GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP)—Chris Leak did just about everything for Florida on Saturday—except preserve a victory.
Linebacker Channing Crowder did that.
Leak threw for a career-high 322 yards and three touchdowns, and the No. 16 Gators held off another late rally to beat Arkansas 45-30.
Florida extended its winning streak against the Razorbacks to five games— every matchup since Arkansas joined the Southeastern Conference in 1992.
Much like last season, the Razorbacks (3-2, 1-1 SEC) had a comeback fall short.
The Gators (3-1, 2-1) led 38-7 late in the third quarter before the Razorbacks scored 23 consecutive points. Quarterback Matt Jones, who leads the league in total offense, hurt the Gators running and passing. He scrambled effectively and picked apart Florida’s secondary.
But he also threw three costly interceptions, including one that ended the rally.
Trailing 38-30 with less than five minutes to play, Jones threw behind Carlos Ousley. The receiver reached back with his left hand and tipped the ball into Crowder’s arms. Crowder returned the interception to the Arkansas 26.
“It was time for somebody on the defense to step up and make a play,” Crowder said. “Luckily, I was the guy. The ball pretty much fell in my hands.”
Leak then found Dallas Baker in the end zone for a 2-yard score to put the game out of reach.
“We waited a little to late,” Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. “And you cannot do that against a good team.”
Leak completed 23 of 38 passes and topped his career high of 286 yards set two weeks ago in a loss at Tennessee.
“Chris is a great player, and those guys rally around him,” coach Ron Zook said. “He’s going to continue to improve. Talk about a guy whose calm and cool. He don’t ever change.”
Baker caught six passes for 89 yards, fellow receiver Andre Caldwell had a 61-yard touchdown run on a reverse and the defense did just enough to slow down Jones—who broke Clint Stoerner’s school record for total yards.
Leak was even better.
He escaped sacks, was accurate throwing on the run and led the Gators to their most points in any quarter under Zook, in his third season. After a lackluster opening period, Florida scored four touchdowns in the second quarter — finding the end zone on each possession.
Ciatrick Fason took a handoff running right and then gave the ball to Caldwell going the other way. Caldwell got a block from Leak, split two defenders and capped the long run with a dive across the goal line. It gave the Gators a 14-0 lead.
The Razorbacks answered with an 89-yard drive that ended with De’Arrius Howard’s 1-yard touchdown run.
But then Leak took over. He went 3-for-3 for 78 yards on the ensuing drive and found Baker across the middle for a 34-yard touchdown that made it 21-7.
Lucas Jackson intercepted Jones’ sideline pass on the next play. Leak misfired twice before finding Baker for a key first down. Fason scored two plays later to make it 28-7.
The Gators had scored 28 points on just 27 plays, but they weren’t finished. Leak hooked up with Jemalle Cornelius on a perfectly executed post pattern for a 48-yard touchdown—and a 28-point lead.
It was short-lived—much like last season, when the Gators nearly blew a 26-point lead at Arkansas. They held on for a 33-28 victory when safety Tony Bua went for Leak’s head on a sack attempt with a minute left. The 15-yard penalty wiped out an interception and let the Gators run out the clock.
They nearly did it again Saturday.
“We never feel like we’re out of the game,” Jones said.
Playing out of state for the first time this season, Jones led Arkansas on three straight scoring drives following Matt Leach’s 37-yard field goal.
The Razorbacks had all the momentum and had silenced The Swamp—until Crowder’s interception.
“I never doubted our defense,” Florida safety Cory Bailey said. “It always a little creepy when you see something like that happen, but we just needed someone to step up. Channing did that.”