Gators QB Chris Leak fumbles the ball in the second quarter, leading to a field goal by FSU.
Zook and his players react to a missed field-goal attempt in the third quarter.
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
FSU CB Bryant McFadden intercepts a pass intended for Florida WR Jemalle Cornelius in the second quarter.
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
TALLAHASSEE - It had gained a reputation as a defense that would fold and collapse, giving late leads and victories away seemingly with ease.
Last minute losses to Tennessee, LSU and Mississippi State had given Florida an image it was desperate to shed: loser in the clutch.
Saturday night, the Gators did so in grand style.
Playing against intrastate rival Florida State, the Florida defense cracked a little, bent a bit, even seemed on the verge of collapsing. But ultimately it held on when it was most needed.
The Gators (7-4) walked out of Doak Campbell Stadium having held the No.10 Seminoles to 34 rushing yards in a 20-13 win in front of 84,223.
Florida safety Jarvis Herring intercepted a pass from FSU quarterback Chris Rix with eight seconds remaining to seal the victory.
"That was real big," said freshman safety Kyle Jackson, who had three solo tackles and one assist. "He's a redshirt junior that knows this defense inside and out. And he made a huge play."
Herring, who had seven tackles, had one thought when the ball hit his hands.
"We're going in the record books, and we're taking our coaches with us," he said.
Clearly, this was a defense that has struggled, but Gators coach Ron Zook has insisted it was getting better. Against South Carolina last week, it looked arguably its best all season. Zook reiterated his feelings again after the game.
"We knew they were improving," said Zook, who was fired Oct.25 and was coaching his last regular-season game. "They are getting better. I'm just so proud and happy for them."
From the beginning, Florida's defense was stellar. The Seminoles had not had a first-half touchdown since Oct.16, and the Gators kept that streak alive. Florida held FSU to 88 yards total offense and zero rushing yards in the first half.
"Nobody's ever said anything (good) about our defense, but we stepped up, played hard and made plays when it counted," said freshman linebacker Brandon Siler, who had a team-high eight tackles.
The Gators led 13-3 at halftime, and while the Seminoles had 10 second-half points and 348 yards total offense, Florida's defense held them when it most needed, even without starting linebacker Channing Crowder, who missed his third straight game with a foot injury. The Gators defense had two interceptions and four sacks.
A tumultuous season ended on a high note for Zook.
"I'm just so happy for Ron after everything he's gone through," said Zook's wife, Denise.
ESPN analyst Mike Gottfried added: "Florida might want to seriously think about rehiring Ron Zook."
While that likely won't happen, and despite the season filled with turmoil and controversy, nothing can take away from Saturday night's win.
"This was the biggest win of our season,", senior safety Cory Bailey said. "We had a great one last week against South Carolina and got the chance to beat one of the premier teams in the country tonight."
This is the way Zook wanted this 2004 team to be remembered. As winners.