GAMEDAY: Cornered is when Zook does his best

It's not like Ron Zook hasn't had his back to the wall before. Seasons one and two of the Zook era at the University of Florida have a strong resemblance to the script of Rocky movies one through three. For reasons unexplained, a battered, bruised and almost down for the count Zook is a rather dangerous creature, proven in two counter-punching but unexpected midseason winning streaks in both 2002 and 2003.

In an ideal world, Zook and the Gators would be entering Saturday's game with the Kentucky Wildcats at The Swamp with a 3-0 record and a national ranking somewhere in the top eight. Instead, they are ranked sixteenth, 1-1 with a season opener cancelled and a Southeastern Conference loss in game two to Tennessee.

This isn't how it was supposed to be. That season opener with Middle Tennessee State was supposed to give the Gators a chance to play everyone, then spend week two making corrections so they could blow out Eastern Michigan while finalizing the rotation they would need for game three at Tennessee. Hurricane Frances not only cancelled game one, but it also put a serious crimp in Florida's ability to get a lot of young players ready to play. The Eastern Michigan game should have been a teaching experience, but it wound up being a deer in the headlights game for a lot of freshmen even though the Gators won easily.

Seeing Florida struggle on defense against Tennessee, there is now no doubt that one of the greatest factors in that 30-28 loss was the cancellation of game one. Florida hit on almost all cylinders offensively against Tennessee. An experienced offensive line, a great crew of receivers, a serious 1-2 running back punch and the presence of Chris Leak means the Gators are odds-on favorites to put at least four to five touchdowns on anyone this season. Tennessee is one of the better defenses the Gators will see all season and the Vols never consistently contained UF. Offense is not what needed the work in the early going.

It's the defense that needed the extra work that game one against MTSU could have provided. The lack of work showed up in the first quarter against Tennessee when the Vols drove 80 yards on their second series, pounding the ball 12 straight plays on the ground until they reached the end zone. That one drive was not exactly a wooden stake in the heart of the Gator defense, but more like the beginning of death by a thousand cuts. Florida spent an entire night searching for someone other than Channing Crowder and Terrence Holmes willing to step up and make plays.

Even Crowder struggled in the first quarter. He spent that second drive trying to figure out where the next block was coming from. He got no help from the defensive line, whose purpose in the Gator scheme is to engage the offensive line so the linebackers can make plays. Rather than engage the Vols offensive line, the Gator defensive front four kept getting knocked off the ball on that first drive. By the time a linebacker or defensive back could make a tackle, Cedric Houston or Gerald Riggs had already gained at least eight or nine yards.

Three more times Tennessee would drive 80 yards for scores. While Crowder got his game together in the second quarter and played well the rest of the evening, the rest of his defensive mates never played with any consistency. Other than two big plays by Holmes (big hit and an interception) the secondary did an impersonation of a donut — a big hole in the middle. Just about every time the Vols needed a big play, they found it with a pass in the middle of the field.

The defensive line statistically played better in the last three quarters, but was that improved play or more the result of Houston riding the pines with a re-injured ankle? The defensive line rarely got any pressure on the Vols freshmen quarterbacks, Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer.

Now Kentucky comes to town, shut out in game one by Louisville but rebounding with a 51-point effort against Indiana last week. The Wildcats quarterback, Shane Boyd, is better than Ken Bohnet, the quarterback from Eastern Michigan who threw for 190 yards against the Gators in the first half of the season opener. He runs nearly as well as Schaeffer, the scrambler of the two Tennessee quarterbacks. He's got quick receivers and an offensive scheme that lets him be an athlete rather than requiring too much thought.

It is unlikely the Wildcat defense will be able to consistently slow the Florida offense. The Gators have far too many weapons, too much speed and a big, mobile offensive line. Realistically, the Gators should score at least 35 points in this game, perhaps more. If the line contains Kentucky's best player, Sweat Pea Burns, it could be dial-a-score.

But, unless the Florida defenders play with more inspiration than they have shown in the first two games, it could indeed be a dial-a-score type of day where Florida will have to win simply by showing that more offensive weapons means more points and a win.

While no immediate defensive changes have been announced, it's very likely that some of the younger players will begin to see more playing time, particularly in the secondary. Freshmen safeties Kyle Jackson and Tony Joiner will probably see action early and often. Freshman linebackers Javier Estopinan and Brandon Siler probably are going to see more reps, too. There are several other young players who are going to have to get their reps because defensive coordinator Charlie Strong has to find people who can make plays. With Arkansas and LSU looming on the horizon, he has to find combinations that work rather quickly.

At some point in the future, the defense SHOULD come around. At almost every position on the defense, the level of talent and speed is upgraded from last year. Logic says that it is only a matter of time before the lights go on and the Gators start making big plays on defense. Until then, however, the pressure will be squarely on Chris Leak and the offense to carry the weight of expectations.

The defensive situation is such that the Gators can't afford to waste even a single offensive series. The talent is there to score and score quickly, but scoring too quickly could cause problems, too. While the talent and speed is upgraded defensively, depth remains an issue, just as it has the past two seasons.

This is where offensive coordinator Larry Fedora is going to earn his paycheck. He is going to have to balance Florida's quick striking ability with the strength of the offensive line and running backs to control the ball. Fedora has shown a streak of unpredictability in his play calling thus far but until the defense comes around, he's going to have to carefully calculate when he wants to hit opposing defenses with big plays in the passing game and when he wants to pound the ball on the ground, thus making the offensive team part of the defensive scheme.

Expect Zook to have the Gators thoroughly motivated and well aware that the stakes are very high. There is no question that Florida is very much a contender for the SEC East championship and that the Gators have the offense capable of outscoring anyone in the league. Another loss, however, and Florida will find itself thinking Outback or Citrus once again instead of BCS and SEC championship game.

Just as last season when Zook rallied the Gators to a five-game winning streak after a shaky 3-3 start, Zook once again has to show that when cornered, he's at his best as a coach. If we have learned anything about him in the past two seasons, it is that he does well in this situation. If you don't believe it, think back to that four-game winning streak that began with unexpected wins over Auburn and Georgia in 2002 and last year's Bermuda Triangle (nationally ranked LSU, Arkansas and Georgia) wins as part of the five-game winning streak after the 3-3 start.

Zook needs to feel cornered once again Saturday morning in The Swamp against Kentucky. If he does, the Gators will do just fine.

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