Not A Signature Win

Just once you wish it would be easy. Just once. That's not asking too much is it? But it never is easy for Ron Zook, and it hasn't been since the day he was announced as Florida's football coach almost three years ago. Now with just two games remaining in the regular season and the possibility of a bowl game before Zook rides off into the sunset of his brief career, the chances for a signature win that would define his career are dwindling down.

He's got South Carolina next week in The Swamp followed by Florida State the week after in Tallahassee, games that could be won, but doubtful that they would be won in dominating fashion.

There was a chance for the big statement win Saturday against Vanderbilt in Nashville, but in typical fashion, the Gators made the game an adventure and it wasn't until deep in the fourth quarter that Florida knew it would leave with a victory. The final score read 34-17 but it was a lot closer and nails were bitten to the quick by Gator fans until the final three minutes of the game.

Dwarfed by the announcement that Steve Spurrier withdrew his name from consideration to return as a conquering hero to the Florida football program that he truly put on the map over a 12-year run that saw 122 wins and a national championship, Florida took the field Saturday under the bizarre circumstance of having only two scholarship linebackers dressed for the game, only one of whom actually played (Brandon Siler) and he is a true freshman. Florida's linebacking corp was so devastated by injury that walkon Alvin Butler (nine special teams plays this season) and Corey Bailey (safety) manned Siler's flanks the entire game.

Throw in four first half turnovers, three of which led to Vanderbilt's 17 first half points, and you have the making of a schizophrenic game that saw Florida clearly demonstrate any number of complex personalities. The strange nature of the game was no different than so many of the Zook era, but lost in this shuffle is perhaps one of the best coaching jobs turned in by Zook and his staff.

Think about it. Florida spotted Vandy 10 points due to turnovers before the Gators got on the board and they gave up another touchdown off yet a fourth turnover in the second quarter. Vanderbilt ran and ran and ran against a defense that had one experienced rookie at middle linebacker along with two novice backers who spent an entire afternoon learning the nuances of the position.

That alone should have spelled doom for the Gators, but they fought hard and never gave up. Vanderbilt drove the ball nearly every possession, but the Gators managed to find ways to manufacture stops even without turnovers. In the second half, the Gator defense pitched a shutout.

Sure, it was Vanderbilt, but don't let the fact that the Commodores are their usual first in academics, first in SAT scores and last in the SEC blind you to the fact that Vandy did convincingly whip the same Mississippi State team that three weeks ago ran at will on the Gators. Florida played Mississippi State with healthy linebackers but couldn't stop the Bulldogs.

Florida really didn't stop Vanderbilt, either. The Commodores rushed for 254 yards but somehow Florida found ways to slow them down and keep them out of the end zone in the second half. In the final two quarters, Vanderbilt got the ball four times and put together drives of 10, 16 and 13 plays without putting a score on the board. Somehow, at crunch time, defensive coordinator Charlie Strong came up with the right call and someone stepped up to make a play.

Without a tested, experienced crew of linebackers, Florida's defensive line stepped up. Marcus Thomas had a couple of sacks. Ray McDonald had some nice stops including one for a five-yard loss. Joe Cohen broke up a screen pass. With regular quarterback Jay Cutler out and Vanderbilt running so consistently well, the Commodores threw sparingly and that allowed Dee Webb and Kyle Jackson to help mightily against the run, supplementing the linebackers with some strong pursuit and good hits.

Offensively, Florida went the entire game without a punt. Florida had eleven possessions, scoring four touchdowns and two field goals. The Gators turned the ball over once and on their final possession they took a knee to end the game.

Ciatrick Fason ran for 170 yards on 26 carries, igniting the offense with his change of direction runs that slashed the heart out of Vandy's defense. Fason became the seventh Gator in school history to go over 1000 yards for the season on what was his third consecutive 100-yard game.

Chris Leak waded through a fumble in the end zone that gave the Commodores a touchdown and an interception that killed a potential scoring drive to run for a touchdown and throw for two. His scoring pass of 26 yards to Tate Casey in the third quarter was a perfectly thrown pass completed where there was no margin for error. He would hit Dallas Baker with the game clincher, a 35-yard laser in the fourth quarter. Leak would finish the game with 307 passing yards.

The play calling was superb by offensive coordinator Larry Fedora who once again gave the Gators a balanced effort with 38 running plays and 29 pass plays that resulted in a net 500 yards of total offense to go with the 34 points.

And Zook did his part, too. With fourth and one at the Florida 40 in the third quarter, Zook avoided the temptation to go conservative. Rather than punt, Florida went for it with Fason breaking a tackle to avoid a loss, turning it into a 13-yard gain for a first down that would set up a 49-yard field goal by Matt Leach. Leach would later ice the game with a 47-yarder.

Under the circumstances of distractions, injuries and the downer of last week's loss to Georgia in Jacksonville, all this heaped upon the reality that Zook's coaching career at Florida is almost over, it was a brilliant coaching performance. The win was Florida's fifth of the season and means the Gators have to win only one of the two remaining games to continue the string of consecutive winning seasons at 25 and Florida's bowl streak at 14.

Yes, it was only Vanderbilt, and yes, there are only two regular season games remaining in the Zook era, but it was one of those wins held together by bailing wire and bubble gum, the kind that Zook will savor long after he's left Gainesville. Maybe it wasn't a signature win or a huge win over a ranked opponent, but it was gutsy and in the furor over who did what to whom of last week's Spurrier announcement, this is a win that should be greatly appreciated.

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