Saturday September 11, 2004Gators Down Eastern Michigan in Season Opener
Sophomore Chris Leak tossed a career-high three touchdown passes and the 11th-ranked Gators converted all seven of their opportunities inside of the red zone to claim their 2004 season opener, 49-10, over Eastern Michigan. The contest, played in front of 90,009 fans, the second-highest opening-day crowd at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, was delayed for 64 minutes during the second quarter due to lightning in the area. Led by two touchdowns from junior Ciatrick Fason, six different players scored as Florida (1-0) captured its opener for the 15th straight year.
The visiting Eagles (1-1) opened the scoring with 8:36 remaining in the first quarter, as sophomore kicker Andrew Wellock booted a 23-yard field goal to cap a 91-yard drive to start the game. Before the Gator offense had an opportunity to answer, Eastern Michigan successfully recovered an on-side kick at Florida’s 43-yard line.
After the UF defense forced the Eagles three-and-out, the hosts’ offense was unable to capitalize on their first drive. However, the Gator defense responded on EMU’s next possession to force a fumble. Senior running back Anthony Sherrell was hit by sophomore defensive end Joe Cohen, and classmate Channing Crowder pounced on the fumble near midfield.
Seizing the momentum, Leak engineered a 50-yard scoring drive that moved the Gators in front to stay. Fason, who rushed for 105 yards on 16 carries, scampered into the end zone from eight yards out to provide UF’s opening points of the campaign.
Less than two minutes into the second quarter, Florida struck again, courtesy of a three-yard dash by Fason along the left sideline for a 14-3 cushion. Leak had moved the offense downfield in 1:35, a five-play drive spanning 56 yards.
After sitting through a rain delay of more than an hour that began at 2:15 p.m., the Gators resumed play with a bang. Facing a second down and 16 from Eastern Michigan’s 46-yard line, Leak fired a 37-yard bullet to junior wide receiver Dallas Baker, who eluded a pair of Eagle defenders to make an acrobatic catch. UF completed the drive with a two-yard run by sophomore DeShawn Wynn to move ahead, 21-3.
With 1:28 remaining until the half, Eastern Michigan narrowed the deficit to 21-10 on a 22-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Matt Bohnet to sophomore wide receiver Eric Deslauriers. The Eagles’ drive of 82 yards lasted 4:23 and took 13 plays.
Seconds later, Florida’s special teams corps answered to set up the squad’s fourth touchdown of the opening half. Sophomore Chad Jackson fielded Wellock’s kick at the 20-yard line and raced 47 yards down to the EMU 33-yard line. On the next play, Leak threaded a 19-yard pass to senior wide receiver O.J. Small down to the 14. With 0:41 remaining until the break and his team positioned on the 10-yard line, Leak found Small streaking across the end zone for a 28-10 advantage at intermission.
The Gator offense strung together three consecutive scoring drives in the third quarter to expand the margin to 49-10. The first touchdown, 4:12 into the frame, resulted from a seven-yard scoring toss from Leak to Baker. On UF’s next drive, Leak found a wide-open Billy Latsko for a four-yard touchdown reception to seal a 12-play, 59-yard drive. The TD was the first of the sophomore’s career.
With just 1:15 left to play in the third quarter, Jackson hauled in a 39-yard pass from Leak to move the chains down to the one-yard line. Sophomore Skyler Thornton then closed the afternoon’s scoring on the next play by punching in Florida’s fourth rushing touchdown. Leak finished 16-of-25 for 244 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Fason’s two TDs were a career high and he eclipsed the 100-yard plateau for the second time in his career. UF’s leading receiver was Small, who had six catches for 99 yards and a touchdown.
UF senior kicker Matt Leach was a perfect 7-for-7 on PATs, moving his consecutive streak of 55 attempts to fourth on the school’s all-time list. The Gator offense rolled up 409 yards of total offense and limited Eastern Michigan to just 74 yards of offense in the second half.
Florida will return to action next Saturday, Sept. 18, when they travel to Knoxville, Tenn., to face Southeastern Conference rival No. 14/15 Tennessee (1-0) in the start of conference competition. The game from Neyland Stadium will be carried nationally on CBS beginning at 8 p.m.