Bizarre end to strange season


Published: Thursday, January 2, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 2, 2003 at 1:43 a.m.
Rex Grossman's head hurt.
"I've got a huge headache," he said, "And I'm not sure what the hell is going on right now."
He could have been speaking for the Gator Nation, a confused and befuddled group Wednesday afternoon. With the winner of the Outback Bowl on the line, Florida offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher decided to put the ball in Grossman's hands. Except it would never get there.
A strange season became even more bizarre in Raymond James Stadium. Grossman was on a roll. He had just driven his team 88 yards for a score, a touchdown that came on a bullet pass to tight end Aaron Walker. With 2:10 remaining in the game and trailing by eight points, the Florida quarterback took the field for what may have been the last time.
His final pass of the season was a completion of 10 yards to Taylor Jacobs to put the ball on the Michigan 27. First down, Plenty of time. The pro-Florida crowd had to be wondering what the call would be on the two-point play.
Then came the bizarre, the punctuation mark on this season.
An end-around-reverse pass. Diminutive Vernell Brown took the handoff from Keiwan Ratliff. Immediately, he was in trouble. Pressured back near the 50, Brown threw the ball up for grabs. Michigan's Victor Hobson grabbed it and the game was over.
Gentlemen, start your hindsight.
"I OK'd the call," Florida coach Ron Zook said.
The question is why. Why, when Florida had already amassed 506 yards, did Zaunbrecher feel the need for a trick play? Why did Zook, who questioned it and you got the feeling after the game almost rejected it, let it go?
Told Zook almost vetoed the play, outspoken left guard Shannon Snell said, "I wish he had. I wish I had jumped offsides. To lose the game on a trick play, that hurts. Sometimes you wonder what the coaches are thinking."
It's not like Florida needed something fancy to move the ball. The Gators already had 28 first downs. They were averaging six yards a play. Grossman, after a shaky start, was showing pro scouts everywhere why he would be a steal if he does decide to come out.
Instead, you wonder if a play call like this one will make his decision easier.
"We should have lined up and hit them in the mouth like we did the whole game," Snell said. "There's no reason to have Rex trying to catch the ball."
Zook's explanation was simple. Michigan had been playing a lot of man defense which means nobody is accountable for the quarterback. Brown, who has played little this season, is usually used on reverses.
Makes sense. Must have or it wouldn't have been called. Right? Except that, according to Hobson, Michigan was in a zone.
"I saw it the whole way," he said.
The play never had a chance. Kind of like Zook in his first season as the Florida coach. Every time you think it's starting to work, something like this happens. The tiniest Gator being asked to throw the ball with the game in the balance. The arm that has carried your team being asked to catch it.
Strange.
Typical.
The play, Zook said, is a twist on another reverse the Gators have used.
"Except we added special to it," he said.
Special it was not.
Grossman thought it might be. He had visions of sprinting to the end zone dancing in his head when the play came in. But the way he was playing, why not check out of it?
"I would have, except the pass was going to me," he said. "I thought it was a gutsy call."
Instead, the guts of this team were spilled all over the field. Certainly, you could make the argument that we have blasted the UF offense for not being innovative this season, for not running enough crazy plays.
But we're in the hindsight business.
It just wasn't the time. Not the way the offense was playing.
What were they thinking?
Why take the ball out of the hands of your best player?
"It's a good point," Zook said. "Actually, we were going to put the ball in Rex's hands. But that's a good question."
Add it to the list. We all have a thick notebook full of them. For the season, for the season's final game.
Like, why did the Gators try a tricky two-point conversion in the second quarter with a 13-7 lead and all of the game's momentum?
And why didn't they go for two later in the game up a point?
And why did they try a reverse on a kickoff return that eventually set up a Michigan touchdown?
And, oh, yes, what happened to the defense?
Some of you will blame it on John Thompson, say that the defensive coordinator obviously was distracted by his impending move to East Carolina. In truth, the Gators ran up against a pretty good team that adjusted to Florida's ability to stop the run by stretching the field. And Florida's defense, which played so well for most of the season, has been abysmal in its last two games.
It doesn't totally explain 423 yards and 38 points, but it's a start.
The rest of it, like this season, is inexplicable. Strange.
Bizarre.
But maybe a fitting way to wrap it up.
You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at dooleyp@gvillesun.com 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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