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DAWG GONE

All around the Southeastern Conference, people prayed for this day, a time when the Florida Gators not only relinquished their reign over the league but looked bad in doing so.

Perhaps it is not such a shock that the Georgia Bulldogs celebrated a 37-17 upset Saturday as if they had won a national championship before 84,297 fans at Alltel Stadium. Indeed, victories by anyone over Florida had come so sparingly in the Steve Spurrier era.

But the way it went down _ the Gators allowing 23 second-half points, 16 in the fourth quarter _ is sure to be hard to swallow for a team used to tasting so much success.

"It was a horrible experience today," UF defensive end Willie Cohens said. "We were on our heels. We didn't come out fighting. We weren't ready to go into battle. And these are the results."

And they are not pretty. Defending national champions and ranked No. 1 for a good part of the season, the sixth-ranked Gators (6-2, 4-2 SEC) will drop out of national title contention.

A fifth straight SEC Championship is all but out of the question, too. The Gators need at least one loss by Tennessee and at least two by Georgia to even have a chance of returning to the SEC Championship Game _ which they have played in every year since its inception in 1992.

"We're just not as strong a team as maybe we thought we were," said Spurrier, whose school has won the SEC title in five of the past six seasons. "And it's starting to prove out."

Then there is the series with Georgia, which had lost its luster as one of the nation's great rivalries in recent years. The Gators had made the Bulldogs an annual punching bag on the way to another SEC East title, winning seven straight by an average of 26.4 points, including last year's 47-7 rout here.

But the 14th-ranked Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1 SEC), under second-year coach Jim Donnan, made Georgia fans remember the good old days, when games against Florida were not so lopsided and when the Gators lost their share.

"We made up our minds early in the week that we were going to slow them down," said Georgia free safety Kirby Smart, who had two of his team's four interceptions, including one in the fourth quarter when the Gators trailed only 24-17. "I'd like to think that this is the turning point for the Georgia program. Hopefully we can build on this win and not let it go to our heads."

The Bulldogs held the Gators to only 212 passing yards, allowing Florida quarterbacks to complete just 19 of 44 passes and no touchdowns.

The Gators did little to help their own cause. Doug Johnson, starting at quarterback after being suspended for the Auburn game two weeks ago, could not get Florida to the end zone in the first half, completing just 12-of-25 for 115 yards and being intercepted twice. The Gators failed to score a touchdown in a half for the first time in five years and trailed 14-3.

"Georgia played about like we thought," Spurrier said. "They sat back in a zone. Sure enough, we tossed them a couple. It's a lot of decision-making, and he (Johnson) just hasn't been in those situations a lot."

So fifth-year senior Noah Brindise started the second half, and just like two weeks ago in the 24-10 victory at Auburn, he was poised to be the hero.

Brindise led two touchdown drives in the third quarter, culminating with his 1-yard sneak for a score and a 3-yard run by fullback Rod Frazier. UF led 17-14 with 6:42 remaining in the third quarter.

But the Bulldogs came right back, mixing up plays and going 78 yards in 11 plays for the go-ahead touchdown.

Quarterback Mike Bobo completed 16 of 27 passes for 260 yards, but it was receiver Hines Ward who did a little bit of everything.

Ward several times took snaps from center and he rushed five times for 21 yards; he threw two passes, completing one for 27 yards; and he caught seven passes for 85 yards.

"Heart and soul, heart and soul right here," shouted a euphoric Bobo, pointing toward Ward on the field after the game. "He put it out for us."

And then Robert Edwards put it in. The senior tailback tied his own school record with four rushing touchdowns, including the 1-yard dive that put the Bulldogs up for good at 21-17. Edwards finished with 124 yards on 26 carries.

The Bulldogs added a field goal on their next possession to make it 24-17, although there was still plenty of time. But the next two drives ended with an interception and a punt, with the Gators unable to get a first down.

And when Edwards scooted around the left side for a 37-yard touchdown, the game was suddenly and shockingly out of reach.

"They may be better than us," Brindise said, "but they're sure as hell not 20 points better than us."

Spurrier wasn't so sure.

"We've got no excuses, they just beat us," he said. "We were ready. We had a week off. We knew the position we were in. They beat us. We had good preparation. They probably would beat us if we played them next week. They're better than us."

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