Bloomin' blowout

Iowa routs listless Gators in Outback Bowl stunner

Florida quarterback Chris Leak is sacked by Iowa defensive lineman Howard Hodges in the fourth quarter of the Gators' 37-17 loss in the Outback Bowl on Thursday.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, January 2, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 2, 2004 at 12:13 a.m.

TAMPA - Even back when the Gators had reason to get a little giddy over their success at turning their season around, Florida coach Ron Zook tried to tone down the optimism with a hint of harsh reality.

This team, he warned, still was only 60 minutes away from being right back where it had been when it was 3-3.

The Gators, he said, were one bad performance, one loss, away from feeling the same wrath of their own fans and the brutal criticism from the media and the experts they were bombarded with in the wake of the home loss to Ole Miss.

Well, here they are.

No. 17 Florida's glorious comeback season came to an inglorious end on the first day of 2004, with a 37-17 butt-kicking at the hands of No. 13 Iowa in the Outback Bowl on Thursday before 65,372 at Raymond James Stadium.

"I felt we were prepared. I felt we had great practices, but we didn't play well," Zook said. "I apologize to the Gator fans. It's my responsibility to get this football team ready to play and we weren't ready to play today."

The Gators (8-5) were dominated in all phases and failed to put up much of a fight after falling behind in the second quarter.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the day came after the futile performance, when at least two UF players (senior guard Shannon Snell and freshman outside linebacker Channing Crowder) questioned the effort of some of their teammates. Snell implied some of the seniors didn't play hard. Two seniors (All-American cornerback Keiwan Ratliff and strong safety Guss Scott) were suspended from the first quarter by Zook for missing curfew Monday night, but no one blamed the distracted performance on Ratliff and Scott.

"I just don't think we were focused," Snell said. "We weren't executing. It didn't seem like a whole lot of people were ready to play. Whenever that happens, you don't have much of a chance. When it's your last game . . . you've got to let it all go. I think some of the guys didn't let it all hang out. Guys were talking (about that) on the sideline. Hopefully, these younger guys will learn from this and will know what to do next time.

"It was one of those games that's just weird. You don't know what's going on."

Crowder said the intensity and effort obviously were missing on defense, where the Gators were gutted for 238 yards rushing, 150 by bowl MVP Fred Russell. Overall, the Hawkeyes (10-3) piled up 408 yards of total offense and pushed the UF defense around for most of the afternoon.

"It's terrible. I don't think we were prepared," Crowder said. "I think some guys might not have wanted to be out there on both teams. You could see it. There wasn't any intensity and a lot of guys might not have wanted to be out there. I don't know what happened.

"When someone loses focus and his teammates lose confidence in him, it goes downhill from there. We weren't excited. Everyone wasn't running around, jumping around and acting stupid like we always do. I really don't know what caused it. It hurts. I'm mad. It's hard to lose. I'm a winner and a competitor."

Overall, the Gators didn't compete very well against the big, fast and physical Hawkeyes, who dominated both lines of scrimmage and also blocked an Eric Wilbur punt for a touchdown.

For most of the day, the Gators seemed overmatched and out-coached.

The reaction to the performance out there in Gatorland likely will be brutal in the coming days and months.

For some reason, the Gators saved their worst performance of the year for last. Certainly, the early losses to Miami, Tennessee and Ole Miss pale in comparison to this total abomination.

UF had a chance to win those games - and the FSU game at the end of the season - but this one was over at the half after the Gators were physically overwhelmed by the Hawkeyes and found themselves in a 20-7 hole.

It might as well have been 40-7.

After Wilbur's punt was blocked and recovered by Matt Melloy for a touchdown on the first possession of the second half, there was no doubt about the outcome. By the end of the third quarter, UF fans were streaming toward the exits.

"It's very disappointing," said senior wide receiver Kelvin Kight, whose 70-yard touchdown in the first quarter gave the Gators an early 7-0 lead. "The seniors wanted to win and go out with a bang. We wanted to win this game for coach Zook. He was saying this year's team is better than last year's, but the record doesn't prove it. Everybody knows this is a better team.

"We just didn't get it done today. There's no reason for it. We just got beat. They were a better team today. We don't want to make any excuses. We just didn't play the game we were supposed to and they were the better team today."

The Gators find themselves right back where they were a year ago - 8-5 after back-to-back losses and heading into the offseason with nagging questions about exactly where this program is and where it's headed.

With Steve Spurrier now unemployed, there will be a great deal of speculation flying around about the program and Zook.

After the loss, the players were showing their support for Zook.

"Recruiting is starting to start up and that's Zook's big thing," Crowder said.

"He's more than a recruiter, he's a great coach. He's out there interacting with everybody. He came in so late his first year, so this season was really like his first. That's the way I look at it. Next year will be like the second and he's going to take off with all the young talent.

"This loss is terrible, but it's bittersweet because now everybody is hungry. Next season starts now. We have to work hard and make sure this doesn't happen next season. I don't see it happening again. Everybody is going to be strong and faster and we're going to be ready to play."

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