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UF cruises, but: 2 QB or not 2 QB?

Spurrier pulls Palmer, Grossman fires three touchdowns during a 55-0 thumping of Middle Tennessee State.

The score was out of hand and it was starting to rain when Steve Spurrier reached into his bag of tricks for the one thing guaranteed to keep Florida fans in their seats. Actually, on the edges of them.

How about a quarterback controversy?

No. 8 Florida (2-0) provided plenty of answers with its 55-0 trouncing of Middle Tennessee State before a crowd of 84,311 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday. But just in time for this week's showdown at No. 12 Tennessee, the Gators have a new, yet vaguely familiar, question.

Who is the quarterback?

Leading 24-0 late in the second quarter, Spurrier replaced senior Jesse Palmer with freshman Rex Grossman in mid-drive. Two plays later, Grossman threw a 16-yard touchdown to receiver Alex Willis. Palmer did not return, fostering what is sure to be spirited debate over who should play against the Volunteers.

Palmer? Grossman? Maybe both?

"I was hoping Jesse could go the distance," Spurrier said. "I hoped he would fire it in there the way he's capable and he would be our quarterback the whole year. But he didn't do that. I have to pull the strings, one way or the other."

Palmer was 15 of 23 for 193 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in just more than a quarter and a half _ numbers many quarterbacks around the country would like to have after four quarters. He guided UF to touchdowns on its first two drives, completing 5 of 6 for 82 yards with a 17-yard score to Taylor Jacobs.

But, as always with Palmer, the good was tempered with a teeny bit of bad. He continued to struggle with timing on deep routes to open receivers and fumbled an exchange on first down at the MTSU 16. He had just made a questionable choice, attempting a well-covered sideline pass to Bo Carroll, when Spurrier sent Grossman scurrying to the huddle.

Overmatched in every facet, Middle Tennessee State (0-2) was in no position to make Palmer pay for his mistakes. But Spurrier was.

"I just thought Rex deserved a chance to go throw it around a little bit and see what he could do," Spurrier said. "He's been here two years, playing and practicing and learning."

Grossman, a redshirt freshman from Bloomington, Ind., made a dandy first impression. His first attempt was his first career touchdown, his throw slicing between two defenders to Willis in the end zone. Grossman soon added scoring passes of 19 and 14 yards to tight end Aaron Walker, and finished 9 of 14 for 95 yards.

"It was really exciting to be out there," Grossman said. "It was a lot of fun, you know? We were playing really well. It was a blast."

But Grossman was not perfect, either. Midway through the third quarter he threw the season's first interception, zinging the ball well over the head of receiver Brian Haugabrook. Palmer, who played late into the 40-19 opening victory against Ball State, has not thrown an interception in 69 attempts this season.

"Hopefully Jesse's confidence is not knocked down too much," Spurrier said. "I thought there were some plays we should have hit and I thought his decisions could have been better. Rex, his decisions weren't all that good the second half, but he had some good throws."

Lost in the startling shakeup on offense was the defense's first shutout since a 65-0 victory against Kentucky on Sept. 28, 1996. The Gators forced five turnovers, including four fumbles. Todd Johnson's 76-yard return for touchdown of a fumble caused by Marcus Oquendo-Johnson, his second of the night, was UF's first since 1997.

"This is something we've been looking for for a long time," defensive end Alex Brown said. "We talked about it and said we needed to come out and play for 60 minutes. We have more confidence than anybody."

The Gators also got a lift from special teams, horrific a week ago, when Lito Sheppard returned a first-quarter punt 54 yards for a touchdown. And tailback Earnest Graham, a starter because of Robert Gillespie's sprained toe, returned to his bullish 1999 form with 12 carries for 85 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown.