FOOTBALL: Death by a thousand cuts

JACKSONVILLE — Ron Zook has to feel a lot like the geek from the chemistry class who mysteriously lands the prom date with the best looking girl in the school. He's got reservations at the best restaurant and Dad's letting him borrow the Cadillac for the evening.

Nothing can go wrong. Everything is perfect except that moment when he stands in the mirror for the final check before going to pick her up. That's when he discovers a volcano of a zit, big and purple with a white cap, just sitting there on the end of his nose, ready to explode at any moment.

The Ron Zook era at the University of Florida has been like that.

He's the guy who came off the radar three years ago to land the only head coaching job he ever really wanted. He not only got his dream job, but the facilities and the talent pool from which he could recruit.

Everything was perfect, but just like the geek on prom night, everything got spoiled. Fired on Monday, he's dutifully finishing up a season gone bad and a career ended abruptly. As you look back on the thirty-four games of the Zook era, it isn't a preponderance of 80-yard touchdown passes given up or five-turnover games by the offense that have done him in. It's the little things. A player misses making a big play by a step here or there. A player misreads the play call from the sideline. A single brain dead moment paralyzes normally quick feet.

In other words, the zit on the end of the nose keeps coming back at the most inopportune moments.

It all adds up to 14 losses in thirty-four games and only three more games remaining in this, Zook's last season as Florida's football coach. What has to make all this frustrating and painful for Zook is that it's been like death by a thousand cuts. There really hasn't been any one single gaping wound that has done him in, but all the little cuts that have drained the blood from what he was trying to build.

In Saturday's 31-24 loss to Georgia at Alltell Stadium, there was one slightly different twist — the Gators didn't lose in the final two minutes as they had in three previous losses this season — but one element in the loss that remained ever the same was the number of small breakdowns along the way that led to another defeat.

There were two Georgia touchdown passes to tight end Leonard Pope, both the result of assignment breakdowns by young linebackers, freshman Brandon Siler on the first and sophomore Earl Everett on the second. Pope came into the game with eight catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns. He finished this one with three catches for 90 yards along with the two scores.

There were several false starts on the offensive line and holding calls on two consecutive plays that nullified first downs, killing a potential drive. There was even a personal foul on punter Eric Wilbur. It has to be at least 12 years, since Shayne Edge that the Gator punter got a personal foul.

There was freshman safety Kyle Jackson biting when Georgia quarterback David Greene broke containment on the outside, leaving Reggie Brown open behind the secondary for a 51-yard gain that would set up the game-clinching touchdown pass from Greene to Freddy Gibson. The Gibson touchdown would be the result of safety Corey Bailey breaking late, then taking the wrong angle on a pass he could have intercepted but at worst, should have broken up.

Just one small breakdown after another, some mental, some physical, added up to the fourth loss of the season and underlined the ongoing problems of Zook's era at Florida. If there has been a consistent theme to this team the past three years, it is the inconsistency.

I seriously doubt that Zook can explain how it is that his teams have never quite managed to consistently step up to make the kinds of plays that separate the top tier teams from those that want to be. It's not simply the plays when the games have been on the line that we're talking about here, it is all those third and 13 or third and 17 situations of the past three years that somehow were converted. It's all the passes that slid off a fingertip or were a hair too long. It's all the running plays that were within a whisker of breaking for a touchdown only to have one hand clip an ankle to knock the runner to the turf.

Three plays Saturday offer the perfect example, one that failed, one that got partial results and one that got a touchdown.

In the first quarter, the Gators ran a double reverse with Andre Caldwell, a former high school quarterback, getting the ball on the second handoff. Caldwell rolled right and looked downfield where quarterback Chris Leak was wide open. He had enough time to plant and make his throw, but he chose to launch the ball on the run. Leak made a valiant diving effort to get to the ball, but it was overthrown by a good four feet. The play had caught Georgia completely flatfooted and should have resulted in a touchdown, but it failed to capitalize on the moment.

In the second quarter, the Gators caught Georgia napping. Running from the bunch formation, the Gators quick-snapped the ball and got tight end Tate Casey running free behind the Georgia secondary. Leak had more time than he thought, but he rushed things a tad, underthrew the ball enough that Casey had to wait for it. Had Leak hit Casey in stride, it would have likely resulted in a touchdown. Instead, Florida settled for a 25-yard gain on a drive that stalled out.

In the third quarter, Leak made the perfect throw to Caldwell, hitting his burner of a wide receiver in full stride on a crossing pattern. Caldwell hauled the pass in without a second of hesitation, blew by several Georgia defenders as he made his way to the sideline, then turned on the jets as he turned a 15-yard pass into a 57-yard scoring play.

It is that difference of a split second that caused two of the three plays to fail. On the one play when the timing worked to perfection, the Gators got a score. Had the timing worked on the other two plays, Florida would have won the game.

But that's the way it has been in the Zook era, always a split second away from what might have or could have been. You have to wonder how is it possible that one man and one team could have such rotten luck? How could any coach or any team be so close so many times?

One day, perhaps a few months from now when he is no longer required to attack each day with the thought of squeezing 37 hours of work into 24 hours, Ron Zook will take a few moments to reflect on his three years as the football coach at the University of Florida. In typical Zooker fashion, he will focus on the good times because there were quite a few. If he takes the time to think about all the near misses, he will probably wonder why he never invested in band-aid stock because the end of the Zook era was death by a thousand cuts.

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