Gators grilled in Outback


University of Florida coach Ron Zook reacts as things continue to go downhill during second half action in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Thursday.

ALAN YOUNGBLOOD/Ocala Star-Banner
Published: Friday, January 2, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 11:18 p.m.

TAMPA - Happy New Year. Same as the old year.

The Florida football team ended a season of promise with a game to forget Thursday at the Outback Bowl, a 37-17 loss to No. 12 Iowa that left the No. 17 Gators with the same 8-5 record of a year ago.

How bad was it? So bad that Florida head coach Ron Zook felt he had to apologize to the Gator Nation.

"I felt like we were prepared but we didn't play like it," Zook said. "It's my responsibility and I apologize to the Gator fans. I'm surprised that we didn't play a lot better."

It was Florida's second straight loss in the Outback Bowl and left the players who had been in so many tight games this season numb following the debacle.

"Even in my worst nightmares, I couldn't have imagined anything like that," said senior Max Starks.

Florida actually got off to a good start when Chris Leak found Kelvin Kight open behind the Iowa defense for the longest touchdown pass in the bowl game's history, a 70-yarder that put Florida up 7-0.

But the Hawkeyes, who finished the season 10-3, came right back with a 63-yard touchdown drive.

They took the lead on a Nate Kaeding field goal, added a touchdown run on a 5-yard bootleg run by quarterback Nathan Chandler and added another field goal for a 20-7 halftime lead.

After Florida's first drive of the second half stalled, Eric Wilbur's punt was blocked by Matt Melloy. After Wilbur missed on an attempt to kick the ball out of the end zone, Melloy recovered for an Iowa touchdown.

Florida finally showed some signs of life with two long drives, but one ended in a field goal and the other in no points after Dallas Baker's circus catch for a score was nullified because he pushed off to get in position.

Fred Russell, the Most Valuable Player of the game with 150 rushing yards, scored on a 34-yard run late in the third quarter that sealed the deal. Florida did get a late touchdown on a 25-yard Leak-to-Baker pass, but by then most of the Gator fans had left the building.

"At Florida, 8-5 is terrible," said freshman linebacker Channing Crowder. "I don't plan on it next year."

You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at dooleyp@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5053.

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