Gators Taking Zook Off Hook

Times Staff Writer

The headline in The Times said all you needed to know about the Florida Gators and their coach on the overwrought morning of Oct. 5: "Zook in Need of Gator Aid."

Florida was 3-3 overall, 1-2 in Southeastern Conference play after a 20-17 loss to Mississippi. Predictions of further misery for the Gators and Coach Ron Zook were made from the Golden State to the Sunshine State, as a "Give Zook the Hook" movement spread from coast to coast.

The Gators were about to embark on a death march of sorts that featured games at then-No. 6-ranked Louisiana State, No. 8 Arkansas and No. 11 Georgia.

But a funny thing happened on Florida's way to the slag heap and Zook's trip to the unemployment line: the Gators defeated LSU, Arkansas and, on Saturday at the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, Georgia.

Matt Leach's 33-yard field goal with 33 seconds remaining gave the No. 23 Gators a 16-13 victory over the Bulldogs, who had moved to No. 4 but were battered and bruised going into the game.

Florida's victory over Georgia was its 13th in the last 14 meetings, and kept alive the Gators' surging hopes for the SEC championship. The Gators are 6-3, 4-2 and tied with Georgia and Tennessee atop the SEC East.

If the teams win the remainder of their conference games, they would finish in a three-way tie, with the winner determined by -- if you can believe this -- a vote of conference athletic directors.

At the moment, Florida appears to be the strongest of the three, having won three consecutive games.

Georgia's list of injured players grew longer when leading rusher Tyson Browning and defensive lineman Gerald Anderson were sidelined by knee injuries.

No. 19 Tennessee was less than impressive in needing 14 points in the fourth quarter to pull away for a 23-6 victory over Duke (2-7).

"I said at the beginning of the year that we'd be a football team that improved as the year went on," Zook said. "We've pushed these guys, and I've warned them that we're not done pushing."

Meanwhile, in the SEC West, a 43-40 Ole Miss victory over South Carolina gave the Rebels a 5-0 conference record for the first time since 1963, when they last won the league title.

Mississippi's next games are against Auburn and LSU, its closest challengers in the standings, and the Rebels will have to be better than they were in almost squandering a 43-14 third-quarter lead against the Gamecocks.

Charging Wolverines

In the immortal words of former Raider cliche-mangler Lester Hayes, the Michigan Wolverines are "Backed up against the driver's seat," and "In control of their own destination."

No. 11 Michigan, which routed Purdue last week, defeated No. 9 Michigan State, 27-20, moving into first place with a 5-1 Big Ten Conference record.

If the Wolverines defeat Northwestern in two weeks and Ohio State on Nov. 22, they will go to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1997, when they won the national championship.

And if the Wolverines win the conference title, many people will point to their rally from a 28-7 deficit to start the fourth quarter against Minnesota as their season's turning point.

Michigan State, 4-1 in the Big Ten, needs victories against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State to clinch a share of its first conference championship since 1990.

"You're not going to be Big Ten champions unless you're state champions," Michigan's Dave Pearson said after the visiting team won the Wolverine-Spartan game for only the second time in 12 years.

Mack the Knife

With his No. 16 Texas Longhorns ahead by two touchdowns against No. 12 Nebraska, Coach Mack Brown abruptly replaced running quarterback Vince Young with passing quarterback Chance Mock for the final two drives of the first half.

Mock had a pass intercepted at the Nebraska one with 30 seconds to play, no doubt prompting Longhorn fans to recall painful memories of Brown's mismanagement of Major Applewhite and Chris Simms.

Texas overcame Brown's poor decision-making Saturday, with Young gaining 163 yards and scoring one touchdown and Cedric Benson rushing for 174 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-7 victory.

The Longhorns talked tough at game's end, with Brown saying any notion of Texas being soft after losses against Arkansas and Oklahoma was nonsense.

"I don't think anybody will question it today," Brown said. "When you hold Nebraska to 53 yards rushing, that's phenomenal.... I haven't seen us play this good in a long time."

Right, coach, that's because your Longhorns were getting hammered by the Razorbacks and Sooners.

One Versatile Dude

Down to three freshmen running backs after leading rusher Brandon Warfield injured a knee last week, Utah turned for help to ... tight end Ben Moa.

Lining up as a running back in the shotgun formation, Moa had 26 yards in nine carries, scoring three touchdowns, caught five passes for 68 yards and threw the game-winning two-point conversion pass to Matt Hansen to lead the Utes to a 45-43 triple-overtime victory over Air Force.

Utah (7-2, 4-1) moved into sole possession of first place in the Mountain West Conference, thanks in part to Moa, 6 feet 2 and 255 pounds.

"We tricked them a little," Moa said of the two-point conversion play. "I knew they were going to bite. We had run the ball every time I [took the snap] -- six times, maybe more. They didn't cover any receivers. They blitzed everybody in, and I knew Matt would be wide open. So I threw it over the top, soft."

Record Breakers

Purdue's hopes for a Big Ten championship were virtually ended with last week's loss to Michigan, but the Boilermakers rebounded with a victory over Northwestern that was highlighted by John Standeford's setting the conference record for yards receiving.

"They all mean a lot, but this last one means quite a bit to me," said Standeford, who set Purdue records for catches and yards earlier this season.

Standeford, a senior, surpassed the Big Ten mark for yards with 88 during a 34-14 victory over the Wildcats, bringing his total to 3,418. David Williams of Illinois had held the record with 3,392 yards from 1983 to 1985.

Texas Tech's Wes Welker, meanwhile, set an NCAA Division I-A record with his eighth career punt return for a touchdown in the Red Raiders' 26-21 victory over Colorado. One of the four players Welker surpassed was Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers, the 1972 Heisman Trophy winner.

Record Matcher

John Gagliardi celebrated his 77th birthday by tying Eddie Robinson as college football's winningest coach, when Division III St. John's defeated St. Thomas, 15-12, at St. Paul, Minn.

Gagliardi can pass Robinson and earn his 409th career victory if St. John's defeats Bethel College on Saturday.

Gagliardi is 408-114-11 in 55 seasons as coach, including 51 years at St. John's. Robinson was 408-165-15 at Grambling.

Read All About It

Larry Fitzgerald Sr. is not only the father of Pittsburgh's sophomore receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr., a Heisman Trophy candidate, but the sports editor of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.

When asked recently if Junior would enter the NFL draft, Senior said, "I'd subscribe to our paper because it's definitely going to be in there first."

Times wire services contributed to this report.

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