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Sunday December 30, 2012Sugar Bowl Lookback Part 6: Gators First National Title As Sweet As it Gets

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Anyone remember this one?

The Florida Gators had suffered arguably the most deflating, frustrating defeat in the program's history in taking the nation's No. 1 ranking to Florida State to face the No. 2 Seminoles and falling flat in a 24-21 loss to their hated rivals in a sea of garnet-and-gold fans that tore the goal posts down at Doak Campbell Stadium.

The victory assured FSU (11-0) a spot in the Sugar Bowl, where a win would give the Seminoles their second national title in four seasons. Just as satisfying for Coach Bobby Bowden's team was how it ruined UF's unbeaten season and lofty championship hopes with a punishing display of physicality on both sides of the ball.

Tailback Warrick Dunn rushed for 185 yards, helping stake the Seminoles to a 17-0 lead. Gators quarterback Danny Wuerffel passed for 362 yards and three touchdowns that proved too little too late.

"We weren't good enough today and Warrick Dunn was absolutely sensational," UF coach Steve Spurrier said after dropping to 2-5-1 against the Seminoles. "We had our chances, but we made too many bad plays. When you ask your quarterback to make 50 or 60 plays, you're going to make some bad ones."

And pay a price, too.

Wuerffel, the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, was pummeled into submission and even had to be helped to the post-game interview session outside the UF locker room, with bruises and welts all over his battered body.

"We beat him down and beat him down, and he kept coming back for more," gloated FSU defensive end Reinard Wilson.

"Go ahead and give him the Heisman," fellow Seminoles end Peter Boulware taunted. "Any other quarterback would've been out of the game in the second after the beating we gave him. He deserves it."

A week later, though, some orange and blue stars aligned.

While FSU sat home and awaited its postseason fate, unranked Texas upset No. 3 Nebraska in the Big 12 Conference title game, thus sending seismic shocks through the Bowl Alliance.

The Longhorns pushed the two-time reigning national champion Cornhuskers from an expected date against the Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl, which under the alliance agreement would get the two highest-ranked teams.

About two hours after the Texas game, fourth-ranked Florida took the field against No. 11 Alabama in the Southeastern Conference title game. Against the top-ranked pass defense in the country, Wuerffel threw for 401 yards and six touchdowns in a 45-30 victory that gave the Gators their fourth straight SEC crown.

Oh, and it also gave the Gators (11-1) a rematch with the Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl, along with a chance to ruin FSU's season and exact some revenge from that brutal beating Wuerffel took a week earlier.

A second Florida-Florida State rematch in the Sugar Bowl in three seasons.

Really?

"We might play a lot more like they play," Spurrier said of the Seminoles after the Alabama game. "I've been re-evaluating this, as far as hitting and this, that and the other. Maybe we need to play more like them."

So, it was on.

To the time machine we go.


FOR HISTORICAL CONTEXT (ELSEWHERE ON JAN. 2, 1997)

When President Clinton begins his second term, he would become the first U.S. president to get line-item veto power, the ability to slash with the stroke of a pen budget line items in bills that are otherwise unacceptable. Clinton said the power will help cut "special-interest boondoggles, tax loopholes and pure pork" by increasing presidential discretions over spending. And he was eager to use it, aids said.

In Norfolk, Va., abortion protesters held a prayer vigil for a 22-year-old New Hampshire man accused of shooting at the city's only abortion clinic, one day after police said he killed two abortion clinic workers and wounded five others in Massachusetts. "Thank you for what you did," a reverend for Pro-Life Virginia shouted in a mega-phone outside the city jail where John C. Salvi III was being held. "Why is the life of a receptionist worth more than the lives of 50 innocent human babies?"

A 70-car pileup that killed one and left 30 others injured closed both the east- and west-bound lanes of the five-mile Interstate-10 bridge across Lake Pontchartrain between New Orleans and Slidell, La. Though thousands of Floridians were descending on the city for the national championship game between the Gators and Seminoles, a New Orleans police officer who first responded to the scene saw no Florida tags on vehicles involved.

Green Back Packers quarterback Brett Favre was named the first repeat NFL Most Valuable Player winner since 1990 and only the second player to win it in consecutive years, joining San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana (1989-90). The only other two-time winners were Cleveland running back Jim Brown ('57, '65), Baltimore quarterback Johnny Unitas ('64, '67) and San Francisco quarterback Steve Young ('92, '94).


THE SETUP

The ferocity of the beating Wuerffel took in that first meeting against Florida State was not apparent to Spurrier until he reviewed the tape.

Then he was incensed by it.

And, frankly, seethed over it for the next five weeks.

It wasn't so much the late hits (although there were plenty), but rather what Spurrier perceived as an intent to injure his quarterback with forearms and helmets to unprotected areas.

A few days after the Alabama game, Spurrier invited a group of writers who covered his team into the football offices for a private screening of the UF-FSU game tape -- with high sideline and end-zone views -- to show enhanced examples of just how badly Wuerffel was beaten up.

[FULL DISCLOSURE: As the UF beat writer for The Orlando Sentinel at the time, I was at that meeting 16 years ago and was struck by how furious and locked in Spurrier was at the sight of Wuerffel being hit and hit again, especially with some well-placed spears to the lower back area. Florida's offensive linemen got a similar screening (several, actually), with Spurrier calling out offensive tackles Donnie Young (one of Wuerffel's best friends) and Zach Piller to take the treatment of their quarterback personally. You know, like the coach was.]

