Gators hope to end season on stronger note


Published: Monday, December 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 30, 2003 at 11:23 p.m.
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Florida defensive end Bobby McCray talks with a referee about a call in the third quarter Saturday.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
It was a painful ending to a rebound season Saturday night, with Florida falling to arch-rival Florida State in the final seconds, a defeat that leaves the Gators right where they were a year ago, 8-4 and out of the BCS bowl picture.
But this feels like a much different 8-4 than last season's. A much more positive 8-4.
The No. 16 Gators definitely are feeling better about themselves and their season than they were after getting drubbed by the Seminoles 31-14 in last year's showdown in Tallahassee.
At 3-3 after the early October loss to Ole Miss, the Gators rallied to win five consecutive games and capture a share of the SEC's Eastern Division title. The winning streak included victories over LSU and Georgia, Top-10 teams that will be playing in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta on Saturday.
Florida was in a position to close out the season with another big win Saturday in The Swamp and possibly get into the SEC title game, but the Gators couldn't fend off Chris Rix and the No. 9 Seminoles in the closing seconds, and fell 38-34 in a game marred by numerous controversial calls by the officials and a fight among UF and FSU players at midfield after the game.
There were no injuries in the near-riot, and the players were quickly separated by coaches and officials from both schools, along with police officers.
Despite the ugly ending, the Gators come out of it with some significant positives.
Most significant is the fact UF has closed what had appeared to be a wide gap with FSU based on last year's one-sided Seminole win. UF also has closed the gap on its other in-state rival, Miami.
And this is a Florida team that, as the coaches had predicted, improved over the course of the season and had perhaps its best offensive game of the year Saturday night, rolling up 445 total yards against a fast and athletic FSU defense.
Once again, Chris Leak did not perform like a true freshman quarterback, playing with poise and composure in bringing the Gators from behind in the second half and giving UF a 34-31 lead with 2:50 to play on a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ben Troupe. Leak had perhaps the best game of his brief career, completing 22-of-36 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns.
"Chris has come a long way," UF coach Ron Zook said. "He continues to improve."
When the Gators fell to 3-3 on Oct. 4, this was a team that appeared headed for a possible losing season. But the Gators turned it around with three consecutive wins away from home against ranked opponents (LSU, Arkansas and Georgia) and came into the FSU game riding a five-game winning streak.
Even though the streak was snapped, UF played well in many areas and continued to show progress.
Leak and the Gators will have a chance to close the season with a victory in a bowl game, most likely the Jan. 2 Peach Bowl in Atlanta against Clemson, a team that defeated FSU 26-10 on Nov. 8.
After losing to FSU last season, UF followed it with another loss, falling to Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
"We want to finish on a good note this year," Zook said.
Between now and the bowl game, some UF players could be facing possible disciplinary action from Zook for their role in Saturday night's post-game melee.
"I promise you, if any of our guys were involved, it will be handled," Zook said after the game.
Any disciplinary action likely will be handed internally and probably won't include any suspensions from the bowl game.
In the meantime, Zook and his staff will be busy recruiting and trying to sign another top class in February to go along with last year's consensus No. 2 class in the nation.
More than 100 recruits attended Saturday night's game.
You can reach Robbie Andreu by e-mail at andreur@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5022.

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