GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Kentucky Wildcats, of all teams, made the Florida Gators earn that long-awaited first Southeastern Conference championship, but UF’s 35-26 defeat of the Wildcats in the final league of 1991 sent sweet sugar packets raining onto Florida Field.
At long last.
It took 59 years, but the Gators had their first official SEC title, having stormed through the conference slate unbeaten in seven games, including decisive, statement-making routs of Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia, then capped with a thrilling bonus beating of rival Florida State to end the 1991 regular season.
UF’s 14-9 defeat of the Seminoles was its eighth straight win -- dating to a Week 3 blowout loss at Syracuse -- and not only gave the Gators (10-1) their first 10-win season, but it also vaulted Coach Steve Spurrier’s second team to No. 3 in the polls, with a date against free-falling and 18th-ranked Notre Dame (9-3) in the 58th Sugar Bowl at the Superdome.
To the time machine we go.
FOR HISTORICAL CONTEXT -- ELSEWHERE ON JAN. 1, 1992
- In Moscow, Boris Yeltsin pushed ahead with reform by ordering state land privatized, but his seizure of prime military hardware drew a warning from Ukraine, a powerful partner in the new commonwealth.
- Danny Rolling, a 37-year drifter and career criminal from Shreveport, La., sat in the Marion County Jail in Ocala awaiting a march trial date charged with murdering five college students in Gainesville in August 1990. A series of armed robberies already had earned Rolling four life sentences.
- President Bush, declaring “more exports mean new jobs,” began a 12-day Pacific sales trip aimed at prying open Asian markets and creating new work for recession-weary Americans.
- Reportedly on the verge of landing Bill Parcells to take over the NFL’s losingest franchise, Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse’s record $6.5 million contract offer was rebuffed when Parcells changed his mind about coaching the team mere hours before a news conference to announce his hiring. “I’m still here at the alter, for what it’s worth,” Culverhouse said. “And there’s no honeymoon.”
Florida was the world-beater and Notre Dame had no business even being in the game.
To a lot of experts and talking heads that witnessed the Fighting Irish defense surrender 112 points in their previous three games -- losses to Tennessee and Penn State, plus a narrow 45-42 victory at Hawaii -- that indeed was the perception.
While the Gators were bringing the nation’s ninth-ranked offense to New Orleans, having averaged 457.1 yards per game, the Irish had blown a 31-7 lead against Tennessee and gave up 21 points in the first quarter at Penn State.
“Our defense has problems,” Notre Dame defensive end Kevin McGill said. “We haven’t produced and we’re taking it personally to turn things around.”
Still, you better believe Coach Lou Holtz milked the no-chance storyline.
“Florida is a nasty team -- not a dirty team, a nasty team -- and what I mean by nasty is they’ll try to brush your chest up against your spine. I say that as a tribute,” Holtz said at the bowl’s first news conference. “My nightmare is that Florida is up by two with 14 minutes left in the game and they’ve got third-and-8 on their own 9-yard line, then go back to pass and the game ends -- because we can’t rush the passer.”
Spurrier could only shake his head at Holtz’s remark. As a coach in the SEC, he recognized state-of-the-art poor-mouthing when he heard it.
“Yeah, I heard Lou talked us up pretty good,” Spurrier said, recalling how Syracuse coach Paul Pascauloni filled UF’s collective heads with compliments in the run-up to a 38-21 ambush at the Carrier Dome in September. “After that Syracuse fiasco, I think we learned not to believe all that stuff.”
Still, both Holtz and his players grew a little tired of criticism to their worthiness of a game the caliber of the Sugar Bowl.
Like the person who stopped Holtz on Canal Street.
“Hey Lou, what’s the difference between Notre Dame and Cheerios?”
“Cheerios belong in a bowl.”
Jerome Bettis trampled the Florida defense for three fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 39-28 Notre Dame victory that was as satisfying to the Irish as it was frustrating for the Gators.
The 5-foot-11, 247-pound Bettis had touchdown runs of 3, 49 and 39 yards -- plus a two-point conversion run -- in the final period and finished with 150 yards on 16 carries. He thoroughly exposed a UF defense that lost starting middle linebacker Carlton Myles to a back injury in the second half. Myles’ replacements, former walk-on Gregg Diamond and freshman Kevin Freeman, were out of position and overmatched all night.
And the Gators were just, plain overwhelmed.
UF placekicker Arden Czyzewski set a Sugar Bowl record by kicking five field goals, which said as much about his team’s offense -- and its ability to finish drives -- than the accuracy of his right foot.
Despite amassing 511 yards of total offense, the Gators scored just two touchdowns, with six of their drives ending in either field goals or nothing, including a pair of marches that stalled inside ND’s 10.
UF quarterback Shane Matthews, the two-time SEC Player of the year, completed 28 of 58 passes for 370 yards and two touchdowns, but missed several wide-open receivers that could have led to big plays. Instead, Bettis ran away with MVP honors as he ran around and over Florida’s middle linebackers.
Bettis had just 23 yards on four carries in the first half, but more than 100 yards in the fourth quarter alone. The Irish finished with 279 rushing yards on 49 carries.
“When people were saying we didn’t belong and we were being called Cheerios, we didn’t know how people would react. I’m going to tell tell you, we aren’t a very bad football team. We worked down here and we worked hard.” -- Holtz.
“We had a chance to score 50 points. Instead, we kicked a bunch of field goals. We just weren’t good enough.” -- Spurrier
“We knew we could win the thing, all we needed was a chance. Right now, all that Cheerios talk has been washed away.” -- Notre Dame tailback Rodney Culver.
“It’s tough when you have a career night and don’t get a victory. I’d trade every field goal I’ve kicked at Florida for a win tonight. If I had missed five field goals and we would have won, I’d feel great right now.” -- Czyzewski.
“I can’t blame anybody else. It’s my fault. I missed guys that were wide open. I usually don’t do that.” -- Matthews.
“I think we might have over-partied.” -- UF linebacker Ed Robinson