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Swamped Led by an inspired defensive end, Florida stretched its home winning streak to 30 games and bogged down Tennessee's hopes of repeating as national champ

Sept. 27, 1999
Sept. 27, 1999

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Sept. 27, 1999

Catching Up With...

Swamped Led by an inspired defensive end, Florida stretched its home winning streak to 30 games and bogged down Tennessee's hopes of repeating as national champ

Alex Brown, the defensive star of Florida's 23-21 victory over
No. 2-ranked Tennessee last Saturday night in Gainesville,
entered the game with a couple of reminders written on his left
wrist. They were the initials of two lost friends. One was Barry
Gardner, his football coach at Hamilton County (Fla.) High, who
died of a heart attack in June at age 47. The other was McArthur
Zanders, a cousin and former Hamilton County player who fell
asleep at the wheel on a rainy August night along a country road
in Jennings, Fla., in 1994. He was killed in the resulting
accident.

This is an article from the Sept. 27, 1999 issue

"McArthur was older than I was," recalls Brown, a redshirt
sophomore defensive end. "I wanted to be just like him. I
remember a couple of weeks before he died, two-a-days were
coming up. He was training on his own, running steps. He would
come home so tired he couldn't get up the steps to his house. He
would just sit on those steps, and he fell asleep right there
one time."

The memories of Gardner and Zanders helped inspire Brown to sack
Vols quarterback Tee Martin five times in both teams' SEC opener
that could shape the entire college season. Tennessee won the
last two conference championships and upset Florida en route to
last year's national title; now the Gators are in position to
earn their sixth SEC crown of the '90s and perhaps their second
national title in four years.

How the Gators were able to extend their home winning streak to
30 games, the longest in the country, is not so easy to explain.
They beat their most dangerous conference rival despite
committing five turnovers. Their top returning tailback from
last year has turned into an intimidating strongside linebacker,
and a redshirt freshman has taken over at tailback. Then there's
Brown, who played only sparingly last year but has used thoughts
of Gardner and Zanders to push himself to new heights.

"When I think about McArthur, I try to make the most of every
play," says Brown, who wears number 13 because it was his
cousin's number. "We made a deal that if he didn't make it to
the NFL, then I would. He can no longer do that, so it's up to
me. If I do, great. If I don't, I'll never be able to say I
didn't give it my best try."

At 6'4" and 251 pounds, Brown has the physical gifts pro scouts
like to see. His powers of observation aren't bad, either. "I
noticed during the game that Tee Martin shakes his hands before
he gets the snap," Brown said late on Saturday night. "He had to
do that, because his center couldn't hear anything [over the
crowd noise]. When I saw him shake his hands, I'd take off." On
top of the five sacks, Brown dropped into coverage to intercept
Martin on fourth-and-three at the Florida 33 early in the second
quarter. "Alex Brown showed me he may be the best defensive
lineman in the country tonight," Gators coach Steve Spurrier said.

The noise of 85,707 in the Swamp helped contribute to the
school-record 15 penalties (worth 112 yards) called against
Tennessee. Florida had no such excuse for the 112 yards it lost
on 10 penalties, two of which caused touchdowns to be called
back. Nor was it easy to excuse those five turnovers.

The second turnover was a second-quarter fumble by junior
wideout Darrell Jackson at his own 33. Two plays later, while
scrambling, Martin was pushed out of bounds by senior linebacker
Keith Kelsey, sliding face-first into a camera support and
bloodying his face. After sitting out a play, Martin returned to
score on a seven-yard bootleg to put the Vols up 7-3, but the
tone had been set: Martin would complete just 16 of a
career-high 39 attempts, for 192 yards. He would be sacked seven
times and have his helmet knocked off by an introductory
personal foul, courtesy of Brown, in the opening minutes. It was
not unlike the beatings Martin absorbed as the quarterback for
Williamson High in Mobile, where he was forced to stand up
weekly against vicious hits because he was his team's primary
weapon.

Martin might have thought those days were behind him, now that
he was playing for the defending national champion, but as the
Gators' defense has shown in recent years, it can be formidable.
Florida was ranked ninth in the nation in total defense last
season, but Spurrier was forced to replace all 11 starters and
bring in a new defensive coordinator, Jon Hoke, to succeed Bob
Stoops, who left to become head coach at Oklahoma. To fill the
hole left by Jevon Kearse--Florida's most dearly missed
defensive star--the Gators asked senior tailback Eugene McCaslin
to become this year's strongside linebacker. It was like asking
a burglar to join the police department. "The good thing is,
from being over there as a running back, you know how to think
like the other guy," says McCaslin, who didn't learn of his move
until spring practice.

In victories over Western Michigan (55-26) and Central Florida
(58-27), the rebuilt defense looked porous, allowing a total of
865 yards, 784 of them by air. Throughout those games, however,
Hoke kept McCaslin largely under wraps. "We didn't blitz but two
times in those games," Hoke says. That changed on Saturday
night. Tennessee reached Florida territory on each of its first
four possessions, and each time was blunted--in large part by
McCaslin, who finished with 10 tackles, three for losses.

The game turned, though, on a mistake by 5'7" Vols freshman
Kurston Biggers, the smallest man on either team. After giving
the Gators a 9-7 lead with his second and third field goals,
Jeff Chandler booted a line drive kickoff that Biggers
inexplicably tried to catch high overhead. The ball bounced off
his hands and out of bounds at the Tennessee eight. When the
Gators got the ball back four plays later, they capitalized on
the favorable field position, scoring on an 11-yard touchdown
pass from senior Doug Johnson to Jackson with 51 seconds left in
the second quarter. Florida also drove for a touchdown on the
opening possession of the second half to build a 16-point lead.

Tennessee mounted a late comeback, marching 97 yards for a
touchdown with 5:10 remaining and then intercepting Johnson for
the third time. With 3:41 to go, the Vols' offense took over at
the Gators' 49, needing only a field goal to take the lead. But
the Florida defense held and the rally died.

A Nov. 20 showdown in Gainesville against Florida State will
reveal whether the Gators have regained the form they showed in
'96, when they last won the SEC and national titles. To come out
on top this season they will need Johnson, who threw for 343
yards on Saturday, to cut down on his interceptions. They will
need their novice linebacker, McCaslin, to keep blitzing like
Wilber Marshall. And they will need Brown to continue playing
like a man possessed--in this case by the memory of his friends.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO Gator AidThe suddenly unstoppable Brown was relentless in pressuring Martin, whom he sacked five times.