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Gators' special teams down Vols

Florida quarterback Chris Leak, left, is tackled by Tennessee's Xavier Mitchell in the third quarter of Saturday's game in Gainesville, Fla.
Florida quarterback Chris Leak, left, is tackled by Tennessee's Xavier Mitchell in the third quarter of Saturday's game in Gainesville, Fla.
Phil Sandlin, Associated Press

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Maybe Urban Meyer's defense and special teams should have been getting all the hype.

No. 6 Florida held fifth-ranked Tennessee scoreless in the second half, took advantage of three special teams errors and won 16-7 Saturday night to give Meyer a resounding victory in his Southeastern Conference debut.

The Gators had lost three of the last four against the Volunteers, including two in a row at Florida Field. They ended that streak and got an early edge in the Eastern Division race.

Since the SEC adopted its 12-team, two-division format in 1992, the winner of the Tennessee-Florida game has won the East nine times and advanced to the championship game.

For the Gators to get there, they probably will need to get more production from their offense.

Meyer's spread offense was the biggest story line entering the game: could it work against one of the nation's top defenses?

The answer was not very well on Saturday night but Florida was able overcome its offensive shortcomings.

The Gators (3-0, 1-0) did prove to have a strong defense, a unit that had several late collapses the last three seasons. But special teams turned out to be the deciding factor.

Florida got three second-half field goals from Chris Hetland, who was benched after missing an extra point last week against Louisiana Tech. Each of his kicks followed a special teams blunder for Tennessee (1-1, 0-1).

Jonathan Hefney fumbled a punt after Florida's opening possession of the third quarter. Florida's James Smith hit Hefney after the gaffe, preventing him from picking up the ball, and Tremaine McCollum recovered it.

The Gators had the ball at the 28, but Chris Leak got sacked on the first play and they had to settle for a field goal and a 10-7 lead.

Tennessee made an even bigger miscue on the ensuing possession.

The Vols tried a fake punt on fourth-and-9 from their 32 — a rare trick play for coach Phillip Fulmer. Punter Britton Colquitt's pass was nearly picked off by Tony Joiner. Nonetheless, the Gators got great field position again. But Leak was sacked for the fifth time, and Florida settled for another field goal to go up 13-7 with about 5 minutes to play in the third.

The Vols got the ball back, but their next drive ended with an 8-yard punt. Florida got close to the end zone, but ended up with a 20-yard field goal.

That was plenty of cushion for the defense, which played without end Ray McDonald for much of the game. He injured his right knee early in the second quarter and did not return.

Even without him, the Gators got good pressure on quarterback Erik Ainge and stuffed running back Gerald Riggs in the second half.

Ainge, who replaced starter Rick Clausen after the first two series, looked good at times but also struggled under heavy pressure late.

Ainge was 14-of-29 passing for 147 yards with a touchdown. Riggs ran 17 times for 86 yards, but he had 73 yards at the half.

Leak was better for Florida despite getting sacked five times. He was 17-of-26 for 179 yards. He also ran eight times for 33 yards.

The Gators took an early lead with some trickery of their own.

Leak faked an option left, then pitched to receiver Andre Caldwell going the other way. Dallas Baker delivered a key block, and Caldwell scampered 18 yards for a 7-0 lead.

Caldwell left the game after the opening kickoff of the second half. He twisted his right knee while being tackled and was carted to the locker room for X-rays. He could be out for the season.