No. 2 Vols can't catch Gators, 35-29 First-half domination carries No. 4 Florida

September 22, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- They set a bunch of records yesterday at Neyland Stadium. Most fans to attend a college football game. Most yardage thrown by a Tennessee quarterback. A couple of others, too. But it was the unofficial record that seemed to matter: most lopsided game of significance ever decided by a touchdown.

By scoring five times in the first 20 minutes, fourth-ranked Florida (3-0) ended No. 2 Tennessee's dreams of a national championship, damaged junior quarterback Peyton Manning's Heisman Trophy candidacy and silenced a rain-soaked, NCAA-record crowd of 107,608 until the second half.

The result was a bizarre, though still one-sided, 35-29 victory for the Gators.

Though the Vols regained a measure of self-respect by shutting out Florida over the last 40 minutes to close a 29-point halftime deficit to six with 10 seconds to go, their early self-destruction was of considerable proportions.

Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel, a Heisman candidate himself, threw four touchdown passes in the first 19 minutes and finished 11 of 22 for 155 yards. Wuerffel has thrown for seven touchdowns and no interceptions this season.

"It was the darnedest first quarter I ever saw," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer. "Our team fought back tough and hard, but we got ourselves in an awfully big hole."

Fulmer and the Vols needed an archaeologist to dig themselves out. With none present, they turned to Manning. After throwing as many interceptions in the first half as he did all last season -- four, two leading to Florida touchdowns -- Manning led Tennessee (2-1) back.

But it took a little too long for the Vols to mount their comeback. A 46-yard field goal by Jeff Hall to open the second half and a 24-yard touchdown pass to Andy McCullough with 2: 21 left in the third quarter cut the deficit to 19. Tennessee failed to score again until a little over eight minutes remained.

"The offense put the defense in bad situations early," said Manning, also alluding to two first-half fumbles, including one by tailback Jay Graham that cornerback Anthone Lott returned 27 yards for a touchdown. "They got ahead by too much and we ran out of time."

The player many consider to be the best college quarterback in the country finished 37 of 65 for 492 yards -- the last two being school records -- and his four touchdown passes helped him become the school's all-time leader.

Like the margin of defeat, it meant little to Manning.

"I knew there would be a game like this, throwing interceptions left and right," said Manning. "I picked a bad night to do it against a team like Florida."

The Gators continued to show in the first half that their new attacking, man-to-man defense can put up points, too. Lott's touchdown was the sixth the defense has scored this season.

But the second half proved the Gators still need to get some of the wrinkles out before closing the season at Florida State, a game that likely will determine half of this year's Sugar Bowl national championship lineup in New Orleans.

"In the second half, we came out a little too laid-back," said Lott. "We can't do that if we want to win the rest of our games."

The victory gave the Gators the inside track on their fourth straight Southeastern Conference championship and fifth in six years. The defeat put the Vols in a similar position to the one they were in after last season's 62-37 drilling by Florida.

"We have to win out," said Manning, whose team had won 11 consecutive games.

Manning said memories of last year's game in Gainesville -- a game in which Tennessee jumped to a pair of 16-point leads in the first half and led 31-20 at halftime -- returned as the Vols mounted their second-half comeback. But Florida's offense was a flood, Tennessee's was a trickle.

It left Fulmer second-guessing himself about some first-half choices, like trying to outdo Florida coach Steve Spurrier's decision to twice go on fourth down. While the Gators scored jTC their first touchdown on fourth-and-11 from the Tennessee 35 on a pass from Wuerffel to Reidel Anthony, Manning was intercepted on fourth-and-10 from the Florida 17 to close out the first half.

"We should have kicked the field goal," Fulmer said. "I saw a lot of glazed looks on the sideline. We needed something to happen."

Something did. It was just too late to matter.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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