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Romps with some rough edges // UF

The Florida Gators have been talking for quite a while about wanting to open the season against archrival Florida State.

Good thing they had the Houston Cougars and not the Seminoles.

Although the No. 5-ranked Gators beat Houston 45-21 Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, they struggled against the pass, uncharacteristically dropped passes, and had trouble with their punting game.

"We managed to get us a victory tonight, but we gave up a lot of yards, a lot of first downs," coach Steve Spurrier said. "Our pass defense certainly is no better than it's ever been around here, so maybe we'll go back to the drawing board. I don't know. The dropped pass seems to be our best pass defense around here.

"Maybe it's good for us. Maybe it's good for our players to realize we're not maybe near as good as we think are. We got a lot of preseason publicity, and we have a tendency to think we can just show up and clobber little ole Houston. But little ole Houston came in here ready to play."

Houston had 21 first downs, 244 passing yards _ including a 37-yarder to set up a touchdown on its opening possession and a 77-yard touchdown toss on its next possession _ and 177 rushing yards.

Last season, only Auburn and FSU gained more than the 421 yards the lowly Cougars racked up.

Houston was 1-10 last year, has just 62 scholarship players following NCAA probation, and was a 46-point underdog.

"We had some mental breakdowns," Florida star nickelbacker Ben Hanks said. "But that's football. You have breakdowns."

But the problems actually started on offense.

Florida's potent passing game was impotent on its first possession. Tight end Tremayne Allen dropped a pass, and then the usually sure-handed Chris Doering did likewise.

Junior Danny Wuerffel, the nation's fourth-rated quarterback last season, saw his third attempt sail over Doering's head out of bounds. Ugh.

"It took us a while to get going," Wuerffel said. "We were not real sharp. We can definitely learn from it and get better."

Robby Stevenson, one of the few true freshmen eligible to play Saturday among the Gators' highly touted class, came on to punt and shanked one 22 yards.

Junior quarterback Chuck Clements drove Houston downfield, hitting senior receiver Larkay James for 36 yards to set up junior tailback Antowain Smith's 6-yard run up the middle for a 7-0 lead.

Sophomore tailback Elijah Williams carried seven times for 63 yards on an 80-yard drive, tying the score with a 1-yard dive.

"The offensive line opened big holes tonight, and that made it real easy for myself, Fred Taylor and Terry Jackson," Williams said.

But the Cougars answered.

On second and 13 from his team's 23, Clements rolled right and heaved the ball to an open James. Cornerback Anthone Lott was turned around and, even though James had to stop and wait for the ball to arrive, couldn't recover. James strolled into the end zone, and Sebastian Villarreal's extra point gave Houston a 14-7 lead with 8:15 left in the opening quarter. The Cougars scored seven in the first quarter all of last season.

Did we say ugh?

Many of the rabid, proud 84,672 Gator fans began to boo. And it wouldn't be the last time this night.

"Fans were just frustrated," sophomore cornerback Fred Weary said. "We were frustrated, too."

On the opposite sideline, the youthful Cougars were giddy.

"I was thinking: "We've got a chance. We've got a chance against the fifth-ranked team in the country," said Smith, who finished with a game-high 122 yards on 22 carries.

Wuerffel looked sharper on the next series, hitting senior Sorola Palmer on a 22-yard touchdown to tie it at 14.

The Cougars drove to first and goal at the 8, but Villarreal was wide right on a 25-yard field-goal try.

Junior quarterback Eric Kresser, as Spurrier had promised, relieved Wuerffel at the start of the second quarter and promptly threw two incompletions. Stevenson again shanked a punt, this time for 21 yards, as the crowd booed.

But the defense stiffened and Villarreal's 45-yard field-goal try was well short. Kresser threaded a 12-yard touchdown pass between three defenders to Ike Hilliard on the next possession for the Gators' first lead.

Kresser added a 40-yard touchdown pass to Doering, and Jackson's 2-yard run gave the Gators a 35-14 halftime lead.

The stubborn Cougars took the second-half kickoff and cut the deficit to 35-21 on a Jay McGuire run. Wuerffel completed four straight passes for 61 yards to set up a 4-yard scoring run by Williams.

"We'll keep practicing; we'll keep trying," Spurrier said. "Maybe this will be good for us."