Zook keeps head up even in tough times

Sleep has been minimal and he hasn't eaten much since Saturday night. Although Saturday's 24-21 Southeastern Conference loss to LSU has taken a toll on the Florida football coach, he's trying to put that completely behind him so that he can focus on the next game.

"What's my alternative?" Zook asked reporters Monday afternoon, a day in which he had given the Gators the day off from practice even though they have a non-conference Saturday game in Gainesville against Middle Tennessee State. Zook kept the mood optimistic even though he had to admit, the LSU loss hit him hard.

"Every loss is brutal," said Zook. "You don't even know how brutal they are. The expectation level here is high, but that's what make the University of Florida what it is. You don't like it you get out of here. We have a challenge, so let's go. Right now, I'm not worrying about running the table (remaining six games). We're worrying about Middle Tennessee. We're worrying about one game at a time, one play at a time."

For the second time this season, the Gators were beaten in the last two minutes of a game. Just like the loss to Tennessee three weeks ago, only a play or two separated the Gators from victory, a point of frustration for both the coach, his staff and the team.

"It's only a couple of plays away, but it feels like 102 plays away," said Zook. "A lot of things (close losses in the final minutes) have happened in the last two and a half years. That's the hand you're dealt and you play it. If I didn't know we're on the right track and didn't believe in these guys; if I didn't know we're close .... I know that people get tired of hearing that. Hell, I get tired of saying that. .. that's the hand you're dealt and you play it.

"I can understand why fans are upset (about the loss). I want the same things they want and I want it a helluva lot more than they do. They don't have half what I have invested in it. I understand it and I empathize with it. It's my responsibility to get it done and I'm gonna get it done."

Zook went out of his way to make sure that he's not portrayed as a victim.

"I don't want it to sound like I'm the only one who's been through anything," he said.

Asked if this game was more devastating than some of the other close losses, Zook answered, "You guys don't even know about that (being down). I guess is if you lost your spouse or something like that you get down. If you know you're not on the right track (you get down). I haven't slept much or eaten much since Saturday. There are some things I'm upset about. There are some things we have to get corrected. There are some things that have come up that have been problems before. Any level (of football) at any time and stuff's going to happen. You have to get it corrected. You put all your thought and energy and time to get you where you have to be."

The Gators get a one-week respite from their Southeastern Conference schedule. Middle Tennessee State was supposed to be the home opener but it was cancelled because of the threat of Hurricane Charley, rescheduled on what was supposed to be an off week. Even if the Gators had the week off, Zook explained that this was a planned off day. The fact the team has played five straight weeks gave the day off a bit more meaning.

"I made the plan to take this day off a long time ago, that no matter who were were playing no matter if we won or lost," said Zook, emphasizing that the team needed a day without the rigors of practice. "I know we (coaching staff) are tired. They're tired, too."

The Gators will play the game without middle linebacker Channing Crowder and safety Jarvis Herring, both suspended for one game for involvement in an incident downtown back in the summer. Crowder's spot in the middle will be taken by true freshman Brandon Siler, but he'll get a lot of help inside from fellow freshman Javier Estopinan and junior Todd McCullough. McCullough saw his first significant playing time of the season against LSU, delivering several quality plays in limited time.

"It's good to have Todd McCullough coming back at the right time," said Zook of the 6-5, 235-pounder from Jacksonville, who missed the entire spring rehabbing a shoulder injury then missed almost all of the preseason camp with a high ankle sprain. "He's pretty close to where he needs to be. You take that much time off, it takes a while to get back. Healthwise that ankle really set him back. I think he's about back up to full speed now."

Terrence Holmes will start in place of Herring at safety. Freshmen safeties Kyle Jackson and Tony Joiner are both expected to see their first significant playing time of the season as well.

He praised the offensive line for Saturday night's performance. The line allowed only one sack and that was due to exceptional coverage by the LSU secondary.

"Mike Degory and those guys (offensive line) did a good job of picking up the blitzes," said Zook. He also praised quarterback Chris Leak, who though he "didn't have his best game" throwing the ball, did a good job of checking the Gators out of bad plays and into good plays on many occasions at the line of scrimmage.

Zook said he got some encouraging phone calls from fans throughout the day, telling him to keep plugging along, that good things were going to happen.

"One guy called and asked me how I'm doing, I told him I'm great and ready to go," said Zook with a smile. "He told me I'm screwed up."

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