Gators befuddled after suffering whipping
Posted: Sunday December 05, 1999 02:19 AM
The Tide's ball control, including holding it for 19 minutes in the first half, was a key to victory. AP
By Stewart Mandel, CNN/SI
ATLANTA -- In the heyday of the Steve Spurrier era, way back in 1996, 32-yard catches and flea-flickers for touchdowns were common occurrences.
When such feats took place on Florida's opening drive of Saturday's SEC championship against Alabama, they would prove to be flukes.
For the third time in the last four games, Spurrier's "Fun 'n' Gun" offense had little of either in a 34-7 embarrassment, despite early indications otherwise.
The Gators stormed out of the gate with Bo Carroll's 37-yard return of the opening kickoff, Darrell Jackson's 32-yard reception to the 6 and a four-yard TD pass to tight end Eron Kinney from running back Earnest Graham, who took the toss. Their 55-yard scoring drive was the fastest start of an SEC title game, clocking in at 1:40.
Yet the Gators would gain just 15 yards the rest of the half to complete their least-productive first half of the season. And you know how many more points they scored.
"We're a bad offense," Spurrier lamented afterward. "That's all you can say right now."
That Florida's offense has struggled is by no means a news flash. Its three worst passing days before Saturday's abysmal 83 yards came in their last three wins, over Georgia, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. No one seems to have an explanation for the demise.
"I don't know if it's whether we have a lot of guys who expect to win just because we're Florida, or I don't know if we're just afraid of failure," said QB Jesse Palmer, whose final line was an ugly 7-of-20 with three interceptions.
Palmer made only his second start of the season by default Saturday after Doug Johnson came up sore in practice the day before. After Palmer completed only 4 of 10 passes and threw two interceptions in the first half, Spurrier looked to Johnson to start the second. He promptly underthrew a simple out pattern to Travis Taylor on his first play, then did the same on third to facilitate a punt. Palmer returned for good on the next series.
Even mop-up man Kevin McKinnon couldn't make it through a series without getting picked off.
"Things weren't going as bad as they looked in the first half," said Palmer. "[Spurrier] kept us in the football game. We had the right game plan. There's nothing coach Spurrier did to make us lose this football game. We just didn't execute."
Too add insult to injury, Alabama made sure the Gators had as little opportunity as possible to reestablish their offense. After holding the ball nearly 19 minutes of the first half, the Tide kept it for approximately 11 of the first 12 minutes in the third quarter.
After three quarters, Alabama's time of possession was 29:50 to Florida's 15:10.
It's been a long, trying season for Spurrier, whose team lost three games for the first time since 1992. Just before the season, he dealt with allegations that several players from last year's team accepted gifts from agent Tank Black. His inexperienced defense came under scrutiny after giving up substantial yardage to both Western Michigan and Central Florida the first two weeks.
The defense got on track quickly enough against Tennessee in the third game. It's the offense, Spurrier's pet affection and the unit for which he calls plays, that has gone in the tank in a fashion far more dramatic than any of his previous 10 teams exhibited.
"I think we need some players who will step up and play hard," said running back Earnest Graham, who mustered only 27 yards. "We need to find some leaders."
They'll need to do so in a hurry, because things don't get any easier for the Gators. Against Michigan State in the Citrus Bowl they'll encounter a defense ranked fifth nationally against the run and 12th overall.
"We've just got to find some players who are still excited to play," said Spurrier. ""I don't know who they are. We're not a very fiery bunch right now. Our players have not been playing very lively. It has been a different group since the middle of the season."
When asked why that may be, Spurrier offered no insight. Finally, after several follow-up questions, the master of the swagger finally succumbed to logic.
"Maybe Alabama is just better than us."
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