These growing pains don't hurt nearly as bad

Some will call it a lucky escape and others will complain that once again the Florida Gators failed to go for the jugular when they had a big lead, but Saturday's 45-30 Southeastern Conference win over the Arkansas Razorbacks at The Swamp is best described simply as a growth exercise, and this time the growing pains didn't hurt nearly as bad.

The thrill ride that the Gators gave the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium crowd and national television audience was indeed one that had fans thinking of those three heartbreaking fourth quarter meltdowns last year (Miami, Ole Miss and Florida State) and a near miss against Arkansas, a loss avoided only when an overzealous Razorback linebacker got nailed for a personal foul in the final minute of the game. But while fans were doing the instant replay thing in their collective minds, the football team on the field was feeling the pressure, but really not worried about the outcome.

"We knew we needed to make a play, but we knew someone would step up and do it," said linebacker Channing Crowder, whose interception of a tipped pass and 22-yard runback set up Chris Leak's two-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Baker that sealed the win for the Gators. "We knew something good was going to happen if we just got in the right position to make a play."

When Arkansas snapped the ball with 4:33 remaining in the game, trailing 38-30 and riding the momentum of 23 straight points, everyone expected Razorback quarterback Matt Jones was going to make yet another positive play. Up to that point, in the fourth quarter alone, Jones was 9-11 for 92 yards and one touchdown passing to go with a 25-yard run for a touchdown.

Just prior to that play, linebackers coach Bill Miller called down from the booth for Crowder to make an adjustment in the way he was dropping in coverage across the middle. Miller wanted Crowder to shorten his drop by a three or four yards. Crowder did exactly as he was told, and when Jones pass popped into the air off the pads of an Arkansas receiver, the UF middle linebacker made the pick and ran the ball back to the Arkansas 26.

"Here's a guy (Crowder) who stands up and makes the play," said Florida Coach Ron Zook. "When you can make adjustments on the field like we did, that shows me the kids are paying attention and they're being well coached. He had to make the play and he did it."

Crowder modestly said that the interception was "just doing my job. He (Matt Jones) made a little bit of a bad throw and he (Arkansas receiver) tipped it up there to me,"

Crowder's play saved the day, but it was an affirmation of what Zook had preached throughout the week leading up to the Arkansas game. Each day, Zook stressed to his team to "play the moment" and not worry about anything that happened the play before or anything that could possibly happen in the future.

"That's what Coach Zook's been telling us all along," said wide receiver Bubba Caldwell, whose electrifying 61-yard touchdown run on a reverse gave the Gators a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. "He says play this play for right now. Don't worry about what happened before and don't be thinking about what's gonna happen later on."

That the Gators were able to play it one play at a time is a testament to the maturation process of this team. Last year, the Gators were a team unable to live in prosperity. The fourth quarter of every game was an adventure. There were the three big meltdowns that resulted in losses to go with the furious Arkansas comeback in Fayetteville. Florida also dodged bullets against Georgia and South Carolina, both games that could have been lost in the fourth quarter.

Throw in Tennessee's come from behind 30-28 win over Florida in Knoxville two weeks ago and it would have been understandable if the team found a way to fold once more. Rather than fold, though, there was a calm on the sidelines. Zook said when he did a fourth quarter gut check, he didn't see any fear in their eyes.

"We were just telling each other to pick it up," said Caldwell. "We knew we had to step up our game and make some plays. We knew somebody that was going to go out there to make a big play."

When the big play came from Crowder, the Gators didn't go conservative, choosing instead to play aggressively. Leak caught the Hogs off guard with a 13-yard pass to OJ Small on first down and that was followed by three straight carries by Ciatrick Fason to give UF a first down at the Arkansas one. Two plays later, Leak and Baker connected to seal the win, after whcih center Mike Degory told Zook "we would have lost this game last year."

Winning as they did will open Zook to criticism this week. By playing a near-perfect second quarter and going into the locker with a 35-7 lead at the half, Gator fans had visions of the 1990s racing through their minds when big halftime leads were almost always mere stepping stones to further onslaught in one blowout win after another. The fans wanted the blowout Saturday but it wasn't to be.

Instead of a signature win that would silence the critics, the Gators had to once again hold on. Instead of building on the scoring output of the first half, the Gators found themselves struggling once again in the second half for points, an all too familiar reminder of years one and two of the Zook era. But, while the modus operandi may have been similar to too many games in Zook's first two years, this victory had a different feel to it. This one had the feel of a team that is starting to grow up.

What made this victory different than some of the gasping nail-biters of the past two years was that Florida not only halted the meltdown when Crowder stepped up to make a defensive play, but the offense sealed the deal with a follow-up touchdown. That's the kind of one-two punch in the clutch that has been missing in the past. That's the kind of finish which is an indicator that maturity is beginning to set in for a very young football team.

Zook would not allow the team to feel badly for nearly letting one slip away, either. While he was clearly disappointed that Arkansas came back, he said he wasn't surprised. "Arkansas is a good football team," he said. "Give them credit for coming back."

And to his team, he told them "enjoy this win. I refused to let them walk out of the locker room feeling bad about the way we won. We've got some things to prove and we will. These guys will work their tails off. We have to get where we can play a whole game like we did the first half, but we will. We'll get there."

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