JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP)—Matt Leach earned a small slice of fame Saturday night, and left no doubt about who still whips up the best cocktail in town.
The Florida kicker slid a 33-yard field goal inside the left upright with 33 seconds remaining to lift the Gators to a 16-13 win over the beat-up Georgia Bulldogs.
The kick capped a winning drive by freshman quarterback Chris Leak and kept alive not only No. 23 Florida’s most improbable run at the SEC title, but its unrelenting dominance over No. 4 Georgia.
This was Florida’s 13th win in the last 14 games over Georgia (7-2, 4-2) and once again, the end of The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party played out more like Gatorpalooza.
Florida coach Ron Zook stood on the bench and threw his fists up toward his giddy fans. Leach took a postgame ride on his teammate’s shoulders. Several of the Gators (6-3, 4-2) hoisted one of their big flags and planted it at the 50-yard line, proclaiming Alltel Stadium, a supposedly neutral site, as their turf.
“A lot of this game is mental,” cornerback Keiwan Ratliff said. “If they let it get into their head that they always lose to us, that could hurt them. But I would love it to be in their heads, and stay in their heads for the next 20 years.”
Leach’s third field goal was set up by a beautiful 66-yard drive highlighted when Leak dropped a 20-yard pass to Ben Troupe into a gap in the Georgia zone for a first down at the Georgia 47.
A few plays later, the junior kicker had his first career game-winning field goal.
“I thought I hit it better than that,” Leach said, when asked if he was nervous as the ball drifted close to the upright. “I was like, `Eh?’ But as long as it goes through, I don’t care.”
It was a fantastic save to a game that seemed to be slipping from Florida’s grasp. After Leach made an 18-yarder to put the Gators up 13-3 early in the fourth, the Bulldogs responded with a pair of quick scores.
The first, capped by Kregg Lumpkin’s 1-yard run, cut the deficit to three with 9:18 left. After a three-and-out possession for Florida, David Greene hit Reggie Brown for gains of 16 and 7 yards to push Georgia toward the goal line again. But the Gators held twice from their 4, forcing Billy Bennett’s tying field goal.
It left Leak with about four minutes to engineer the biggest drive of his young career.
“It’s painful, period, because it’s a loss,” Georgia tailback Michael Cooper said. “That’s something we haven’t grown accustomed to dealing with at Georgia.”
Against Florida, though, it’s common, and this year, Leach is the headliner.
He became the first Florida kicker to nail the game-winner in this rivalry since 1967, when Wayne Barfield made one with 29 seconds left for a 17-16 victory.
While the Gators and their fans celebrated, Bulldogs fans took that oh-so-familiar walk of shame out of Alltel.
They were left with yet another disturbing thought to ponder for the next year: Florida’s mastery isn’t all about its old coach, Steve Spurrier, who went 11-1 against the ‘Dawgs. Zook is 2-0, and both times Georgia has been ranked in the top five, favored to win and in the thick of both the SEC and national title races.
“This is the fourth time I’ve lost to them,” said Bennett, a senior, who missed a 32-yarder in the second quarter. “It’s about four times as bad as last year. No more chances. It’s ridiculous.”
As painful as it was, the loss didn’t knock Georgia out of the conference race. It did, however, drop the ‘Dawgs into a first-place tie with Florida in the East.
If the Gators, Bulldogs and Tennessee Volunteers all win the rest of their conference games, they would finish in a three-way tie at 6-2 and the tiebreaker formula would bring about the unthinkable—a vote of SEC athletic directors to determine the SEC East champs.
Clearly, Florida will take its chances. The Gators were given little hope last month, after a loss to Ole Miss dropped them to 3-3, 1-2 in the conference with games at LSU and Arkansas coming up. They won those, beat Georgia and now find themselves on a roll with Vanderbilt coming up next week.
“I said at the beginning of the year that we’d be a football team that improved as the year went on,” Zook said. “We’ve pushed these guys, and I’ve warned them that we’re not done pushing.’
Georgia, meanwhile, has a bye week to nurse its wounds—both the emotional and physical ones, before it plays another big rival, Auburn. Mark Richt’s beat up roster took another pounding Saturday. Tailback Tyson Browning was leading the team in rushing when he went out with a knee injury. Starting defensive lineman Gerald Anderson went out with a knee injury.
“No excuses,” Richt said. “We practiced and we thought we had a fine enough plan. They just performed a little better than we did.”
Indeed, the Bulldogs did put together a good plan.
Their backs—Lumpkin, Browning, Cooper and Jeremy Thomas—combined for 235 yards and their offense controlled the ball for more than 34 minutes. But the line couldn’t protect Greene (18-for-32 for 188 yards), who was sacked four times and didn’t get into a flow until the end.
In all, Leak had a better day. He finished 13-for-23 for 235 yards, including a little slip screen to Carlos Perez, who used great blocks from Kelvin Kight and O.J. Small for a 34-yard scoring play and a 10-3 lead.