12:00 PM ET, October 5, 2002
Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, OXFORD, MS
OXFORD, Miss. (AP) -- Just when it looked like Florida coach Ron Zook had quieted the skeptics in Gator Nation, Mississippi gave them something new to complain about.
Matt Grier returned the second of his two third-quarter interceptions 24 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, and Mississippi shut out the Gators (No. 8 ESPN/USA Today, No. 6 AP) in the second half to win 17-14 Saturday.
Florida quarterback Rex Grossman walks off the field after a tough four-interception defeat.
It was the Rebels' first victory over a top-10 team since 1997, when they beat No. 8 LSU on the road, and one of their biggest victories ever in Oxford.
"It feels great,'' Grier said. "Florida is a national team. A win like this brings national attention.''
The Gators (4-2, 2-1) found themselves in a defensive struggle as Rex Grossman threw four interceptions. He was 19-of-41 for 205 yards and two touchdowns.
Grier's first interception came on Florida's first possession of the second half. He returned it 10 yards to the Florida 18, and three plays later, Vashon Pearson scored from 4 yards out. Eli Manning hit Jason Armstead for the 2-point conversion to cut the Gators' lead to 14-10.
Grier's clincher came when Grossman threw into double-coverage. Grier caught the pass at the Florida 24 and made a nice cutback before vaulting into the end zone to give Ole Miss its first lead, 17-14, with 7:34 left in the third quarter.
Manning was 18-for-33 for 154 yards, and for the first time in his career he didn't throw a touchdown pass as a starter. But he did become the first member of his family to beat the Gators. His brother, Peyton, was 0-4 against Florida while at Tennessee.
"He'll probably be the first one to call me,'' Eli said of his older brother, now the Indianapolis Colts' quarterback.
Manning's father, Archie, never played the Gators while at Ole Miss.
The Rebels' defense, which allowed 38 points and more than 400 yards to Vanderbilt two weeks ago, bottled up the Gators' big-play threats and gave up only four second-half first downs.
Florida did not have a first down in five third-quarter possessions, and Grossman went 2-for-10 for minus-2 yards.
"In the third quarter, I am not quite sure what went wrong,'' Grossman said. "It's a team sport, but I didn't do my part to help this team win the game.''
Taylor Jacobs had five catches for 80 yards, and Earnest Graham ran for just 52 yards on 16 carries. Neither scored a touchdown or had a play longer than 20 yards.
Gators fans have worried about whether Zook would be able to maintain the success they had become accustomed to under former coach Steve Spurrier. A lopsided loss to Miami early in September gave the doubters plenty of ammunition. Florida gave its coach a big lift with a win at Tennessee, but the team took another big step back Saturday.
"Offensively, I have no concerns,'' Zook said. "Did we play well? No. Is it correctable? Yes. Sometimes with a new system, you have to get knocked down to get the light turned on.''
The Gators contributed to their own problems with 11 penalties. An illegal-man-downfield penalty by Florida wiped out a big gain on pass from Graham to Grossman that would have given the Gators a first down at the Rebels 12 in the fourth quarter. An illegal-formation flag on the same drive led to a fourth-and-13 from the 30.
Zook decided against letting shaky kicker Matt Leach attempt a potential game-tying field goal. Instead, Grossman was sacked by Eddie Strong on the fourth down.
Leach, who is 3-for-5 on field-goal attempts on the season and has missed five extra points, had a 35-yard attempt blocked in the first half.
On the Gators' next possession, Grossman threw his final interception, a pass that floated over the head over Jacobs and into the arms of Travis Blanchard with 2:58 left.
"I feel like Rex is taking all the blame, and he shouldn't,'' Jacobs said. "I still believe he is the best quarterback in the country.''
Florida kept the game close with a strong defensive effort against the Rebels, who had been averaging 35 points a game. The Gators' front stuffed the run and sacked Manning three times, and Ole Miss had just 191 total yards.
Grossman threw two touchdowns to Carlos Perez in the first half, but in between his intentional-grounding penalty under a heavy rush in the end zone gave Ole Miss its first points.
The postgame celebration by the Rebels' fans started a second too soon. Ole Miss tried to let the clock tick to zero without running a final fourth-down play, but officials stopped it with one second left while fans were already pouring onto the field.
It took a few moments to clear the field so Manning could run one more play, take a knee and start the party.