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AIR TO THE CROWN // Gators take control, keep it

When it was over, Florida coach Steve Spurrier cut a dizzying path through players and a media horde, looking for someone, anyone to hug.

He found Florida State's Warrick Dunn.

But Spurrier had plenty of heartfelt embraces and praise left for his Gators. Deservedly so.

Florida, in what shaped up as perhaps its biggest game ever, took control early, weathered a few miscues and beat archrival Florida State 35-24 Saturday afternoon before a raucous record crowd of 85,711 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

"It's a great win for all Gators," Spurrier said. "I'm really proud of our players. They played smart. They played hard. They had fun. And they competed the entire game."

The Gators (11-0) surely will move up to No. 2 in the polls and, assuming they defeat Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game next weekend, will meet No. 1 Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl with a shot at their first national championship.

"We won't look ahead at all," said junior quarterback Danny Wuerffel, who completely outplayed his FSU counterpart, Danny Kanell, and perhaps thrust himself back into the Heisman Trophy race with his performance, completing 25 for 40 passes for 443 yards and four touchdowns. "All our goals ride on that game (against Arkansas)."

Still ...

"It definitely sets things up nicely for us," receiver Chris Doering said as a knowing grin spread across his face.

That's not the case for the Seminoles (9-2), who entered the game No. 6 and with a realistic chance to catapult themselves back into championship contention, as they did in 1993 when they won here and then beat Nebraska. They now face the prospect of seeing their string of eight consecutive finishes in the Top 4 end, even with a win in either the Orange or Sugar Bowl.

"He (Spurrier) killed me and my boy," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said, referring to UF's win in October against Auburn, led by Terry Bowden. "He just killed both of us in the same year."

Sure, Spurrier designed the offensive game plan, but much of the credit for this win belongs to Wuerffel and the oft-maligned Gator defense.

The Gators limited the high-powered Seminoles to just 322 yards, more than 252 below their NCAA-leading average, and to nearly 27 points below their average.

"It was just an awesome display by the defense," Wuerffel said.

The Gators' defense, in fact, set the tone from the outset. On the first play from scrimmage, Florida State stripped the ball from sophomore receiver Ike Hilliard and recovered at its own 36.

Kanell led the Seminoles downfield quickly, but senior defensive lineman David Barnard batted down a pass and junior cornerback Shea Showers stopped Dunn shy of a first down, forcing FSU to settle for a 40-yard Scott Bentley field goal.

Florida then took a 7-3 lead on a 22-yard touchdown pass to Jacquez Green midway through the quarter, but a short punt by freshman Robby Stevenson in the waning moments of the quarter gave the Seminoles the ball at the UF 26.

Again, the UF defense held, stopping Dunn on a second and short and then blanketing sophomore E. G. Green in the end zone. Bentley's 38-yard field goal cut the lead to 7-6.

UF freshman tailback Terry Jackson followed with a 1-yard scoring run to cap a long drive to build a 14-6 lead. And then Hilliard redeemed himself for the early miscue, turning a short completion over the middle into a 42-yard touchdown.

When FSU faltered for the fifth time (out of seven in the half) on a third and short, the Gators got the ball back and took a 28-6 halftime lead on a 20-yard Wuerffel-to-Doering strike.

"He did a great job of knowing where the open spots were," said Doering, who finished with seven catches for 124 yards and the one score -- his 16th of the season and 30th overall, both school and SEC records.

That wasn't lost on the Seminoles.

"During the game, I just kept noticing the exceptional timing of their passing game," Bowden said. "Florida is something. That was something we didn't have today."

FSU did make things interesting midway through the third quarter as Dunn scored from 3 yards out. A two-point conversion cut it to 28-14, but the Gators answered on a 74-yard bomb to Hilliard. FSU had backup safeties in on the play: junior Harold Battles, who was turned around, and freshman Sean Key.

"We tried to catch them off-balance and Danny just made an excellent throw," said Hilliard, who finished with 192 yards, the third-highest single-game total in UF history.

"They had two guys on me; Danny looked at me and they bit on it," Doering said.

"When you have good plays on, someone's going to be open," Wuerffel said with a shrug. "You just have to be patient and find them and we did a good job of that. There were a bunch of times we had receivers open, I got hit right before I threw it, so we were that close to being even a little better."

As it was, it's been 11 years since anyone threw for more than 400 yards against the historically stingy FSU defense. And the 35 points were the most it allowed since Miami and Vinny Testaverde scored 41 in 1986.

Still, the Seminoles made it interesting and forced UF fans to recall their comeback from a 31-3 fourth-quarter deficit last year. Bentley hit a third field goal and, after Stevenson mishandled a punt, Kanell hit Andre Cooper with an 8-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 11 points with the entire fourth quarter to play.

Unlike last year, the Gators snuffed out the last three FSU possessions with interceptions, including one by junior cornerback Anthone Lott in the end zone that first slipped through the hands of Cooper.

"There's no words that can describe that feeling," said junior safety Lawrence Wright, who ended the game with an interception. "It's like there's no return, but you want to get back to that feeling. But our work is not done.

"It's a great win for us, but we have to stay focused. ... It's like climbing to the top of the Statue of Liberty. If you don't take each step, you'll never get there. You never get to see the beauty of it."

Key play: A Lott of impact

Their 35-14 lead cut to 35-24 with seven minutes to play, last year's Choke at the Doak had to be on the minds of the Gators. That all changed with one play. Facing second-and-7 at the Florida 38, Seminole quarterback Danny Kanell (13) rolled slightly to his right and launched a fade pass toward wide receiver Andre Cooper (1) deep along the right sideline. Cooper appeared to push off Gators defensive back Anthone Lott (9), but then had the ball glance off his hands and into Lott's arms. Lott returned the ball to the Florida 30, ending FSU's scoring threat and comeback hopes.

COMING UP SHORT

The Seminoles had trouble scoring because they had trouble converting in third-and-short situations. For the afternoon, FSU was 3-of-15 on third-down conversions, including these short-yardage plays.

Qtr Down Line Result

1 3-1 FSU 16 Dunn no gain

1 3-1 FSU 25 Kanell 11-yard pass

1 3-2 FSU 44 Incomplete pass

2 3-1 FSU 44 Dunn no gain

2 3-1 FSU 15 5-yard penalty

2 3-1 FSU 31 Williams 3-yard gain

2 3-3 FSU 41 Incomplete pass

3 3-3 UF 42 Kanell sacked

Second quarter: Gators take over UF +

FSU ++

Start Drive Result Score

+ 1-10-F25 7 plays, 75 yards TD (Jackson 1 run) 14-6 UF

++ 1-10-S17 6 plays, 27 yards punt 14-6 UF

+ 1-10-F16 10 plays, 34 yards punt 14-6 UF

++ 1-10-S6 4 plays, 4 yards punt 14-6 UF

+ 1-10-S34 2 plays, 34 yards TD (Hilliard 42 pass) 21-6 UF

++ 1-10-S22 7 plays, 19 yards punt 21-6 UF

+ 1-10-F15 5 plays, 85 yards TD (Doering 20 pass) 28-6 UF

++ 1-10-S23 2 plays, 15 yards End of half 28-6 UF

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