They got enough down to again sack Wuerffel six times and knock him down 20 other times, an epic pounding that contributed to his 23-for-48, three-interception performance. "I'm not sure Danny's ever gotten beat up like he did today," said Florida tailback Elijah Williams. What added fury to the Seminoles' defense was the attention the Gators paid to defensive ends Reinard Wilson and Peter Boulware, both of whom were double-teamed most of the game. "They had to," Wilson said. "No one man can block either one of us." That left noseguard Andre Wadsworth and tackle Connell Spain with just one blocker each in the middle and created lanes for blitzing Seminoles that Florida's offensive line never picked up. "If we had more time [to throw], we would have killed them," said Gators wideout Reidel Anthony, who caught 11 passes for 193 yards. Of course they would have. But Florida State didn't give them that time.
It was the Seminoles' offense, so long as much a Tallahassee staple as Spanish moss, that nearly betrayed Florida State. A 13-play, 72-yard first-quarter drive produced a field goal, but two first-half touchdown drives—the first of which followed Boulware's block of a Robby Stevenson punt, recovered at the Florida three-yard line—required a total of only 41 yards. The group of Seminoles that shuffled onto the field in the fourth quarter following Edmiston's wide right was wounded and failing. None of them was struggling more than junior quarterback Thad Busby, who had been 2 for 13 in the third quarter, with four near interceptions and one intentional grounding penalty. "When it rains, it pours," Busby said later. "I was just trying to hang in there."
That would be an apt description of his season. Busby, a 6'3", 220-pound former high school All-America from the small Florida panhandle town of Pace, was installed last spring as the heir to Charlie Ward and Danny Kanell. And, just as they once did, he has wrestled with the complex fast-break offense Florida State has used for five years. Busby has been booed, has been criticized by the media and the coaching staff and has felt his feet put to the fire by promising redshirt freshman quarterback Dan Kendra. "I knew it would be tough," he said, "and it has been."
The soothing of Busby's spirits has become a family project of sorts. Two weeks ago Busby suffered a slight left-knee sprain in a 48-10 win over Maryland at Pro Player Park in Miami. The next day Busby's family drove through Tallahassee en route to Pace. His father, Ken, waited 90 minutes for a film session to end so he could have a brief visit with Thad, and the two of them walked from the football building together into the evening. "I see my dad a lot, and it helps," Thad said on Saturday. The family was back in Tallahassee last week, and Thad's mother, Teresa, cooked Thanksgiving dinner at his off-campus house. It has been a difficult autumn for the parents, watching their son fight to improve, hearing criticism around them in the stands. Reminders of Thad's insecurity are inescapable: The Busbys' 12-year-old daughter is named Kendra.
On Saturday, however, Busby never caved in, never made the critical error that would have bailed out Florida. He fumbled while scrambling on the Seminoles' last possession of the first half, but only 20 seconds remained, and the Gators didn't convert. Bowden blistered Busby in the locker room at halftime. "I said, 'You can't fumble,' " Bowden recalled after the game. "That and some other nasty things."
But as quickly as he drilled Busby, Bowden backed off, apologizing, trying to protect his quarterback's psyche. "I didn't want to hurt his feelings or get him rattled," Bowden said. "I just went back and told him, 'Hey, forget about that, just play.' " And indeed, Busby helped win the game. On third-and-six from his own 29, he threw 29 yards to Peter Warrick on a deep crossing route, giving Florida State a first down at the Florida 42 with 10:30 remaining. It was the single most important play of the game, cutting the tension of a defensive stalemate. "Can't keep your head down too long, that's how you get beat," Busby said later. Make of this statistic what you like, but neither Ward nor Kanell quarterbacked an 11-0 team. Busby has.
After that vital completion, Warrick Dunn, the Seminoles' 5'9", 185-pound senior tailback, covered 41 yards on three plays: a catch-and-run, a direct snap from the shotgun and a straight isolation play to the left side on which he popped outside to the Gators' one. That set up 286-pound fullback Clarence (Pooh Bear) Williams's touchdown run for a 24-14 lead with 7:15 to play. For Dunn, the last flurry was a fitting finish to a brilliant game in which he rushed for a career-high 185 yards on 24 carries, caught four passes for 24 yards and completed one pass for 10 yards. In five games against Florida he has accounted for 862 yards in offense. "Dunn was sensational," Spurrier said. "He won the game for them."
Such things were in Dunn's plans nearly a year ago when he decided to return to Florida State for his senior year. "That, and school, but not in that order," Dunn said after Saturday's game. He sat on a wooden stool in front of his dressing cubicle, slowly pulling on his clothes while two of his five siblings, Travis and Bricson, waited. Since 1993, when his mother, a Baton Rouge police officer, was killed during an attempted robbery, Dunn has helped his grandmother raise the family, and there would have been scarcely a dissenting voice if he had left school for the certain and substantial money of the NFL. But he declined that option. "And since then, I've never heard him talk about personal goals," said Richt. "It's always been, 'I want to win the national championship.' "
In the end the Gators were forced far from their script and into desperation. Wuerffel, beaten but indestructible, took Florida into the end zone with 1:19 to go, cutting the Seminoles' lead to 24-21. But an onside kick failed, and a quest was ended.
There is no consolation game for the Gators. There was only one acceptable finish: Florida needed to get to the Sugar Bowl, and it needed Nebraska to be there too. The Gators still must play Alabama on Saturday in the SEC championship game, but even that trophy means little now.