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Tuesday, October 12, 2004
Last-minute loss turns Gators into SEC longshots

Associated Press

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida's latest loss has affected coach Ron Zook more than any other.

Zook said Tuesday he has struggled to eat and sleep since Saturday's 24-21 home loss to LSU, which all but eliminated the 22nd-ranked Gators (3-2) from the Southeastern Conference title chase.

The eternally optimistic coach said his reaction to the latest loss was worse than normal. It was Florida's fifth loss in the final two minutes over the last two years.

"Every loss affects you," he said. "It's our livelihood. It's what we do. That's what we're judged on. ... I know we're not winning. We've got to win. I'm not ducking that and I took responsibility."

The Gators led 21-17 with about two minutes to play Saturday, but the Tigers drove 50 yards for the go-ahead score with little resistance.

The collapse was nothing new for Zook. Florida also blew late leads against Tennessee last month and against Miami, Mississippi and Florida State last year. The team also had two near meltdowns against Arkansas, which rallied against the Gators the last two seasons but couldn't pull out victories.

"Obviously, the thing we've got to do is we've got to get over the hump," said Zook, who is 19-12 in three seasons. "People have a right to be upset. I'm upset. Why? You've got good players and you're in position to win the game. You have to win the game.

"It's just like that neighborhood bully who keeps taking your lunch money. Pretty soon, you're not going to eat and you're going to go hungry. You better stand up and fight back. I really believe our guys are going to do that."

The Gators probably won't have to worry about any bullies this week. Middle Tennessee State (2-3) is 0-7 against ranked teams since joining Division I-A in 1999. The Blue Raiders also are 2-12 against SEC opponents, with both wins coming against lowly Vanderbilt.

The game was supposed to be played as the season opener Sept. 4, but the threat of Hurricane Frances forced it to be postponed.

Probably the best thing Middle Tennessee State could hope for Saturday is to be close at the end. Anything could happen then, especially against the Gators.

"I've spent a lot of time thinking about it," Zook said. "I've spent a lot of hours since the end of that game not sleeping and not eating, thinking about it. I know how close we are, and if I didn't believe in these guys or see it in their eyes and know where they're going, I may be concerned. ... Are we capable of finishing like we're supposed to? Yes. Now we have to do it."

The Gators haven't done it lately.

They led Miami 33-10 in the third quarter last season before losing 38-33 on a touchdown with less than two minutes to play. They led Ole Miss 17-13 at home a few weeks later before giving up a touchdown with about a minute remaining. And then they led Florida State 34-31 in The Swamp before allowing a 52-yard TD pass with 55 seconds to go.

Tennessee scored with even fewer ticks on the clock last month. The Gators punted with 55 seconds remaining, and the Volunteers easily moved into field goal range. James Wilhoit then made a 50-yarder with 6 seconds remaining for a 30-28 victory.

After beating Georgia last week, the Volunteers would need to lose two of their remaining five conference games for Florida to have a shot at the Eastern Division title. Tennessee is 43-2-1 under coach Phillip Fulmer against its remaining opponents -- Ole Miss, Alabama, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

So the Gators are seemingly out of the championship game for the third straight season under Zook. That may have added to his reaction after the latest loss.

"He's hurting," athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "It eats him up. Anybody's who's a competitor and anybody who's got pride, it eats them up. I honestly believe, like he's told you a thousand times, that he feels this team is close. But obviously they've got to bust the door down now. No excuses. Just go do it.

"He has a passion to do that, and obviously you're going to have confidence that he can get that done."