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Florida Gators' defense makes plays late in SEC title game

With Florida up 24-20 in the fourth, Jermaine Cunningham sacks Alabama’s John Parker Wilson on third and 8.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

With Florida up 24-20 in the fourth, Jermaine Cunningham sacks Alabama’s John Parker Wilson on third and 8.

ATLANTA — Eleven months have passed since Florida played Michigan in the Capital One Bowl and the defense gave up 524 yards in a 41-35 loss.

The Gators have not forgotten that feeling.

Not even when Alabama rushed for 145 yards and threw for 177 over the first three quarters of Saturday's SEC Championship Game.

"They kept us off-balance," defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. "It was run, pass, run, pass."

In the fourth quarter, however, Florida's defense made a stand.

The Crimson Tide trailed 24-20 with 9:21 left but had scored on its previous two possessions. It faced third and 8 on its 43.

Coaches guessed Alabama would keep its eyes on end Carlos Dunlap, so a stunt was called.

Sure enough, Dunlap drew two offensive linemen toward him. That allowed Jermaine Cunningham to cut up the middle untouched and sack John Parker Wilson for an 11-yard loss.

Linebacker Brandon Spikes said the unit talked about the need for a big play before going onto the field.

Cunningham responded.

"It just changed the whole atmosphere of the defense," Spikes said. "We fed off that."

Alabama punted, and Florida went on an eight-play, 65-yard scoring drive capped by Riley Cooper's touchdown catch that increased the lead to 11.

When the Gators defense took the field again, with 2:50 left, it knew the Crimson Tide would be looking to pass.

On the first play, Cunningham sacked Wilson, but it was negated due to Spikes being offside.

Three plays later, Alabama faced a first and 10 from its 32. The Gators decided to blitz again. Spikes and Cunningham came off each edge and got past their blockers. Under intense pressure, Wilson was forced to scramble out of the pocket and heave the ball while backpedaling. He attempted to throw it out of bounds. But cornerback Joe Haden was waiting.

He, too, believed the ball was ready to sail out of bounds. But he toed the line and reined it in, clinching the victory.

"It's all mine, and we can win the game," Haden recalled thinking.

Linebacker Ryan Stamper knew what Haden's third interception of the season meant.

"I knew it was over," Stamper said. "I knew we were going to Miami as soon as he caught it."

Safety Major Wright said the defense knew coming in Alabama's running game between the trenches would prove to be a challenge.

"We knew this was going to be a dogfight the whole game," Wright said.

"We knew we were going to go blow for blow, pound for pound and round for round. We ended up holding up strong."

Florida Gators' defense makes plays late in SEC title game 12/06/08 [Last modified: Saturday, December 6, 2008 10:37pm]
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