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OUTBACK BOWL

Gators handle Iowa

Victory validates coach's system

TAMPA -- Chris Leak showed why Florida is confident its spread option offense is capable of carrying the Gators back to national prominence.

Leak threw for 277 yards and two touchdowns yesterday, answering lingering questions about his suitability for coach Urban Meyer's offensive scheme in a 31-24 victory over No. 25 Iowa in the Outback Bowl.

Dallas Baker scored on receptions of 24 and 38 yards and finished with 10 catches for 147 yards for the 16th-ranked Gators (9-3) as Meyer matched Ray Graves (1960) and Steve Spurrier (1990) for most victories for a coach in his first season at Florida.

Vernell Brown, back earlier than expected from a broken leg he suffered Nov. 5 against Vanderbilt, returned an interception 60 yards for a touchdown and Tremaine McCollum ran 6 yards with a blocked punt for another TD to help the Gators build a 24-7 halftime lead.

Meyer praised Brown for his unselfishness, something the coach said has been lacking in the Gator program.

''I want people to see Vernell Brown," Meyer said. ''He's what we stand for. We don't stand for five stars. We don't stand for highly recruited guys that maybe get too much credit. We don't stand for the guys who come out early. . . Florida football is about a guy who outworks his opponent, is maybe the underdog, and will fight until he can't fight no more."

Drew Tate and the Iowa offense had lots of success moving the ball, but the blocked punt on the fifth play of the game, Brown's interception, and two costly penalties during an 80-yard touchdown drive Florida put together just before the half left the Hawkeyes (7-5) in a hole too deep to escape.

''We did a lot of stuff that didn't look like us in the first half," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

Tate completed 32 of 55 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns. He rallied his team from a 31-7 deficit in the fourth quarter with TD throws of 4 and 14 yards to Ed Hinkel, then moved Iowa into position for a 45-yard field goal to pull the Hawkeyes within a touchdown with 1:24 remaining.

The Gators, making their third Outback appearance in the past four years, had not ended a season with a victory since beating Maryland in the Orange Bowl in 2002. They lost to Michigan in Tampa in the 2003 Outback and Iowa two years ago in a game that some of Florida's players felt the team was ill-prepared.

Iowa salvaged its season by rebounding from losses to Michigan and Northwestern to beat Wisconsin and Minnesota to receive its school-record fourth straight trip to a January bowl -- a huge boon for recruiting.

''You look at the whole season, we experienced some ups and downs," Ferentz said. ''The bounces didn't go our way at times, but guys never hung their heads and never got discouraged."

Still, five losses has to be a disappointment after going 10-2 and sharing the Big Ten championship with Ohio State in 2004.

Florida's season hit a low point with a 30-22 loss at South Carolina. Meyer held a team meeting during the plane ride home, and the Gators responded two weeks later with a dominating 34-7 rout of Florida State that underscored the coach's belief that the program is headed in the right direction.

Meyer replaced Ron Zook after last season, moving to the Southeastern Conference after highly successful stints at Bowling Green and Utah. His arrival, however, also brought questions about whether his offense would work in a major league such as the SEC.

Leak looked lost in the scheme at times early in the season. But with yesterday's win, as well as victories over Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida State in the same year for only the fourth time in school history, Meyer's first season was a success.

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