Frustrating UF loss sums up sad season
Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 2:16 a.m.
This looked awfully familiar.
Make that awful and familiar.
Doak Campbell Stadium, late in the game. Florida's quarterback dirty and beaten, scrambling for his life against a defense that knows the game is in hand. Florida State defenders doing mock Gator chomps at orange-and-blue clad fans as they left with feelings of hopelessness.
It has happened before to better Florida teams. But it wasn't supposed to happen this year.
Not with FSU a mess. Not with Florida focused.
They were focused, right? No media to mess with, no idle chatter. Nothing to worry about except the Semis.
If this was Florida with a gag order, I guess we'll see the Gators jabbering away in preparation for their future games.
"If I had it to do all over again," Zook said, "I'd do the same thing."
This wasn't the Choke at Doak. More like the Joke at Doak.
There was no way Florida could lose to an FSU team that had been through a week from hell in a season on the brink. OK, there was a way, but not this badly.
You would have thought they would at least show up.
Instead, it was more frustration and you can't spell it without F-S-U.
This was vindication for Chris Rix, the beleaguered FSU quarterback so prone to mistakes his teammates lobbied to have him removed from the lineup. The same fans who booed him were cheering mightily in the third quarter when he slammed into a metal bench after a first down run and came sprinting back to the huddle.
Florida hoped to see the Chris Rix Implosion. Instead, he didn't force things, didn't make any big errors. When he was flushed out of the pocket, he threw the ball out of bounds instead of into Gator arms. He didn't fumble.
And he made his biggest plays when Florida finally showed some life and drove for a touchdown and a two-point conversion to cut the FSU lead to 10. Rix led the Seminoles on what was in essence a 90-yard scoring drive after a holding penalty backed FSU to its own 10.
The biggest of those plays was his 17-yard run on second-and-20 on the last play of the third quarter. He closed out the drive with three straight completions for 67 yards, including a 19-yarder to Anquan Boldin for the touchdown.
For a night, Rix was the quarterback FSU fans hoped he'd be this season.
It was also vindication for Bobby Bowden, who may not remember his players' names but certainly hasn't forgotten how to beat Florida at home.
"It's mighty satisfying," Bowden said. "I don't know how long it's been since I felt like we needed a win this badly."
His season is salvaged. Ron Zook's remains a mystery.
How do you win in Knoxville and Jacksonville and still lose three of your games by a combined 71 points? How does a team come within one play of an SEC East crown and finish a distant third in its home state?
A sheet hung over the railing at Doak Campbell Stadium read "Save The Season, Beat The Gators."
The opposite could have been said for Florida. A win Saturday night could have salvaged the disappointment that came with falling just short of Atlanta, that came with two bad losses at home.
But that didn't happen and the Gator Nation is left with a sour taste that can't be expunged by an inconsequential bowl game.
And it leaves you wondering if the Gators can ever win in Tallahassee again.
After all, the Seminoles were reeling from four losses and the suspension of their starting quarterback. They were down to their third-team tailback.
And this wasn't about this being an intimidating place to play. Not on Saturday night. There was no electricity, no white noise, especially not early in the game. The FSU fans had about the same enthusiasm they might have for a game against Duke. They feared the worst because they have seen this team play all season.
This was about FSU just outplaying Florida. Moreover, it was about Florida not playing well.
The Seminoles had their problems, including using all three first-half timeouts in the first 10 minutes - two because they had too many players on the field and one because they didn't have enough. They dropped a handful of passes.
But the Gators trumped every FSU mistake.
They moved the ball in the first 30 minutes, but failed to score a touchdown in the opening half for the first time this season. The defense, which has carried this team throughout this season, had no answer for FSU's offense. It turns out that the best thing that happened to FSU was a blank check.
Rix hurt the Gators by running the ball and forced defensive coordinator John Thompson away from his game plan to blitz the Seminole quarterback and force him to make mistakes. Instead, he made big plays.
And Florida did not.
This was Florida against LSU. This was Florida against Miami. Special teams mistakes, penalties, gift touchdowns.
More than anything, this was Florida in Tallahassee.
All season long, this has been a difficult team to figure out. That was never more true than Saturday night.
You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 374-5053. You can hear Pat on the radio Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "The Pat Dooley Show" on WTMN "The Team" AM-1430.
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