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College football

Progress comforts Gators

By JOHN ROMANO
Published November 30, 2003

UF-FSU photo gallery

GAINESVILLE - The regular season had played itself out, and there was nothing a Florida fan could do but measure its progress.

In this case, by counting the villains.

There was the officiating crew, which was chased from the field with insults and debris.

And there were the Florida State players, who dared to dance on the wrong side of discretion.

There was pique and there was ire. There was lots of outrage and a fair amount of frustration. And none of it was aimed at the Gators or their coach.

Now that, dear friends, is progress.

Do not take it lightly. Do not misconstrue its significance. For in all the anger directed at the men in stripes and the players in garnet, there was an implicit support for a team that had fallen short once again.

"We were that close to being 9-3," linebacker Channing Crowder said. "If y'all remember, you said we were going to be 3-6."

A game was lost Saturday, but a season was salvaged. For a team that once was on the fringe of disaster. For a coach who has forever been on the edge of disappointment. For a quarterback who showed the promise of better days.

The Gators are 8-4 today. The same record they took out of last season. Yet this time it looks different. Somehow, this one feels better.

A cynic might say it is because expectations have been lowered that quickly under Ron Zook. A skeptic might point out Florida has not lost this many games in consecutive seasons since the 1980s.

But there is no disputing the three consecutive victories against ranked opponents in the middle of the season. And there is no way you could have watched Saturday's game and not have appreciated the heart of this team.

Florida had go-ahead scores four times, including twice in the final eight minutes. It overcame the disappointment of Tennessee's victory earlier in the day - which knocked the Gators out of contention for the SEC Championship game - and it almost survived a surreal ratio of disputed calls.

Yes, when it was done, Florida had missed another conference title. It missed a major bowl and, more than likely, a spot in the nation's top 10.

But it did earn hope.

You watch Chris Leak play and already are making mental notes of future memories. FSU did everything it could to keep the game out of the hands of Chris Rix, a three-year starter. Florida decided, very early, it would be won or lost by its freshman quarterback.

"Chris has come a long way," Zook said, "for a young man who was riding yellow buses six or eight months ago."

Leak is not there yet. In the end, it was Rix who authored a winning drive. Leak directed two fourth-quarter comebacks but could not manage a third.

Given a final chance, with 55 seconds and 69 yards to go, Leak finally looked his age. He completed 1-of-4. He kept trying to run when he should have stayed put. On the final play, with the Gators needing 50 yards, Leak tried to make it himself on a scramble.

He was tackled at the 18.

"When I saw him take off, I was hoping he would make it. But I saw all the guys in front of him," receiver Andre Caldwell said. "It broke my heart."

Of course there will be those who say Leak should never have been in this predictament. That the Gators had the game won if not for ACC officials.

Perhaps there is some validity to that. There were a half-dozen close plays involving fumbles, and FSU got the benefit of every call.

"It was bull----," said senior guard Shannon Snell of Tampa. "The game shouldn't be decided by the referee. The referee absolutely s------ us.

"They deserved (to have bottles thrown at them). They absolutely deserved it, and I'm standing by that statement. I have tremendous respect for Florida State. They didn't play cheap the way the refs called the game."

You might share Snell's anger, but it is difficult to support his premise. There were questionable calls. Maybe even a couple of blown calls.

But did you agree with Kellen Winslow Jr. a few weeks back? Do you justify Snell's rage by claiming it is more deserving?

The referees did not allow Rix to complete a fourth-and-14 pass or allow a winning pass more than half the length of the field.

Florida lost because it fell a few plays short. The officials may have been responsible for one or two of those, but not all of them.

In the coming days, emotions should evolve. The anger will turn to frustration. The frustration to regret. And, eventually, the regret should be replaced by hope.

Hope in a team that did not give up in October and did not go down quietly in November. Hope in a quarterback who may become the best this program has known. Hope in a coach who has not always generated such optimism.

How far will that hope take you?

Perhaps, by next season, another 18 yards.

[Last modified November 30, 2003, 01:16:37]


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