Failed play dooms UF in Outback

Published: Thursday, January 2, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 2, 2003 at 2:57 a.m.
Enlarge |

Florida linebacker Mike Nattiel can't stop Michigan running back Chris Perry from scoring his second touchdown in the Wolverines' 38-30 win over the Gators Wednesday.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun
TAMPA - Rex Grossman dreamed out loud earlier in the week about a possible storybook ending Wednesday, a late touchdown pass, a heroic play in the final seconds, a miraculous comeback that would write a positive conclusion to this sometimes unexplainable season.
And, sure enough, there he found himself in the early afternoon on New Year's Day, squinting into the bright Florida sun, focusing on that storybook finish he'd been hoping for. It was sitting out there, only 27 yards away, with a little more than a minute to play.
Then, almost inexplicably, the Florida Gators took the ball out of his hands - and a possible grand ending turned into another agonizing defeat for Grossman and the No. 22 Gators (8-5) and a satisfying 38-30 victory for No. 12 Michigan (10-3) in the Outback Bowl.
Florida's last-minute hopes were vanquished when backup wide receiver Vernell Brown, who had been on the field for only a few plays, took the ball on a reverse and threw a desperation pass intended for Grossman that was intercepted by Michigan linebacker Victor Hobson, sealing UF's fate with 54 seconds remaining.
The trick play - on first-and-10 from the UM 27 - was called by offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher and reluctantly approved by first-year head coach Ron Zook.
"I questioned it as soon as it came up," Zook said. "But hindsight is 20-20. If you could go back and change calls there would be no game. If I could go back and say, 'No, we can't do that,' we would have done it.
"I OK'd that call. When it was brought up earlier in the drive I made a statement, 'Are we sure we want to do that, we're moving the football.' Sometimes when you do plays like that they work and sometimes they don't."
This one failed badly.
With Michigan playing man-to-man defense in the secondary, it left the Wolverines without a defender to account for Grossman if he slipped downfield for a pass. Grossman, after handing the ball to Keiwan Ratliff coming around the right side, drifted downfield as Ratliff then handed the ball off to Brown, a former high school quarterback, on an apparent reverse.
Brown then stopped and looked down the left sideline for Grossman, who was open, but three UM defenders were about to sack Brown and he threw the ball weakly up for grabs.
Hobson grabbed it. Game over.
"Sometimes it works," Grossman said. "It works every day in practice. It needed to be thrown a little bit quicker, but he got pressure. It's a risky call, but you can get some big rewards, too.
"I knew we were going to run it in the game. I kind of wanted to run it. I like fun plays, but this time it didn't work out."
Maybe this was the appropriate way to end it, given the questionable decisions and missed opportunities that have come to define the 2002 Gators.
Certainly, the Gators will carry some troubling questions into the postseason.
Why did Florida try a trick play looking for two points after scoring a touchdown to take a 13-7 lead early in the second quarter? The two-point attempt - a run by Ran Carthon - was stopped inches short and that one point missed came back to haunt the Gators the rest of the afternoon.
"If everything goes as it should, it's two points," Zook said. "We had three options there. It was there, but we took too long to get it off."
Why didn't Zook elect to go for two after Grossman threw a 33-yard TD pass to Ratliff early in the third quarter that put the Gators up 22-21? Two points would have given the Gators a three-point lead.
"It was still early in the game, and I just thought we were better off kicking the extra point," Zook said.
Why did the Gators attempt a reverse on a kickoff later the quarter that failed and pinned UF on its own 7-yard line? After a quick three-and-out and a poor punt, the Wolverines had the ball on the Gator 32 and scored two plays later on a 12-yard run by bowl MVP Chris Perry to take a 35-23 lead.
"Plays like that can't happen," Zook said. "Our guy just missed his block."
Despite the many missed opportunities, the Gators rolled up 506 total yards (323 by the passing arm of Grossman) and made a nice comeback to get back into the game in the fourth quarter.
UF made it a 35-30 game with 8:21 remaining on a 3-yard pass from Grossman to tight end Aaron Walker.
Michigan had a chance to put the game away on its next possession, but had to settle for a 33-yard field goal by Adam Finley, leaving the Gators a touchdown and two-point conversion from tying the game with 2:20 to play.
On the following possession, two plays gave the Gators the ball at their own 44, then a 6-yard run by Grossman, ending with a 15-yard roughness penalty on the Wolverines, put it on the UM 37.
On the next play, Grossman threw a 10-yard pass to Jacobs, who ran out of bounds on the 27 with a little more than a minute to play.
Then came the call that will be second-guessed for years to come.
When asked why the coaching staff would then take the ball out of Grossman's hands, Zook said: "Good point. Actually we were going to put the ball back in Rex's hands."
But it never got there. Not even close.
You can reach Robbie Andreu by e-mail at andreur@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5022.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top