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September 30, 2006

Florida quarterbacks answer the call

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Florida 28, Alabama 13 | Box score

Notes: Tide rushing woes continue

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – On a cloudless afternoon, cheers rained down on Florida quarterbacks Saturday.

All of them.

Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel, Heisman Trophy winners when they were passing for the Gators in days of yore, drew huge ovations when honored in a pre-game ceremony.

Tim Tebow, today's backup and apparently tomorrow's star, drew thunderous applause whenever he stepped on the field, too.

The 90,671 Gator chompers at The Swamp even cheered sometimes-maligned starting quarterback Chris Leak – at first almost defiantly and then later euphorically – as he once again was keenly efficient in a 28-13 Southeastern Conference football victory over Alabama.

Sharp but not spectacular, Leak helped the Gators remain unbeaten this season by completing 14 of 20 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns.

On a pivotal 95-yard scoring drive in the second quarter, Leak ripped off a career-best 45-yard run that caught the Crimson Tide and Florida coach Urban Meyer by surprise.

"We were dead in the water. I think that 95-yard drive really turned things around," Meyer said. "Chris had a 31-yard run … 45 yards? Whoa, Chris ran 45 yards? Well, there you go. It was a designed play and he did a nice job checking to it. It was a big play."

That play led to a momentum-changing touchdown (a run by Tebow). The TD reduced an Alabama lead to 10-7 just before halftime, and was so big that the normally mild-mannered Leak emotionally gestured to the crowd and they roared their approval.

"As a quarterback I know how important it is to have the crowd behind you at home," Leak said of his emotional outburst. "It puts pressure on the opposing team's offense. That's what The Swamp is for."

Perhaps nowhere else but Gainesville does it qualify as news when an undefeated team's starting quarterback is cheered in his home stadium.

Just a week ago, some Florida fans booed Leak. The Gators starter – and Heisman Trophy contender - efficiently directed a 26-7 victory over Kentucky. So, what is the Florida faithful's issue with Leak?

Some explained that last week's jeers were actually directed toward coach Urban Meyer for taking the wildly popular Tebow out of the game. Others wondered if some of the folks in Gainesville had stepped back about 40 years and booed because Leak is black.

Don't accept that one. Too many black players have been embraced at Florida to think one is alienated just because of his position.

Rather, the testiness toward Leak can probably be traced to numbers painted on the faηade at the south end of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. It reads: SEC Champions 91, 93, 94, 95, 96, 00.

Leak came to Florida as a heralded high school prospect. He was ranked the No. 2 pro style quarterback and the No. 26 player overall by Rivals.com. Visions of more glory came with him. Yet, no championship has been won since he arrived. By virtue of the position he plays, Leak absorbs too much of the blame.

However, that blame game could very well come to an end in a few weeks.

The Gators have an excellent defense, which entered Saturday's game ranked fourth nationally against the run. Florida limited Alabama to 83 rushing yards and had three quarterback sacks.

Florida's offensive line is adequate, though not dominating. The running game needs an upgrade, and there is some uncertainty there after DeShawn Wynn suffered an apparent sprained ankle that forced him out of the game in the third quarter.

But receivers Dallas Baker, Andre Caldwell and Jemalle Cornelius collectively form one of the premier groups in the country. Leak is so skilled at distributing the ball to them that he's been named among Heisman Trophy favorites.

He won't win it. He doesn't make the spectacular plays that are practically required to clinch that trophy. Being efficient is not sufficient for the Heisman, but it was enough against Alabama. It might be enough to navigate the upcoming treacherous three-week stretch in which the Gators face No. 9 LSU, No. 2 Auburn and No. 10 Georgia consecutively.

With Florida driving to take the lead in the third quarter, Leak made excellent throws on consecutive passes for 22 and 26 yards to put the Gators deep into Alabama territory. One play later Leak made a short toss which Caldwell - who juked around Jeffrey Dukes - turned into a 16-yard touchdown for a 14-10 Florida lead.

Caldwell's run after the catch was highlight reel-worthy, but Meyer credited Leak with making it happen by checking into the play after reading Alabama's defense.

"I was most proud of that play because Chris Leak and Bubba Caldwell adjusted to the defense," Meyer said. "If we would have tried to accomplish that last year we would have looked like the Three Stooges and it would not have gone well. That's a sign of a quarterback taking control."

The Gators took full control in the fourth quarter when Leak capitalized on one-on-one coverage against Baker. Alabama's Ramzee Robinson, who is 5 feet 10, had the 6-foot-2 Baker well covered. But Leak threw high, and Baker grabbed it for a win-clinching 21-yard touchdown pass.

If Leak continues to make those kinds of throws and leads the Gators to a championship, he'll be cheered as wildly as Spurrier and Wuerffel were when they were playing.

He's already on the way. The fans in the end zone, sitting underneath that sign listing SEC championships, gave him rousing applause as he headed into the tunnel after the game.

But when Tebow exited the field, they chanted his name.

For more coverage of the Florida Gators, visit GatorBait.net; for more on the Alabama Crimson Tide, visit BamaOnLine.com.

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