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October 20, 2007

Florida survives shootout with Kentucky

Box score

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Florida's jump pass is back. This time the receiver, like the Gators, stayed on his feet.

After going 28 days without a win, Florida kept its footing in the ultra-competitive SEC Eastern Division with a 45-37 win at Kentucky on Saturday.

In the process, several things seemed to go right for the Gators. Do-everything quarterback Tim Tebow is back in the forefront of the Heisman Trophy race, injury-plagued senior receiver Andre Caldwell had his most productive game in nearly a year and even Florida's defense - though gutted by Kentucky's own Heisman hopeful, Andre' Woodson - made stops when it was pressed.

It all came at a perfect time for Florida.

As news trickled in at halftime that Tennessee lost to Alabama earlier Saturday, Florida's players learned they would control their fate in the SEC East if they could beat Kentucky.

Florida hung on, though Kentucky pressed the Gators until the clock hit zero. Now, Florida controls its fate in the division race.

Five of the six teams in the SEC East have two losses. The Gators (5-2, 3-2 SEC) will have to go through fellow two-loss teams Georgia and South Carolina for a shot to return to Atlanta for the conference championship game.

"I've never seen anything like it," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "I've never seen anything like what goes on in this league."

And though Meyer doesn't want to start talking about the two-loss Gators' place in the national championship picture, Florida could make a comeback there, too. At least four  teams ranked ahead of No. 15 Florida in the BCS standings will lose this week.  Another (either No. 3 Boston College or No. 11 Virginia Tech) will lose Thursday.

Even before kickoff against Kentucky (6-2, 2-2 SEC) on Saturday, Florida didn't need to be reminded the SEC was in its grasp.

Florida 45, Kentucky 37
Offensive player of the game
Andre' Woodson beat him on the stat sheet, but Tim Tebow made his case for the nation's MVP. He had a hand in five of Florida's six touchdowns and accounted for 334 yards of total offense.
Defensive player of the game
Florida defensive end Jermaine Cunningham did what the entire LSU defense couldn't – he sacked Woodson 2.5 times.
Turning point
Florida's aggressive playcalling may have prevented overtime. Up 38-31 in the fourth quarter, Tebow hit Percy Harvin down the sideline for a 40-yard pass to set up a 2-yard Tebow touchdown run to take a 45-31 lead with 1:33 left.
Surprise performance
Andre Caldwell had been a forgotten man with Tebow and Percy Harvin stealing the offensive headlines for Florida. The senior made a return from a knee injury and shook off an early case of the drops with six catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. He also added two carries for 19 yards.
What this means for Florida
The Gators now control their destiny in the SEC East thanks to the win over Kentucky and Tennessee's loss. Wins against Georgia, at South Carolina and at home against Vanderbilt, will give Florida a return trip to Atlanta.
What this means for Kentucky
Kentucky lost its chance to take sole possession of first place in the SEC East. The Wildcats now have to count on other teams to lose in order to make their first appearance in the SEC championship game.
The Commonwealth Stadium crowd honored Florida walk on quarterback Michael Guilford with a moment of silence. Guilford died Oct. 12 in a motorcycle accident. … It took seven games, but someone finally returned a punt against Florida. Keenan Burton returned a Chas Henry punt 9 yards with 7:18 left in the second quarter. … Florida left the game banged up. Cornerback Wondy Pierre-Louis (shoulder), safety Major Wright (broken thumb), offensive tackle Carlton Medder (heel) and defensive tackle Clint McMillan (shoulder) all left the game with injuries.
Meyer was there to do that. After Kentucky defeated LSU in triple overtime last Saturday night, the coach immediately phoned his team to reinforce that Florida was not out of the race. It turned out to be prophetic when Tennessee lost 41-17 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

"It's wide open (now). It was wide open last week," Meyer said. "(The call) is constant motivation. It's waking up in the morning and motivate them. It's going to sleep at night and motivate them."

With at least five games left, Florida hopes the jump pass - the play that placed Tebow on the national scene when he did it last year against LSU - won't be the only repeat performance from 2006.

Against Kentucky on Saturday, Tebow faked a run over tackle on second down from the Kentucky 1 only to leap and toss the ball to an open Aaron Hernandez in the end zone. When Tebow ran the play against LSU in 2006, tight end Tate Casey stumbled as he caught the touchdown pass, making it one of the sloppiest highlight-reel play of Florida's season. Unlike Casey, Hernandez kept his feet under him.

"We thought it would be fun," Tebow said. "Just like last year they were expecting the run, and Aaron did a great job of faking the block and coming off (for the touchdown). It's a fun play."

Add that play to Tebow's lofty résumé. The sophomore completed 18 of 26 passes for 256 yards and four touchdowns and was again Florida's leading rusher by a large margin. He ran 20 times for 78 yards and a score. After the win over Kentucky, Tebow has played a role in all but nine of Florida's 36 offensive touchdowns this year.

"Tim is one of the most competitive players in the country," said Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, when asked if Tebow is the best player in the country. "He wills things to happen."

In a duel between arguably the top two quarterbacks in the nation, Woodson had no lack of will either.

Woodson picked apart Florida's leaky pass defense. He completed 35 of 50 passes for 415 yards and five touchdowns.

Woodson and Kentucky manhandled the Florida defense on the stat sheet by running 22 more plays for 85 more yards with eight more first downs for the Gators. But Florida did what LSU couldn't do last week, and the Gators did it six times. Florida's defensive line countered with six sacks - two coming in the red zone and another three on first down to set up long second-down situations.

"We beat ourselves in the red zone," Woodson said. "The defense didn't really stop us. We just beat ourselves."

Tebow benefited by having his full complement of playmakers. Caldwell missed three games with a knee injury before making a premature and ineffective return against LSU on Oct. 6. Once he had his legs under him and shook off an early drop, Caldwell finished with six catches for 73 yards and a touchdown.

The rest of Florida's outside playmakers also had big days – Percy Harvin ran for a 24-yard score and Louis Murphy had a 66-yard touchdown catch.

The gains turned out to be Kentucky's loss. The Wildcats could have taken a lead in the SEC East as the division's only one-loss team. Kentucky now has to wait for other teams to lose to make its first SEC Championship Game.

"We would have been in fantastic shape," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. "I just think this league is a mess right now. It's competitive, and week to week you better be ready or someone is going to jump up and spoil it. Who would have ever thought that South Carolina would score six points, and Alabama - after getting five players suspended - would upset Tennessee?"

There will be several more opportunities for teams to misstep in the SEC East race.

"It's awful for a coach," Meyer said. "But it's probably fun to watch."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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