Ranking the Top 5 Wins for the Zooker

The Ron Zook era has all but come to a close at the University of Florida, and with Saturday night's exhilarating victory over arch-rival FSU, this seems like an appropriate time to list the top five wins in the Zook/Gator era. Having been part of the Florida football staff for more than ten years, I was part of many great victories for the Gators. Some of those wins may have held more significant meaning in terms of championships, but these five were right up there.

1. LSU 2003 (19-7): This one meant so much because of the utter scrutiny that Zook was under. The Gators were 3-3 for the first time in over a decade and they were being led onto the field against one of the nation's top three defenses by a freshman quarterback (Chris Leak). The Gators had just lost at home to what most thought as a very inferior Ole Miss team and playing in Baton Rouge against the eventual national champion, LSU Tigers.

The doom and gloom of the possibility that Zook and his staff would be inevitably be fired hung over the team the week leading up to the game. Against Ole Miss, the Gator staff was blistered for not playing to the weaknesses of the defense they were facing. Against LSU the staff on both sides of the ball got more praise than probably any one game in the three short years.

On offense, Leak was sacked six times and hit a lot more often than that. Leak, starting for only his fourth game ever, lit up the Tigers and he avoided the critical mistakes he made a week earlier against Ole Miss. The staff got kudos for reading the Tigers blitz at all cost scheme and burning them twice for uncovered touchdown passes to tailbacks out of the backfield.

The Tigers only score came on a punt return as the Gator defense kept the LSU offense from starting even one down inside the Gator 40. The defense completely shut down LSU senior quarterback Matt Mauck and company. It was probably most dominating defensive performance in the Zook era.

2. TENN 2002 (30-13): Who can forget that magical afternoon by Rex Grossman in a game played in monsoon conditions? Florida's offensive line didn't protect very well that day, but Grossman was on skates and the Vols could never corral him. He danced, ran and threw his way to three touchdowns in a rainstorm for the ages. The field was sloppy and the rain was pouring but that seemed to matter little to Grossman. Grossman was sacked four times but still ran for a net of 54, which wasn't bad for a non-running quarterback!

Grossman threw for 324 yards on the day with two touchdowns to Taylor Jacobs and one to Carlos Perez. The Gators surprised the Vols all day with play calling including a 37-yard strike to OJ Small from the bunch formation, at midfield.

On the other hand, Casey Clausen was butterfingers with most of his play on the day. The Vol quarterback fumbled the ball six times in the game. The defense was in the backfield as the inexperienced Volunteer offensive line could not withstand the pass rush of the likes of Clint Mitchell and Ian Scott. Mitchell's fumble recovery and return right before the half set up a Matt Leach field goal, and Ian Scott blocked a Tennessee field goal.

3. UGA 2003 (16-13): This game will be remembered in my mind for two things: "The Drive" and the never before (or since) seen jets of Carlos Perez. The latter was on an infamous bubble screen to Perez. When Perez got the blocks he needed, Gator fans could literally see the smoke coming out of his hind quarters as he went into the end zone from 34 yards out. He was moving so fast that he tripped over himself as he scored. "The Drive" was of course the game winning drive that started from the Gators own 17-yard line and finished on a field goal from the UGA 17. The drive started with 4:27 left on the clock and ended with 33 seconds left. Short runs and timely sideline passes helped seal the deal against the Bulldogs and complete the win for the Gators thirteenth win in 14 years against Georgia.

The Gators gave up 390 yards on the day to the Bulldogs but held them to just one touchdown. The Gators had four sacks on the day, including two on the first two pass attempts by David Greene. The Gators won the turnover battle 1-0 with a 17-yard interception return by Keiwan Ratliff.

Of course the game winning field goal was the most significant in the career of now Gator great Matt Leach. When the final 33 seconds ticked off on UGA's last possession, what Gator fan in attendance will forget Coach Zook as he stood on top of the team bench to the cheers of the crowd? The win marked the third in a row against top 12 teams, all away from the confines of The Swamp. The three road wins against top 12 teams is something no other Gator team or head coach has managed in a single season.

4. FSU 2004 (20-13): The drama was there for this game to rank higher, but in my opinion the importance of the FSU game is much less significant than that of a conference game. When FSU starts losing conference championships due to the ACC conference getting better, they will start to understand. The extra significance to this game came, of course, with the crowning of Bobby Bowden Field and Coach Zook's last regular season game.

I will never forget the 97-yard (112 if you count the penalties) drive that led off the Gator scoring on the night. Yes the Gators started on their own three-yard line. Midway through the drive, on a play that Florida earned a first down, Mo Mitchell committed a dead ball personal foul that set Florida back 15 yards from the spot of the first down. The Gators didn't lose their momentum, though. They cranked right up and moved down the field with Leak throwing 13 yards to Chad Jackson for the touchdown. The big difference in the game was the Gators able to run the ball on the nation's stingiest run defense. The Gators amassed 140 yards rushing on a team that was giving up less than 62 yards per game. It didn't stop there, the offensive line also allowed Chris Leak all day at times to throw the ball. The Gators totally dominated at the line of scrimmage.

It was more of the same on the other side of the ball. The Gator defense sacked FSU quarterbacks four times on the night. They allowed the FSU offense just 1.4 yards per carry. FSU quarterbacks were hit or running for their life on almost every play. The play I will remember is the interception by Jarvis Herring to seal the deal with 12 seconds left on the clock. It was an electric night in the stadium sparked with emotion and nothing was more gratifying than seeing the throat slashing Chris Rix cough one up to the much maligned Gator secondary.

5. UGA 2002 (20-13): The Bulldogs were ranked fifth at the time of the game and came in expecting to take it to the Steve Spurrier-less Gators. Having lost 12 of the previous 13 meetings, the Bulldogs were hot for revenge.

The Gator defense was stout on this day, allowing the UGA offense less than 300 total yards. The front seven combined for eight tackles for loss, including four sacks. Bam Hardmon came back to his hometown Jacksonville and finished the game with 12 tackles. The most memorable play of the game was Guss Scott's 47-yard interception return of a DJ Shockley pass. Shockley, who would come in for a few series a game, would see his last action on that play as Scott broke on the ball and went untouched for the score.

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