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January 2, 2006

Gators hold off Iowa in Outback



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TAMPA, Fla. - Chris Leak showed why Florida is confident its spread option offense is capable of carrying the Gators back to national prominence.

Leak threw for 277 yards and two touchdowns Monday, answering lingering questions about his suitability for coach Urban Meyer's offensive scheme in a 31-24 victory over No. 25 Iowa in the Outback Bowl.

Dallas Baker scored on receptions of 24 and 38 yards and finished with 10 catches for 147 yards for the 16th-ranked Gators (9-3) as Meyer matched Ray Graves (1960) and Steve Spurrier (1990) for most victories for a coach in his first season at Florida.

Vernell Brown, back earlier than expected from a broken leg, returned an interception 60 yards for a touchdown and Tremaine McCollum ran 6 yards with a blocked punt for another TD to help the Gators build a 24-7 halftime lead.

Drew Tate and the Iowa offense had lots of success moving the ball, but the blocked punt on the fifth play of the game, Brown's interception and two costly penalties during an 80-yard touchdown drive Florida put together just before the half left the Hawkeyes (7-5) in a hole too deep to escape.

Tate completed 32 of 55 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns. He rallied his team from a 31-7 deficit in the fourth quarter with TD throws of 4 and 14 yards to Ed Hinkel, then moved Iowa into position for a 45-yard field goal to pull the Hawkeyes within a touchdown with 1:24 remaining.

The Gators, making their third Outback appearance in the past four years, had not ended a season with a victory since beating Maryland in the Orange Bowl in 2002. They lost to Michigan in Tampa in the 2003 Outback and Iowa two years ago in a game that some of Florida's players felt the team was ill-prepared.

Iowa salvaged its season by rebounding from losses to Michigan and Northwestern to beat Wisconsin and Minnesota to receive its school-record fourth straight trip to a January bowl - a huge boon for recruiting.

Still, five losses has to be a disappointment after going 10-2 and sharing the Big Ten championship with Ohio State in 2004.

Florida's season hit a low point with a 30-22 loss at South Carolina. Meyer held a team meeting during the plane ride home, and the Gators responded two weeks later with a dominating 34-7 rout of Florida State that underscored the coach's belief that the program is headed in the right direction.

Brown broke his left leg against Vanderbilt on Nov. 5 and missed the last two games of the season.

The 5-foot-8 cornerback was a freshman wide receiver three years ago when he threw an interception on a trick play that sealed Florida's 8-point Outback loss to Michigan under former Gators coach Ron Zook.

Meyer replaced Zook after last season, moving to the Southeastern Conference after highly successful stints at Bowling Green and Utah. His arrival, however, also brought questions about whether his offense would work in a major league such as the SEC.

Leak looked lost in the scheme at times early in the season. But with Monday's win, as well as victories over Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State in the same year for only the fourth time in school history, Meyer's first season was a success.

For more coverage of the Florida Gators, check out GatorBait.net, and for more coverage of the Iowa Hawkeyes, check out HawkeyeReport.com.


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