Rivalry with UM helps Gators overcome distractions

Nearly a month has gone by since the Florida Gators were carrying Ron Zook off the field after a 20-13 heart-pounder of a win over the Florida State Seminoles in Tallahassee, and in the weeks that have followed, so much has changed for the Gators, who are Peach Bowl bound for a December 31 showdown with the Miami Hurricanes.

The Gators have a new coach, Urban Meyer, but he won't be coaching Florida in the bowl game. That's because he'll be coaching undefeated Utah in its BCS game against Big East champion Pittsburgh. Meyer's got a new staff, but half of them will be in Utah, the next couple of weeks, preparing the Utes for their showdown game. Florida's got its staff intact with the exception of Zook, who's now the coach at Illinois. Three members of the current staff (Joe Wickline, Larry Fedora and Dan Disch) will be going to Illinois with Zook. Mike Locksley, the Gators running back coach and recruiting coordinator, is staying on Meyer's staff along with defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, who will serve as Florida's head coach for the bowl game.

With the Gators in such a transition, they took to the practice field to begin their preparations for the Peach Bowl Friday afternoon. It was a different scenario with so many coaches in a state of transition, but with the opponent the in-state rival Hurricanes, Strong is hoping that the rivalry will help his team overcome the recent distractions.

"It was good that we were able to get everyone back today," said Strong after the Friday workout. "Knowing it is the University of Miami we're playing gives us an edge and we're able to work better."

Strong has tried to keep the focus on the game and not on the many distractions. He and Locksley have been on the road recruiting for Urban Meyer's new Gator staff. Wickline, Fedora and Disch have been recruiting for Zook at Illinois. Coach Bill Miller has been weighing several options including joining Zook at Illinois. Coach Dwayne Dixon has several feelers out as does Ed Zaunbrecher. Red Anderson is expected to remain in some capacity with the UF athletic administration.

All the running around and in so many directions has made the job that Strong faces difficult, but he says the coaches have all pulled together, all united with the common goal of beating Miami and representing the University of Florida well.

"We've put all that [distractions] aside," said Strong. "Our coaches are professionals. We started something here and we want to finish it. We are still employed by the University of Florida and we understand what we have to do. I know they'll prepare our players to get ready to play.

As for motivating the players, Strong said, "Just being the University of Miami, you don't have to do much. We're motivated to play and I'm glad it's Miami." Strong said that in his capacity as head coach, he's leaving the leading offense in the Southeastern Conference alone, and instead he's going about business as usual with the defense. While there has been some speculation that Strong might use this game as a laboratory to instill some of the principles he will be using next year with the Gators when the defensive philosophy will change under Meyer, Strong says that the Gators will just focus on doing the things they've tried to do all season at a higher rate of efficiency.

"It's hard to change the whole system for just one game," said Strong. "We have a good system in place. Now we just have to go execute it."

Miami's offense hasn't changed much since the Hurricanes came from 23 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Gators, 38-33, in 2003. The personnel is different in many areas, but that's about the only thing. Miami still has a philosophy to balance the offense, pounding the ball between the tackles, then throwing downfield when the chance arises.

"Our key thing is we have to play hard," said Strong. "They like to run the football so it's a game of toughness. The thing that concerns me most about Miami is the way they run the football. We have to contain Brock Berlin and not give him the big play. He does a good job of throwing the ball down the field."

Wickline said that his mission in the next few days will be to get the timing and rhythm back for his offensive line. The month off may have taken away some of the edge the Gators had at the end of the year, but Wickline thinks the motivation of playing Miami and the enthusiasm his linemen have to end this season on a high note will help overcome the obstacles.

"Our guys have got a chance to do something special," said Wickline. "We've got a chance to end the year by beating Florida State and Miami back to back and that's not been done too many times if ever. We've got a chance to play a good game against the University of Miami in the Peach Bowl and they're exciteda bout it. They've been bouncing around, asking questions, getting themselves ready to play. They want to get after it and we're all excited about it."

CROWDER WATCH: Sophomore linebacker Channing Crowder continues to be the center of speculation that he will be joining tailback Ciatrick Fason as an early entry into the National Football League draft. Crowder says that nothing is certain at this point.

"I did put my paperwork in to see where I'll go," said Crowder, "but I'm not thinking about that just yet. I'm just having fun enjoying college and trying to get ready to beat Miami."

He says the decision will be made with a lot of input from his mom, and while the lure of NFL dollars may be there, it's not all about the money.

"If I'm first round it's one thing, but I also know if I come back here next year I'll be the premier linebacker in the country, so there are a bunch of pros and cons both ways," he said. "We'll sit down and talk about it. There's no clear cut decision right now."

He's doing the best he can to keep his focus squarely on Miami. He's well aware of the intensity of the rivalry and how a win would make the season special.

"I don't care if you played at Florida ten years ago or a hundred years from now, it's Miami," he said. "Only a couple of times we've beaten them the same year so we can do that."

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