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Gators Struggle With Vandy

A Florida quarterback dropping to pass used to be one of the most feared sights in college football. It was scary as usual Saturday, but for all the wrong reasons.

On a day when their quest for the national title got a boost, the talk seemed out of place as the fifth-ranked Gators had to fight to the end against Vanderbilt for a 13-6 victory.

Florida (8-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) stayed in line for the SEC title game and will almost certainly move up in the Associated Press rankings, thanks to No. 2 Penn State's surprising loss to Minnesota.

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Game summary

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  • That wasn't enough to calm coach Steve Spurrier, who many times saw Vanderbilt's defense recognize Florida's plays better than his own players.

    It resulted in one of Florida's most pitiful offensive performances in recent memory. The Gators managed just one touchdown for only the second time since 1992. Doug Johnson finished 14-for-24 for 143 yards. Florida didn't throw a touchdown pass, only the fifth time that has happened under Spurrier's watch.

    "I'm scared to death about what will happen when we drop back there," Spurrier said. "I'm afraid to throw the ball. I'm afraid something bad will happen back there."

    Helped by a 44-yard completion from Greg Zolman to Tavarus Hogans, the Commodores (5-4, 2-4) had the ball at the Gators 19 trailing by seven with less than a minute left. The Gators held and escaped against a team they had learned to take for granted over the years.

    These are not the same old Commodores. Instead, Vanderbilt remains one win away from becoming eligible for its first bowl berth since 1982.

    Coach Woody Widenhofer's team also had a secret weapon in Tim Olmstead, a transfer from Florida who helped the Commodores diagnose all of the Gators' audibles during a two-week preparation period.

    "I check to a fade, and they say, `Watch the fade,"' Johnson said. "I check to a hitch and they say, `Watch the hitch.' They were telling our receivers which routes they should ru. You may think I'm being sarcastic, but I'm not. I guess Olmstead got the last laugh."

    There was no levity on the other sideline. As always, Johnson had numerous confrontations with Spurrier following aborted drives.

    When Spurrier wasn't arguing with Johnson, he was in conference with offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens, trying to figure a way to stop a Vanderbilt pass rush that totaled five sacks and forced two fumbles by Johnson.

    Once again, Spurrier turned to a ground game that offered decent results. Earnest Graham came off the bench to rush for 124 yards on 16 carries.

    Graham's was the only good performance for an offense that continued to struggle, gaining only 269 yards, 100 fewer than Vanderbilt.

    "It was kind of frustrating," Gators defensive lineman Keith Kelsey said of the offensive struggles. "But it just makes you look at your teammates and say, `We've got to play harder."'

    The defense came up with plays to keep Vanderbilt off the scoreboard until late in the third quarter, when John Markham kicked a 28-yard field goal to make the score 13-3.

    He added another field goal with 3:30 left to cut the deficit to a touchdown. Florida recovered the onside kick, but the Gators couldn't gain a first down.

    After a punt, Vanderbilt's last drive began at its 16. The Hogans reception put the Commodores within striking range of their first victory in the series since 1988.

    "I couldn't believe that," Gators offensive lineman Cheston Blackshear said. "I was just praying and asking for the defense to come through."

    It did, and Vanderbilt could look back to the first half for several textbook examples of why mediocre teams stay mediocre.

    Three times, Vandy had the ball inside the Florida 40 with a chance to break a scoreless tie. All three times the Commodores came out empty, once due to 23 yards in penalties and another after Markham bobbled a direct snap on an attempted pooch punt.

    "We didn't get a lot of help from our special teams or our offense," Widenhofer said. "The offense battled them, but of course, Florida is playing good defense, too. To me, holding those guys to 13 points in their own backyard is a great defensive effort."

    Spurrier agreed. And stung by a game that was much closer than anyone expected, he hinted that personnel changes could be coming.

    "I don't care if we're in the SEC race or not, if we need to make changes, we'll make them," Spurrier said. "We were extremely fortunate tonight. In 10 years at Florida, I can't remember getting outplayed so badly and still winning. They outplayed us, outcoached us and everything else you can do."

    ©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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