In Tallahassee, Bowden and FSU defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews shrugged off the accusations of dirty play, with Bowden calling Spurrier's remarks a "sideshow" and defending FSU by saying his players were taught "to hit to the echo of the whistle," and would continue to do so.

Upon arrival at the Sugar Bowl site six days before the game, Spurrier met with the press and was asked how he liked New Orleans.

"Hopefully, we won't get hit late out there," he said.

Bada-bing.

The mantra continued throughout the week and became a bitter pre-game storyline that clearly irritated Bowden.

"Steve should be more careful when he talks about cheating and dirty play. That's not wise," Bowden said. "I've never seen Steve get so personal -- and I like him, dadgumit! You guys haven't been watching football if you think we play dirty."

Your serve, Steve.

"He can't tell me what to say," Spurrier countered. "I'm not trying to say I'm right and Coach Bowden is wrong. Watch the tape yourself and form your own opinion."

Good idea. In fact, a UF's football administrator conveniently brought copies of the infamous tape to hand out to attending media.

Wrote USA Today's national college football writer Steve Wieberg of the tape: "It does not bear out the Florida's coach's charge that Danny Wuerffel was the victim of foul play."

Surely that quelled Spurrier's argument, right?

"Yeah, well that guy didn't even have Danny on his Heisman ballot," Spurrier shot back.

Wuerffel, who won the Heisman three weeks earlier, had his chance in the middle of the media maelstrom, but took the high road when asked if he thought the Seminoles played dirty.

"They're a great team," Wuerffel said over and over. "I'm just focused on this next game."

It was pointed out to the UF coach that his quarterback did not seem to have any ill will toward FSU.

Spurrier: "Danny is a New Testament guy. If you slap him in the face, he turns the other cheek and says, 'Lord, forgive them because they know not what they do.' Well, I'm an Old Testament guy. If you spear our guy in the ear hole, I'm going to spear you in the ear hole."

Wow.

"Steve is a lot like General Patton," Bowden said. "Patton used to stick his foot in his mouth, too."

Double-wow.

Eventually, the game had to be played. And like it needed any higher stakes, Ohio State beat undefeated and second-ranked Arizona State with a final-seconds touchdown in the Rose Bowl, meaning No. 1 FSU and No. 3 Florida would play the next night for the national championship.

What followed was -- and to this day remains -- unequivocally the most satisfying night in Florida football history.


THE GAME

Wuerffel threw three touchdown passes and ran for another as the Gators blew up a four-point game with 21 third-quarter points on the way to posting the most lopsided win in 15 years of its storied series with FSU, blasting the No. 1 Seminoles 52-20 and claiming the first national champion in school history.

Wuerffel completed 18 of 34 passes for 306 yards, with touchdowns of 9, 31 and 8 yards to junior wide receiver Ike Hilliard (7 catches, 150 yards). The Gators (12-1) had another 168 yards on the ground, including a 42-yard fourth quarter dash from Terry Jackson (12 carries, 118 yards, 2 TDs) to finish with 472 yards of offense against one of the best defenses in the country.

This time, Wuerffel worked almost exclusively from the shotgun formation, thus helping negate an FSU pass rush that was a jailbreak in the game at Tallahassee 33 days earlier. The Seminoles sacked Wuerffel three times, but failed to get the extra licks on him that Spurrier emphasized in the run-up to the game.

In fact, FSU was hit with five personal fouls in the game and was penalized 15 times for 115 yards. UF, meanwhile, took Spurrier's insistence to be the aggressors to heart. The Gators also had a bevy of penalties (15 for 102 yards), but held the Seminoles to 313 yards (just 42 on the ground) and Dunn to a career-low 28 yards on nine carries, his night cut short due to cramps.

The next day, the Gators were voted unanimous national champions in both polls.


THE QUOTES

"It looked like we were out of it a month or so ago, but we have a lot to be thankful for. Proud of our guys. they competed for 60 minutes. The last two games, Danny almost single-handedly led us to the SEC and, hopefully, the national championship." -- Spurrier.

"All the comments he made must have fired up his team. They just beat the heck out of us. ... Now you can see why I didn't want to play them again." -- Bowden.

"I know one thing: Celebrating team goals with teammates is a lot better than celebrating all by yourself on some podium." -- said Wuerffel, who after his final collegiate game left UF having thrown for 114 touchdowns and starting for four SEC championship teams to go with a national title, plus a Heisman.

"It really hurt us having to rely on the passing game." -- FSU quarterback Thad Busby, who was 17 of 41 for 271 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

"Look at the fans and they'll tell you how I feel. I can't explain it. I've always dreamed about this and now it's happened. We're national champions." -- Hilliard.

"Thank you, Texas. Thank you, Ohio State." -- senior middle linebacker James Bates

"We were sitting there saying, 'Did we just do that? Is this really happening?' We came here just wanting to win the game, but this is such a high I can't explain it." -- senior cornerback Anthone Lott.

"The whole up-front game decided it. Give Florida credit." -- FSU offensive tackle Todd Fordham.

"This group has been through a lot the last month and we wanted this game bad. Our whole team had something to prove, but the offensive line had a lot more to show." -- Piller.

 

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