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No one to blame but UF

You may remember the flight of the ball. The way it wobbled. The way it fluttered. The way it stayed low and flew long.

You may remember the pass interference penalty. The way the back judge seemed to come from the fourth row to say Tennessee had a new set of downs.

You may remember the teenage quarterback stepping forward and locating his receivers when Florida's defensive backs could not.

Or, you may choose only to remember this:

The Gators gave away a game, and perhaps a season.

The rest is just details. The moments that changed a game, and the names of those to blame.

For the third time in as many seasons, Florida has failed to get past its second game without a stumble. And this may be the worst yet.

Because this team seems stronger. This season seemed to hold more promise. The quarterback is a marvel and the possibilities were magical.

Yet, the record is still the same. One win, one loss. Again.

The Gators lost two leads to Tennessee in the fourth quarter Saturday and, because of that, there is no way to sugarcoat the rest of the game.

When it mattered most, the kicker could not hit a chip-shot field goal. When it mattered most, the offense could not get a first down. And when it mattered at any point during the night, the defense could not make a play.

The Gators were not cheated, they were beaten.

Yes, it is tempting to think otherwise. The only time officials seemed to show up on the field was to point a finger at one Florida player or another.

Until Tennessee was hit with an excessive celebration infraction in the final seconds, the disparity in penalty yards was extreme. The kind of extreme that should raise eyebrows around the Southeastern Conference office.

The Gators were penalized eight times for 77 yards. Tennessee, up to that point, had one penalty for 5 yards.

Still, it does not matter.

Yes, Tennessee defensive back Jonathan Wade deserved a personal foul penalty for shoving Florida receiver Dallas Baker. But Baker should have known better than retaliating. It is always the last shove an official recalls.

Baker's penalty will be recalled as the defining moment in what may be the defining game of Florida's season. The Gators were winning 28-27 when a play ended with Wade shoving Baker. Instead of walking away, Baker shoved back.

The 15 penalty yards were bad enough, but stopping the clock was worse. Instead of punting from the 38 with about 30 seconds left, the Gators were kicking from the 23 with 55 seconds to go.

Tennessee, as it turned out, would need every one of those seconds and every one of those yards.

So it would seem simple to assign fault to Baker. Or to the referee. But the truth is Florida had begun losing the game long before that play.

The Gators lost when they failed to put pressure on freshman quarterback Erik Ainge. A kid playing in the first major game of his college career took his team on two 80-yard drives in the fourth quarter, then went 28 yards in 37 seconds without a timeout to set up the winning field goal.

Ainge attempted 15 passes in the fourth quarter and was never sacked.

Whose fault is that?

Were the Gators so impressed by this wunderkind that they were afraid to rattle him with blitz packages? Or are they so scared of their own secondary they don't want to risk big plays?

Either way, the result was the same. Ainge picked apart the Florida defense as if he had been playing in front of crowds of 109,061 all his life.

Meanwhile, the great shame is that Chris Leak came of age Saturday night and it will be largely forgotten. He went from prodigy to prodigious in the time it took to loft a pass beyond the reach of a defensive back.

He may have been the best freshman quarterback in the nation last year, but he is now one of the best of any class.

We knew Leak was focused. We knew he was dedicated. We knew his mechanics were perfect and his mind was sharp.

But this, we did not know:

Leak is a character. In the way Brett Favre is a character. He has a coolness in his eyes and an inferno in his belly. He takes chances that seem reckless and completes passes that seem impossible.

When Tennessee tied the score early in the fourth quarter, when it seemed the Vols were grabbing the night by the throat, Leak skipped to the huddle.

Literally, skipped.

He was having fun and seemed completely sold on the idea that good fortune was just a center's snap away.

Unfortunately, Leak's outlook was not shared by everyone on the Florida sideline. There were too many mistakes in the clutch, too many blunders in judgment.

You may remember the game that way.

Or, you may choose not to remember it at all.

Up next:TENNIS

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