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Valley of Sunset for No. 1 Nebraska

College football: Tennessee is Gator meat again, as Wuerffel passes Florida to a 35-0 lead en route to a 35-29 win and probable No. 1 ranking.

September 22, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — If only Tennessee had a little more time to prepare.

Obviously, 369 days since the Volunteers' last loss to Florida weren't enough.

Nor was (former?) Heisman Trophy candidate Peyton Manning, nor vengeance, nor pride, nor an NCAA-record crowd of 107,608 at Neyland Stadium.

Maybe the Volunteers needed Archie Manning.

Alligator meat was selling for $10.99 a pound in town this week and being served grilled, fried, blackened and on a stick.

But in the end--no, make that the beginning--it was No. 4 Florida that came with the skewer Saturday, shell-shocking No. 2 Tennessee with a 35-29 victory that was close only because the Gators allowed it to be.

Or maybe it was a shock only to the football pundits who hocked Tennessee like tomato slicers based on the Volunteers' 11 consecutive wins since their 25-point loss to Florida on Sept. 16, 1995.

The Gators never seemed to be unnerved by the Volunteers. Florida has defeated Tennessee in nine of the last 11 games and in four in a row under Coach Steve Spurrier.

Before Tennessee officials could finish the head count on the school's record-setting attendance day, Florida had built a 35-0 lead with 10:06 left in the half after Anthone Lott returned Jay Graham's fumble 27 yards for a touchdown.

Florida then decided to sit on the lead, loosen up the defense and run ticks off the clock.

You know how Spurrier feels about running up the score on the unfortunate.

"It's hard when you get ahead 35-0," he said afterward. "But I like the ahead better than the behind."

Tennessee outscored Florida, 23-0, in the second half, and had one last gasp after Manning hit Andy McCullough on a 14-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds left to cut the lead to six.

But the Volunteers' on-side kick attempt bounded out of bounds, and that was that.

"We finally got things rolling, but it was too late," Manning said. "I don't think anyone ever quit."

Are statistics deceiving?

Manning finished with incredible numbers, completing 37 of 65 for a school-record 492 yards and four touchdowns.

Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel was a modest 11 of 22 for 155 yards and four touchdowns.

So who played the superior game?

In the deciding first half, Manning, the all-world NFL prospect, completed 12 of 26 passes for 215 yards and four interceptions.

Wuerffel, the weak-armed "product of the system," completed seven of 13 passes for 117 yards and four touchdowns.

The game was supposed to have national championship and Heisman Trophy implications. These were the implications:

Florida (3-0) is in the title chase and Tennessee (2-1) is out for now, maybe for good. Wuerffel outplayed Manning when it counted and should emerge the leader in the Heisman derby.

It was Wuerffel, not Manning, who wrested control of the game, giving Florida a 7-0 lead on its opening drive when, on fourth and 11 from the Tennessee 35, he hit a streaking Reidel Anthony on a 35-yard scoring strike.

A gutsy call by Spurrier.

"I wasn't going to call a post on fourth and 10," Wuerffel said, laughing.

On Manning's first series, he floated a third-down pass that deflected off Joey Kent's fingertips to Florida safety Teako Brown, who returned the intercepted pass 24 yards to the Tennessee 10.

On first down, Wuerffel hit Terry Jackson with a scoring pass to make it 14-0.

Wuerffel then capped a 60-yard scoring drive in the second quarter when he changed a play at the line and threw a five-yard scoring strike to Ike Hilliard.

Meanwhile, Manning was being hurried and harassed by Florida's defense, improved dramatically under new coordinator Bob Stoops.

Down by 21, and desperate to make up ground, Manning started to press. From his own 39, another deflected pass was picked off by linebacker James Bates at the Tennessee 29.

Two plays later, Wuerffel tossed his fourth scoring pass of the half, a 15-yard fade to Jacquez Green in the right corner with 11:03 left.

It was on the Volunteers' next series that Lott plucked Graham's fumble out of the the air and raced in with the Gators' fifth touchdown.

Since trailing Tennessee, 30-14, late in the second quarter of last year's 62-37 win at Gainesville, Florida had outscored Tennessee, 83-7.

The Florida defense eventually allowed 501 total yards, but 283 of those came after intermission.

More important, the Volunteers were held to three net yards rushing in the first half, and nine for the game.

The Gator defense was good when it mattered. Trailing, 35-6, late in the half, Manning was twice intercepted on fourth down deep in Florida territory.

"Those were huge," Stoops said of the interceptions. "It changed the complexion of the second half."

The Gators decided at halftime to try to run out the clock.

"There's no sense taking chances," Stoops said. "You want to win. Stats don't win. I'm not going to look at the stats. I came to Tennessee to win."

Spurrier pulled the plug on his "Fun 'N' Gun," running the ball 27 times in the second half while attempting only nine passes.

"It was sort of that bend-but-don't-break type thing," Spurrier said.

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