Steve Spurrier's face was red, as if he'd downed a gallon of jalapenos. The Swamp was silent, as if the 80,000-plus on hand had witnessed a death in the family.
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All because an extra point, as close a thing to automatic as you'll see in football, wasn't so automatic anymore. The kick from Jeff Chandler that would have put Florida up 40-33 in overtime against Alabama sailed a hair outside the right upright. He pushed it.
"I've never had anything like that happen to me before," Chandler, a junior, said of the gaffe on Oct. 2 that contributed to a 40-39 loss and snapped the Gators' 30-game home winning streak. "I hope it never happens again."
The 6-foot-2, 211-pounder from Jacksonville, Fla., will have a chance to kick his demons to the curb Saturday, when No. 5 Florida (9-2, 7-1 SEC) and No. 7 Alabama (9-2, 7-1 SEC) engage in a rematch for the SEC Championship at Atlanta's Georgia Dome (8 p.m., ABC).
The irony for Chandler is that, apart from that low moment against the Crimson Tide (9-2, 7-1 SEC), he's been one of few sure things for the Gators so far. While Florida's traditional point-a-minute attack has sputtered frequently, he has finished what the offense could not.
He leads the nation in field-goal percentage, having made 21 of 24 attempts for an 87.5-percent clip, and he's first in the SEC and second in the nation in terms of field goals made, 1.9 per game.
"Normally around here kickers aren't well liked and they're around here to kick extra points," the 20-year-old said. "But I feel like I've done a very good job this year of putting points on the board, especially since the offense has been struggling a little bit."
Even Spurrier, not a man given to lavishing praise upon his players, said Chandler "has been sensational for us."
Chandler took a seldom-traveled route to being a key cog for the Gators. He played just one year of football at Mandarin High School in Jacksonville, then he walked on for the Gators in 1997.
In the third game of 1998, senior Collins Cooper missed a 32-yard attempt that cost the Gators a 20-17 overtime loss at Tennessee and snapped their five-game winning streak over the Volunteers.
Chandler was handed the full-time reins, and he connected on 11 of 17 field attempts and was 33-of-37 on extra points in 1998.
As for this season, he still can't explain the point-after that wasn't against Alabama. Still, he almost got another chance after Alabama missed its extra point in the overtime, but got another kick, which was good, after Florida was called for a penalty.
"I don't know what happened," he said. "I guess I just pushed it a little bit. That's just one of the freak things that happen with kickers. It's tough to explain."
But tough to regroup? Chandler doesn't think so.
"We still had a long season," he said. "That's the thing about being a kicker is you can't get too high and you can't get too low. You've just got to keep your head level and keep going."
Chandler was prodded by the hope that his second chance would come against the Crimson Tide in Atlanta, but his shot at redemption looked bleak when Mississippi State streaked to an 8-0 start and appeared headed for the West title.
But on Nov. 13, Alabama dispatched the Bulldogs 19-7. The next week, Mississippi State tripped again at Arkansas. Alabama was in, and so was Florida.
Think Chandler was happy?
"I'm both surprised and excited," he said. "I thought for a while there that it was going to be Mississippi State, but they dropped a few games and Alabama kept playing really well. I'm excited, because I owe these guys a lot. The redemption factor is in there for me."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or at email@example.com.
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