A solid opening


Florida fans cheer as UF coach Ron Zook leads his team onto Florida Field on Saturday.

DEDE SMITH/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, September 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, September 1, 2002 at 12:30 a.m.

The shoes fit nicely for Ron Zook.

So did the cooler of water dumped on his head as the clock ran down.

The new Florida football coach saw his team kick off the 2002 season in grand style Saturday, beating Alabama-Birmingham 51-3 as an opening-day-record crowd of 85,575 watched at The Swamp.

Not much changed after all.

Like his predecessor Steve Spurrier in his 1990 opener, Zook saw his no-huddle offense need exactly five plays to score a touchdown. Years from now, the trivia answer will be Earnest Graham.

Graham's 3-yard run was the first score of the Zook Era, set up by a 59-yard pass from Rex Grossman to Taylor Jacobs on the game's first play.

It was almost eerie. Spurrier's first win at UF was a 50-7 thrashing of Oklahoma State. Zook's first game was 51-3. Hmmm.

"Overall, it was a great team win," Zook said. "Obviously, it feels good to win. I told my brother when he dropped me at the hotel, 'I just hope we can win this game.' "

Florida led only 7-0 after one quarter, but Ran Carthon scored two plays into the second. The third touchdown came on what can be considered an example of the new coaching philosophy. The Gators hurried to the line, catching the UAB defense flat-footed, and Graham ran around right end for 21 yards and the score.

Grossman threw two touchdown passes to Jacobs as the Gators showed that the new coaching staff is hardly going away from the pass.

But Florida ran as well. In addition to his scoring jaunt, Graham had runs of 50 and 63 yards and finished with a career-high 182 yards on 13 carries.

"This is a big-play offense," Zook said. "We've said that from day one."

New coordinator John Thompson's defense showed the unorthodox blitzes he had been promising, limiting UAB to 117 yards in the first half and only a field goal for the game.

Grossman launched his Heisman campaign by throwing for 337 yards in only three quarters. Florida finished the game with 643 total yards. The final score was the largest margin of victory ever for a Florida coach in his first game. Nobody got hurt.

All in all, it was the opening night the Gator Nation wanted to see, including two fourth-quarter touchdown drives by the second team with Ciatrick Fason and Willie Green running for short-yardage touchdowns.

Zook even endeared himself to the crowd by twice going for it on fourth down in the final quarter.

And as the game ended, those who stayed began chanting, "Zook! Zook! Zook!"

"I'm glad the first game's over," Zook said.

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