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Florida let opportunity go by

The Gators had perhaps their best chance to end a drought.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 1, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- Call it the golden opportunity that turned into a goose egg.

If ever there was a time when Florida could go into Doak Campbell Stadium and end a 16-year drought with a win over Florida State, Saturday night seemed to be it.

The 15th-ranked Gators entered the game with nearly everything in their favor. Florida was on a four-game winning streak and coming off a bye week.

The No. 23 Seminoles were coming off an upset loss to North Carolina State. They were in the midst of controversy following the dismissal earlier in the week of quarterback Adrian McPherson -- who had started the last four games.

Florida coach Ron Zook made his players off-limits to the media all week so they wouldn't be affected by outside distractions.

Ultimately, none of that mattered.

Florida State kept its home winning streak alive over Florida with a 31-14 victory, leaving the Gators with four losses this season and several weeks before a bowl game to ponder what went wrong.

How bad were things for the Gators?

With four seconds remaining, offensive linemen Jonathan Colon and Mo Mitchell attempted to leave the field, but were forced to return by Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.

"This hurts," Florida coach Ron Zook said. "They were the better team tonight."

By far.

It was as if the Gators were thrown into a time machine and sent back to midseason, when they struggled in every area.

Florida quarterback Rex Grossman was 24-of-47 for 303 yards, one interception and just one touchdown.

After holding opponents without a touchdown for 12 quarters, Florida gave up four, along with 419 total yards. The Gators' passing defense, ranked third in the nation, allowed quarterback Chris Rix to demonstrate why he was once the undisputed starter. Rix threw for 194 yards (13-of-29), but also rushed for 83 on 14 carries.

"It was like he came out and was playing like a preseason Heisman candidate," Florida cornerback Keiwan Ratliff said. "He just came out and let us have it."

Florida managed to run up 386 yards, but it didn't translate into points. Florida had to settle for two field goals in the first half inside the red zone.

"It's really tough to lose to these guys, especially the way we did," safety Guss Scott said. "Especially here."

Grossman, who threw for eight interceptions in two games earlier this season, entered the game having attempted a career-long streak of 95 passes without an interception.

His lone interception Saturday, tipped by tight end Aaron Walker, was returned for a touchdown.

For the Gators, there were few bright spots, among them running back Earnest Graham, who rushed for 82 yards on 17 carries. Graham rushed for 37 yards on his first four carries, but Florida State adjusted and was able to keep the running game contained.

When the game ended, the Florida players walked slowly off the field, many staring in disbelief at the scoreboard. This wasn't the way they planned to have the regular season end.

"We didn't play the kind of football game I thought we would," Zook said.

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