Matt Leach capitalizes on opportunity

AP Photo/Phil Coale

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Matt Leach waited four years for the chance to attempt another game-winning field goal. He waited through an extremely disappointing sophomore season. And he waited nearly four quarters on Saturday against Georgia.

But Matt Leach's wait is over. His 33-yard field goal with 33 seconds remaining propelled No. 23 Florida to a 16-13 victory against the fourth-ranked Bulldogs and immediately cemented his place in the hearts of Gators' fans everywhere.

"It's the best ever. I can't even describe it," Leach said after the game. "Ever since I came here, I've been waiting to kick a game-winning field goal."

Leach booted a 51-yard game-winner in his junior season at Booker High School in Sarasota, Fla., but the Florida junior hasn't been able to top that moment in his first three years with the Gators. Until Saturday.

"That's the kind of stuff you wish for as a kicker to get the game won," Florida tight end Ben Troupe said. "We had faith in him."

Leach got a feeling early in the tight game that it might be his turn to shine.

"It was a close game with it being 3-3 at the half. We could tell it was going to be a close game and it was going to come down to a field goal or a blocked kick," Leach said.

He missed a 48-yard attempt in the first quarter, banging the kick off the right upright and keeping the game scoreless. But Leach went through much worse than one miss last season, when he made just 9-of-15 attempts (60 percent) ranking ninth out of 10 qualifiers in the SEC in field goal percentage. He also missed five extra points.

Leach attributed some of the problems to a change in holders - his primary holder quit after three games - but that didn't stop fans from booing him on numerous occasions.

"He had some tough times last year," Florida head coach Ron Zook said. "But we stuck with him. I'm proud of that."

Leach has rewarded Zook's trust - and the close relationship between the two - so far this season. Entering the Georgia game, he'd connected on 12-of-16 attempts (73 percent) including a 50-yarder in the Gators' upset against Louisiana State on Oct. 11. He earned Southeastern Conference Player of the Week honors for that performance.

He might be in the running again. Leach rebounded from his miss and made a 28-yarder in the second quarter to open the scoring and an 18-yarder in the fourth quarter that extended Florida's lead to 13-3, seemingly enough to hold off Georgia.

But Leach was called upon one more time, this one with more than 84,000 screaming fans watching only him.

"I was just concentrating on the spot I wanted to kick it through," said Leach, who pulled the kick slightly to the left. "I knew I could kick it through. That is definitely the most important kick I've ever hit."

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