Was there a better way for it to end? Redemption surged across Florida Field like an unstoppable current last Saturday, like a tide turning, and suddenly it was nearly done. The clock was blinking toward 0:00, and the news was on the scoreboard: second-ranked Ohio State had lost. Florida State quarterback Danny Kanell flung his final pass into the end zone, and safety Lawrence Wright made the interception and ran—10 yards, 25, 35. As 85,711 mouths howled, every bit of last year's disappointing finish dissolved away. "There're no words that can describe this feeling," said Wright after Florida's 35-24 win over Florida State in Gainesville.
The crowd felt it. So did the Gators, including their coach, Steve Spurrier, their quarterback, Danny Wuerffel, and their running back, Terry Jackson, all of whom played massive roles in the victory. After all, this 37-year-old rivalry had never been more vital to the national championship picture than it was this year. What's more, Florida's win will do much to erase the gummy aftertaste of last season, when the Gators tied the Seminoles 31-31 after having taken a 28-point lead into the fourth quarter and then lost 23-17 to Florida State in a Sugar Bowl rematch five weeks later. No one was happier on Saturday than Wright. He took a huge pole with a Florida flag and began to dance. He let out a huge grin, waved the giant F and hopped from one foot to the other. He felt so free.
"We've fallen short on a lot of occasions, but we continued to fight," Wright said. "That's what I'm all about: continuing to fight, no matter what you're going through. We scrambled and we fought, and today we finally got it done."
He wasn't just talking football. Yes, Wright, the Gators' leading tackier this fall, made a team-high eight tackles and that final sweet interception. Yes, he knows how far this defense has come. Against the Seminoles it overshadowed Wuerffel's Heisman-worthy performance (443 yards passing and four touchdowns), Ike Hilliard's 192 yards receiving and Chris Doering's SEC-record 30th career touchdown reception. But that is nothing. Fact is, Wright, who is a junior, has fought and scrambled plenty to get where he is. He made up for a delinquent adolescence on the streets of Miami's Liberty City by starting Right Trak, a privately funded program for at-risk kids in Miami, and by overcoming a learning disability to earn All-Academic SEC honors in each of the last two years. He also has endured the loss of his best friend, Arthur King. In August 1994, after football practice at Austin Peay University, King died in his sleep from a heart attack.
"Last year I went through a tremendous loss," says Wright, who has AK4EVER #1 printed on the back of his helmet. Wright started most of last season, but his hopes for working in the inner city with King, the one comrade he could always count on, were gone. "But I came back in the off-season and said, I have to regroup, do what's best for me," Wright says. "I was going to fight hard and be a leader and put my team in a position to win. All I want to do is win. I don't care if it's ugly or pretty."
When he experiences a victory like Saturday's, "it's always for him," Wright says of King. "That's my motivation. He's in my heart and mind when I make plays. It's all in memory of what he did—or should have done. I'm playing for two now."
He's playing for even more than that. Spurrier's offense cruised at its usual supersonic level on Saturday. But the key to Florida's win was Wright & Co., which, two weeks after having shut down South Carolina quarterback Steve Taneyhill, held the nation's No. 1 offense to only three third-down conversions and 322 yards—253 below the Seminoles' season average. Every time Spurrier began exploring the positives of his team's performance, he came back to the same place. "Ike Hilliard, Danny Wuerffel—but, really, it was the defense," he said. "To hold them to 24, the defense was just sensational. I don't know how many punts we forced [eight], but when you can do that against the Seminoles, it gives you a chance to beat them."
That such near-blasphemous words now come from the mouth of a self-proclaimed offensive mastermind is a telling admission. It's no mistake that the newly stingy Gators are 11-0 for the first time in school history and sit a mere two victories away from their first national championship. Or that Spurrier swept the Bowdens for the first time, having beaten Terry of Auburn and Bobby of Tallahassee without much trouble. "He killed me," Bobby said on Saturday. "He killed me and my boy in the same year."
That was, after what happened last year, precisely the point. Heading into this season, Spurrier had won three SEC titles. But his Fun 'n' Gun offense couldn't overcome defensive weaknesses in big games. So Spurrier adjusted. The loss of three top defensive linemen forced second-year defensive coach Bobby Pruett to fine-tune his secondary into a cohesive man-to-man unit, but Spurrier set a new tone by expanding his interest to defense for the first time. He wasn't developing defensive schemes; he was "just trying to let those guys be more accountable to the head coach," Spurrier said. "Just hanging with them. I ride on the defensive bus now. I watch the tape with them every Monday. They answer to me a little bit more."
So far no one in Gainesville considers Spurrier's newfound interest anything but a plus. "I was a little surprised at how much he knows," says Florida nickelbacker Ben Hanks. "But being an offensive genius, he knows what hurts a defense."