GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A week after Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward locked up the 1993 Heisman Trophy by draining “The Swamp,” the Gators picked up the pieces from a tough loss the best way possible.
With a Southeastern Conference championship.
Terry Dean fired a couple touchdown passes and ninth-ranked Florida waxed reigning national champion Alabama 28-13 in the second SEC title game and with it locked up the accompanying berth in the Sugar Bowl, UF’s second in three years.
The Gators (10-2), who moved to No. 8 in the regular season-ending polls, were matched against unbeaten and third-ranked West Virginia (11-0) and thus were thrust in the middle of the national championship conversations.
The Mountaineers were one of two teams with a perfect record. The other was Nebraska, which was headed to the Orange Bowl to face Florida State for the game being billed as the national championship game.
To clear things up, No. 1 Florida State had lost at No. 2 Notre Dame on Nov. 13. The next week, No. 1 Notre Dame was stunned at home by 17th-ranked Boston College on a field goal as time expired, a loss that sent FSU to UF with a chance to hand the Gators their first loss at home in Coach Steve Spurrier’s three seasons and thus make their claim to a return to the top of the polls.
And a shot in the national title game.
On the eve of that Florida-FSU game, West Virginia went to BC and beat the Golden Eagles to capture the Big East crown and make their claim -- a rightful one, for sure -- to play for it all.
“We beat the team that beat the team that beat the team,” WVU coach Don Nehlen said.
But FSU’s stirring 33-21 win at Florida Field impressed the voters more and elevated the one-loss Seminoles to No. 1 and a date with undefeated Nebraska, leaving the Mountaineers for the Sugar.
The Gators, meanwhile, celebrated their second SEC championship and were delighted to head to New Orleans as part of the national title controversy.
To the time machine we go.
FOR HISTORICAL CONTEXT -- ELSEWHERE ON JAN. 1, 1994
- He’d been reproved by Hillary Rodham Clinton and rebuked by liberals, but Rep. Jim Cooper, the Tennessee Democrat, marched ahead with a bipartisan health reform bill that he dubbed “Clinton Lite.” The first lady ripped into Cooper’s managed-competition bill last month, saying it did less than even the Republican bill of Sen. John Chafee (R-Rhode Island) to move the country to universal coverage.
- Florida continued to top the list of states where food stamps were going to the wrong people, but the state’s welfare chief claimed improvements are being made to bring the Sunshine State into compliance.
- Dave Beck, who rose from “skull and knuckles” union organizing to head the Teamsters, and invoked the Fifth Amendment 142 times during Congressional racketeering hearings, died in Seattle at age 99. Beck led the powerful truckers union before giving way to Jimmy Hoffa in 1957.
- More than 300 mourners gathered to mark the passing of a University of Florida icon in the large sanctuary of the church in downtown Gainesville that he helped create nearly half a century earlier. J. Wayne Reitz, who died at age 84 three days earlier, “left big footprints for us to follow” said Robert Battles, minister of First Presbyterian Church. Reitz, president of UF from 1955 to 1967, was credited with modeling the university into a major research institution and spent many years following his retirement in fund-raising efforts.
- A few miles from the Superdome, the top high school quarterback prospect in the nation, New Orleans Isidore Newman’s Peyton Manning, was said to be considering Florida, Florida State, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Notre Dame and Michigan, with the wonder boy dismissing rumors he had already made a decision. “Everybody’s got me going to Tennessee,” Manning said, “but I haven’t even visited there yet.”
West Virginia had the nation’s longest winning streak at 12 games. Having gone 5-4-2 the season before and picked to finish fourth in the Big East, the Mountaineers entered the season unranked and remained so until a 35-3 drubbing of Missouri in late-September, inching their way over the ensuing months then vaulting to No. 3 by upsetting Miami 17-14 in Morgantown the day after Thanksgiving.
The same day BC shocked Notre Dame.
“If we would win this game, I think it would be a crime if we weren’t ranked No. 1,” WVU offensive guard Tom Robsock said. “As long as we win, I think we should be co-champions.”
There was no argument from Nehlen.
“I’m sure that any football team that can before 12-0 is going to get a piece of the championship,” he said. “Winning this game, though, is the big obstacle.”
That’s because the Gators were very good -- their lone defeats were to unbeaten/on-probation Auburn and FSU -- and were out to win 11 games for the first time in school history, along with their first Sugar Bowl.
“We have so much to play for,” Spurrier said.
“We know everybody in the nation is going to be watching to see if these West Virginia
guys can stay undefeated,” Dean said. “It’s a great chance to show what can do.”
For a number of UF players, it would also be an opportunity to apply the lessons learned from the last trip to Bourbon Street two years earlier; the overconfident one that ended with an upset loss to Notre Dame.
“We know what we’re here to do, and drinking and partying is not part of it,” senior offensive guard Jim Watson said. “We’ll save that for after the game.”
UF senior tailback Errict Rhett ran for 105 yards and three short touchdowns in his final game while freshman safety Lawrence Wright returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown in a 41-7 blowout of the Mountaineers.
After taking a 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the game, WVU did virtually nothing right, and it didn’t matter which of their platooning quarterbacks, Jake Kelchner or Darren Studstill, was in the game.
Florida (11-2) held the Mountaineers (11-1) to just 265 yards of total offense, while Dean completed 22 of 37 passes for 244 yards, including a 39-yard scoring strike to senior wide receiver Willie Jackson (9 catches, 131 yards). The Gators rushed for 201 yards, with more than half from Rhett, who was named the game’s MVP.
Wright’s whirling dervish touchdown -- far and away the highlight of the game -- came after UF senior linebacker Monty Grow put the second of two game-changing hits on Studstill. The pass fluttered into the arms of Wright, who ran forward, then backward, then untouched through the Mountaineers for a 14-7 lead.
The rout was one from there.
“This is a major accomplishment for this team and these players, something they can carry with them the rest of their lives.” -- Spurrier
“There’s really not that much to say,” Nehlen, who had a tough night on his 58th birthday.
“I was just trying to make a big play and make something happen. I’m glad something did happen. It changed the momentum of the game.” -- Wright on his runback.
“What he did was a no-no. I was yelling, ‘No Lawrence! No Lawrence!’ Then, ‘YES LAWRENCE!’ “ -- Gators defensive coordinator Ron Zook.
“Dangest thing I’ve ever seen.” -- Spurrier on Wright’s play.
“We need to stop talking about winning SEC titles around here and start talking about winning national titles. I think we’ve laid the groundwork for that now.” -- Grow, the senior linebacker, with some great foreshadowing.
“We’re not No. 3 in the state anymore.” -- Watson.