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No. 1 Florida Gators eke past Arkansas Razorbacks 23-20 on late field goal

GAINESVILLE — There was a point, about six minutes into the fourth quarter, when Arkansas took the lead on a 75-yard touchdown pass, that thoughts of Ole Miss came creeping into Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong's head.

"I was like, 'Oh, God, here we go, Ole Miss again,' " Strong said.

A stadium full of Gator fans were right there with him.

Top-ranked Florida insisted all week Arkansas wasn't a trap game similar to its loss to Mississippi last season. But trailing 20-13 with 9:40 remaining, having fumbled four times and given up six sacks, it was looking a lot like a remake of the Ole Miss nightmare.

Except this time, Florida did not let it slip away.

Starting with 3:08 remaining, the Gators put together a 14-play, 69-yard drive capped by a 27-yard field goal by sophomore Caleb Sturgis with nine seconds left, allowing it to escape with a 23-20 victory over the unranked Razorbacks in front of 90,508 Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

"I happen to think the reason we won it was because of heart," said quarterback Tim Tebow, who was 17-of-26 for 255 yards and one touchdown. "We weren't going to let each other down. And at the end of that last drive, we weren't going to be stopped.

"It was a game like (Ole Miss) where we weren't playing up to our potential. And we were doing things that we usually don't do; not holding onto the ball and not capitalizing in the red zone and things like that. And that's kind of what we did against Ole Miss. But did I ever have a doubt that this team wouldn't keep fighting? I always knew we had a shot with our defense, our offense and our special teams. And we were going to keep believing until the last second."

In a first-half defensive battle that gave way to a second-half seesaw affair, the outcome turned on two field goals. Arkansas' Alex Tejada missed a 38-yarder with 3:08 left in the game. Sturgis hit his in the final seconds.

"To be in that situation was nice," Sturgis said.

To be in that situation required a drive highlighted by three receptions for 30 yards by senior Riley Cooper.

Florida (6-0, 4-0 SEC) trailed 10-3 at halftime and, frankly, was lucky it wasn't much worse. It had just 37 offensive yards in the first quarter and fumbled twice in the red zone. Florida didn't score a first-half touchdown for the first time all season.

"That was probably the worst first half we've ever played," coach Urban Meyer said. "Ever."

Florida took its first lead with 2:59 remaining in the third quarter on a 77-yard pass from Tebow to Deonte Thompson.

The Razorbacks (3-3, 1-3) took a 20-13 lead when Greg Childs caught a pass from Ryan Mallett then outran several defenders for a 75-yard touchdown with 9:40 left in the game. The play came on third and 17 from their 25.

"It was real tough," senior linebacker Ryan Stamper said. "If anything, if someone scores, you want them to drive the ball. You don't want them to get a big play on a big catch like that.

"That kind of demoralized the defense. But we still had to keep playing. There was still time on the clock."

Despite giving up a few big plays (including a 42-yard run by Dennis Johnson in the first quarter), the Gators held things in check for the most part. Arkansas entered averaging a league-best 318.2 yards passing but was held to 224, as Mallett was 12-of-27 and sacked four times.

Meyer said he's concerned about the Gators offense at this point in the season and will continue to evaluate it. But Saturday night, he was just happy to still be undefeated.

"It was a great win, a tough, hard win," Meyer said. "I kind of knew it was going to be a tough one. You turn the ball over four times, you usually don't win that kind of game. … This team got it done. They did a good job.

"I've got a lot of respect for our opponent. That was a tough, tough game, and it showed a lot of character by our guys coming back."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3389.

No. 1 UF 23

Arkansas 20

No. 1 Florida Gators eke past Arkansas Razorbacks 23-20 on late field goal 10/17/09 [Last modified: Sunday, October 18, 2009 12:03am]
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