Gators celebrate the win, the also know they have a lot of room for improvement. Gator corners struggled with the Tennessee receivers including making the crucial mistake of letting a receiver get an inside release on a blitz. That mistake equals hot read equals touchdown Volunteers. The Gators – make that Reggie Nelson intercepted Eric Ainge’s first pass and his last, but the Gators forced no turnovers in between.

The Florida offensive line held its own against a more experienced Vols unit, but there were some busts there (and at tight end) that put Leak under too much pressure.

But that’s quibbling for another time. The bottom line is wins at Rocky Top are cause for celebration in Gator Nation and that’s exactly what’s underway. And it’ll stay that way… at least for a few more hours.