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UF just holds on

Panic? Why panic?

Just because LSU scores on a late 35-yard touchdown pass and completes a two-point conversion to get within seven points of Florida?

Nah, no need to panic.

Just because the Tigers recover an onside kick and follow up with a 26-yard pass to Florida's 17 with two minutes left in the game?

Well, maybe just a tinge of panic.

Just because Florida's top three defensive tackles are missing in action on the play that will determine whether Florida loses its third consecutive game?

Okay, Gators, feel free to panic.

But for all of their angst Saturday afternoon, the Gators managed to put away LSU 28-21 when Monty Grow and Lawrence Hatch converged to knock away a fourth-down pass in the end zone with 1:54 left.

"I know I was shaken up by the end of the game," Florida linebacker Carlton Miles said. "To play so hard and then find you're right on the borderline of being a loser.

"I don't like losing, and I don't like being in a position to lose."

Surprise, surprise. Neither does Florida coach Steve Spurrier. After losing two games on the road to Top 25 teams, Spurrier was even more aghast to see his team nearly squander a 15-point lead against the 1-5 Tigers.

"It was a game of, "How many stupid plays could the Gators make to lose it?' " he said. "But we offset it with a lot of brilliant plays."

Now, just 10 days after Spurrier slammed the door on his team's hopes of a repeat Southeastern Conference title, that sucker is being pushed back open. Even if it is just a crack.

No. 4 Tennessee, which had a healthy lead on Florida in the Eastern Division, was upset by Arkansas. The Gators (2-2 overall and in the conference) still trail the Vols (5-1, 3-1) by two games because of tiebreaking procedures, but that's still closer than expected.

"I haven't worried about that since we lost at Mississippi State," Spurrier said. "But maybe our Georgia game (Oct. 31) will be interesting after all. Who knows?"

Of course, the Georgia game would have been nearly worthless if the 23rd-ranked Gators hadn't made one final defensive stand.

After a sluggish start on both offense and defense, Florida had risen in the middle of the game to look like the team that dominated the conference for two consecutive seasons.

Quarterback Shane Matthews finally was hitting passes downfield, tailback Errict Rhett began making open-field moves on his sore ankle, and the defense was shutting down LSU. Somehow, that all vanished in the final five minutes.

"I probably got a little conservative at the end, and I shouldn't have," UF defensive coordinator Ron Zook said. "I didn't want to give up any cheap plays, so we loosened up."

The Tigers gained 41 yards on their first five possessions of the second half _ and 112 on the final two. Most of the production came from true freshman quarterback Jamie Howard, who was 20-of-39 for 339 yards and two touchdowns.

Howard's second scoring pass came on a 35-yard, over-the-shoulder grab by Tory James with 2:30 left; that score culminated an 88-yard drive in 35 seconds after a missed field goal by UF freshman Bart Edmiston. Howard then hit the two-point conversion pass to Wesley Jacob.

Spurrier was generous in his criticism afterward. He blamed the secondary for allowing LSU receivers to get open in the final period, and he blamed his defensive line for failing to get a pass rush. The Gators got only one sack, and that was on a bootleg by LSU.

"The coverage was pitiful. The secondary guys were out of position all day," Spurrier said. "We've been talking about when we were going to be in a position to get a pass rush. We were in position today with a 15-point lead. Either LSU has a heck of an offensive line or we don't have much of a pass rush."

Not only were Florida defensive linemen having trouble getting in LSU's backfield, they were struggling to get themselves on the field. Ellis Johnson, David Barnard and Mark Campbell _ the top three tackles _ were on the sidelines with nagging injuries on LSU's final drive.

In their place were redshirt freshman Anthony Riggins, who doesn't have a tackle in his career, and senior Bill Gunter, who was moved over from defensive end.

The Gators could have stopped it all by recovering the onside kick after the touchdown by James, but Florida receiver Aubrey Hill was flattened as he put his hands on the ball, and it was recovered by LSU's Gary Pegues.

"It was a good kick, but I thought Aubrey was going to get the hop," said UF receiver Jack Jackson, who scored his first career touchdown to give Florida a 14-10 lead in the second quarter. "But he just got wiped out, and they ended up with the ball."

LSU coach Curley Hallman said he intended to go for a two-point conversion if the Tigers scored again: "There was no "ifs,' "ands' or "buts.' That was a decision we made even before we got the ball back."

The Tigers immediately got a 26-yard pass to Florida's 17 but went no farther. Scott Ray caught a second-down pass but was two steps out of the end zone. Howard fumbled the snap on third down, then threw the pass tipped by Grow and Hatch in the end zone.

"It was scary, but we got the job done, and it was a good learning experience," Grow said.

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