Saturday, November 16, 2002

Gators again contenders after sticking with Zook

College football notebook

The Associated Press

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - When things were going bad at Florida this season, seniors such as Todd Johnson and Earnest Graham could have turned on new coach Ron Zook. They didn't.

"They haven't ever come in and said, `Coach, we've won a lot of games doing it this way.' And they could have," Zook said.

Zook believes that's a big reason the No. 20 Gators still will have a chance at the Southeastern Conference East title today when they play South Carolina in the last home game for their 15 seniors.

If Florida (7-3, 5-2 SEC) defeats South Carolina (5-5, 3-4) and Auburn beats Georgia, the Gators will earn their eighth trip to the SEC title game in 11 seasons.

Then all the criticism of Zook will be muted, and the seniors will see the payoff for believing in a new system that not all fans have liked and not all players have adapted to easily.

"People don't like change, and that's just human nature," Graham said. "But most people like it when you win. Hopefully, we can go out this year winners and play in the SEC championship game. People can't complain about that."

Graham has struggled as the season has progressed. Florida's goal of playing more power football and running more has been put aside because of problems with the offensive line.

Still, the senior from Fort Myers has little to complain about. He has 802 yards rushing this season, a career high, and is fifth on Florida's career rushing list. He needs five more touchdowns to tie Emmitt Smith for the school record.

His rushing average has dropped to 3.5 yards per carry in the last five games, but Graham says he's still happy he stayed, and happy with the new coach.

"Sometimes you get frustrated because you have certain expectations that don't work out," he said. "But you've got to look at the positive."

On defense, the Gators have done everything they can to allow Johnson to continue as the big playmaker. He has nine interceptions and eight fumble recoveries in four years.

Asked why the seniors stayed behind their coach, Johnson said: "We took the road that may not have been the easiest, but the road that was best for this team, especially for the young guys."

When he was hired, Zook scored a major public-relations coup when senior receiver Taylor Jacobs decided to return.

Seniors Aaron Walker, Mike Nattiel, Bam Hardmon, Bryan Savelio and David Jorgensen have all been key starters, and have bought into a system that hasn't always worked.

Truthfully, Zook needed their confidence more than they needed his, and that's why the coach actually got teary this week when asked what their support means to him.

"I know I didn't recruit them, but in a 10-month period of time, I've gotten pretty close to these guys," he said. "And to see them hang in there and fight. I mean, I want it for these guys."

SACRAMENTO STATE: The Big Sky Conference reprimanded four defensive linemen who greased their jerseys for a game against Montana last week but did not suspend them. The players - Brad Osterhout, Bilal Watkins, Ben Fox and Eric Broden - can play against Weber State today.

FEMALE KICKER: An appeals court threw out a $2 million award in a lawsuit filed by former Duke kicker Heather Sue Mercer, ruling punitive damages are not available in private actions brought to enforce Title IX, the law that bars sex discrimination in education programs receiving federal funds.

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Tressel flashes lengthy resume
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After first loss, Sooners set sights on smaller goals
Gators again contenders after sticking with Zook
Today's Top 25 games

No. 4 Texas 77, No. 16 Georgia 71
No. 18 Marquette 73, Villanova 61
Louisville, Western Kentucky sign hoopsters
After raising school's profile, Knight readies for new season
Irish aiming for third straight tourney berth
Coach K injures hip flexor muscle

Mavericks remain unbeaten
Yao feeling pressure

UC, Miami advance in NCAA soccer

Mogilny burst extends Sabres streak
Gerber's 39 saves leads Ducks

Kings' unbeaten run washed away by C-J
Balance meets option in Div. I
Alter 42, Reading 10
High school football scores

Beechwood 28, Holy Cross 6
Highlands 52, Scott 0
Boone Co. 40, Louisville Eastern 39
LexCath 29, CovCath 27
Trinity 31, Dixie Heights 16
Roncalli 17, East Central 10 (OT)
Mason Co. 49, Lloyd 21
Newport Central Catholic 47, Raceland 7

Mets make serious pitch to Glavine
Cubs hire Baker as manager
Seattle picks former catcher to manage
All-Stars win in Japan

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Jesse Jackson plans protest if Augusta doesn't admit a woman
Hewitt reaches Masters Cup semis
Oracle, Alinghi into America's Cup semis
Stewart outqualifies Martin in NASCAR season finale