Published 12:00 am Friday, October 31, 2003

BATON ROUGE &045; The LSU athletics’ marketing department urged Tiger fans to don their best white garments to Saturday’s LSU-Florida showdown to white out the Gators, a move first tried back in 1996 under then-head coach Gerry DiNardo against Vanderbilt.

It worked then, as the Tigers clobbered DiNardo’s former coaching job 35-0. The mission failed Saturday, and LSU’s national title hopes were ironically whited out with a miserable 19-7 loss against an inspired Florida team.

&uot;I knew heading into the game we were playing a team that was kind of like a cornered animal, in terms of their season being on the line,&uot; LSU head coach Nick Saban said of the Gators, which held a players’ only meeting this week for accountability after a 3-3 start. &uot;Obviously I’m disappointed in the way we played. I’m responsible of that. We didn’t play a smart game.&uot;

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The telling statistics Saban’s criticisms pointed to were three turnovers and a season-high 13 penalties for 99 yards.

&uot;We stopped ourselves numerous times in the game with penalties and mental errors,&uot; Saban said. &uot;But you can’t blame the players for that.&uot;

With the exception of a 80-yard Skyler Green punt return to give the Tigers (5-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) never crossed the Florida 40-yard line the entire overcast afternoon.

LSU’s defense continued its suffocating pressure on the quarterback, sacking true freshman signal caller Chris Leak six times, but Leak and Florida (4-3, 2-2 SEC) did what neither Georgia or Mississippi State were able to do.

Using a collection of screen and short yardage passes, Gator backs and receivers found space in the middle of the field, including the dagger &045; a 35-yard pass-and-catch touchdown reception to back Ciatrick Fason.

&uot;That defense was tough, but I just had to keep playing and keep my composure and keep going,&uot; said Leak, who finished 18 of 30 for 229 yards and, most importantly, zero interceptions. &uot;You just have to keep trying to make positive plays.&uot;

For instance, on third and 19 from his own 17 early on in the second quarter, with the LSU crowd heeding the encouragement of its ravenous defense, Leak was flushed from the pocket, but calmly reared back and hit receiver Kelvin Kight for a 22-yard pickup on the biggest play of the game to that point.

Two plays later Leak hooked up with receiver O.J. Small on a bubble screen for 13 yards to move the chains to the LSU 47. Feeling the moment with a pillow of confidence to rest on, Leak aired out a spectacular ball to Carlos Perez, who reeled it in among tight one-on-one coverage, for 47 yards to the 1.

&uot;He did a good job,&uot; Saban said of Leak. &uot;With the no-huddle they tell him everything to do, but he did a great job executing. I think early on the no-huddle affected our players.&uot;

The drive ultimately netted no points as redshirt sophomore Brandon Williams, a backup interior lineman, put a hat on the ball that was tucked underneath DeShawn Wynn’s right arm and Adrian Mayes recovered for the Tigers.

Starting from its own 5, LSU could not capitalize on the turnover and punted it back to the Gators, who watched kicker Matt Leach connect from 50 yards, his second field goal of the half, for a 13-7 lead with 5:37 before halftime.

&uot;As I have been saying all along, we are a good football team,&uot; embattled Florida head coach Ron Zook said. &uot;We made some mistakes, we made some mistakes today, but I think we will continue to improve and to continue to believe. We just happened to beat a good football team today.&uot;

In the second half, the Tigers were given opportunities to score, but shots in the foot &045; a holding penalty after Michael Clayton took a reception 40 yards across misfiled, for one &045; negated drives.

Quarterback Matt Mauck had perhaps his worst game as a starter for in an LSU uniform, completing just 19 of his 33 passes and tossing two picks, the first of which led to Leach’s initial field goal.

&uot;For some reason we didn’t execute at all. We’re disappointed as a team,&uot; Mauck said. &uot;The coaches tell us sometimes you get motivated sometimes when you lose, and unfortunately that’s what we’re going to have to have. As you saw today, the little things make the difference.&uot;

Leak struggled most of first half with the noise of the third largest Tiger Stadium crowd (92,077). Sitting back in the shotgun the Charlotte, N.C., native went up and down the offensive line barking out orders.

However, it did not all together rattle him, as Leak engineered a 13 play, 80-yard scoring drive.

It was a 22-yard screen pass to tailback Ran Carthon in a wide-open center of the field to draw the Gators even, 7-7, with 6:51 left in the first quarter.

&uot;LSU is an great team, an awesome team, but we just came in here and played our hearts out and had fun,&uot; Leak said. &uot;I just kept playing because that is what Coach Zook tells us to do.&uot;