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Grateful Gators
Tim Layden
January 13, 1997
A shift in strategy by Florida coach Steve Spurrier finally brought his alma mater a national title
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January 13, 1997

Grateful Gators

A shift in strategy by Florida coach Steve Spurrier finally brought his alma mater a national title

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Florida guard Donnie Young's reaction to his teammate's act was far more emotional. Following practice at the New Orleans Saints' facility on New Year's Eve, Young jumped on Piller. "If you're going to be out on Bourbon Street behaving like that, I'm going to pack up my stuff and go home, because you're not going to be ready to play," Young told him. Piller stayed out of the French Quarter for the rest of the week.

And Piller and Young were ready to play. That would be central to the game, because Spurrier was building a strategy that would decide the outcome—and the offensive line was crucial to the success of that plan. "I believed we could win if our defense could hold them to 17 or 20 points and we could get Danny some time to throw the ball," said Spurrier.

Over the last seven years Florida's opponents have drawn strength from Spurrier's stubborn adherence to two tendencies: 1) he will not change his blocking scheme, and 2) he will not consistently run the shotgun. But in the Sugar Howl he did both. Furthermore, Spurrier won the coin toss before the game and deferred his choice to the second half, the first time as Florida coach that he didn't take the ball. And the Gators wore blue pants, roughly as rare as Notre Dame wearing green jerseys and similarly regarded by some Gators as a good-luck charm.

To ensure that Boulware, defensive end Reinard Wilson and at least one Florida State defensive tackle were seldom left with just one blocker, Spurrier utilized backs and tight ends more than ever before. The Gators also kept the Seminoles off balance by using a silent snap count, in which the center released the ball whenever he was comfortable after the quarterback had given him a ready signal. (This also kept Florida off balance, contributing to eight false-start penalties, but it served the purpose of slowing Florida State's rush.) "We made more changes in our blocking for this one game than we made in my entire live years, and that was the whole key for us," said Young.

It was part of the key. The shotgun was the rest. Spurrier has always eschewed the formation as a crutch for the offensively impaired. However, as teams have concluded that the only way to slow the Gators' attack is to bring heavy heat on the quarterback, he has slowly accepted it as a means of giving Wuerffel (and future quarterbacks) an earlier setup in the pocket. In the loss in Tallahassee, Wuerffel had lined up in the shotgun 21 times, including 13 of the last 16 snaps. He used it to great effect in a 45-30 victory over a good defensive Alabama team in the SEC championship game a week later. It was not new, but newly embraced, as the Gators used the shotgun 21 times in the first quarter of the Sugar Bowl. "It gives us a little more time to get rid of the ball," said Spurrier. "I was hoping they'd blitz more, but once they saw the shotgun, they chickened out."

Given an extra beat, Wuerffel played mother in a four-year series of tough, brilliant games. He completed 18 of 34 passes for 306 yards, including three for touchdowns to junior wideout Ike Hilliard, and lie was sacked only five times. Wuerffel's sight-yard post to Hilliard with 5:43 left in the third quarter gave Florida a 31-20 lead, and his uncharacteristic 16-yard scramble stretched the lead to 38-20 with 13 seconds still left in the period. His performance earned the undying praise of his coach. "I like Danny for every reason you can think of," Spurrier said. "Accurate passer, makes plays, leads the team, he's got it all. Florida State tried and they still couldn't knock him out of the game. Anybody who didn't put him on their Heisman ballot [more than 300 voters did not] is listening to that NFL draft bull crap and couldn't have seen him play."

If the Sugar Bowl was Hilliard's last game as a Gator (he might opt for the NFL), it will be one of the sweetest memories of his career. A native of Patterson, La., two hours from New Orleans, Hilliard caught 10 fewer passes (47) for five fewer touchdowns (10) than in his sophomore season, while classmate Reidel Anthony (72 receptions, 1,293 yards and 18 touchdowns) blossomed into a consensus first team All-America. Hilliard was also suspended from the Georgia game for missing class. But when family friend Randall Menard picked him up for Florida's three-day Christmas break and drove him to Menard's home in Breaux Bridge, La., Hilliard told him he was due for a big game. "I believed it," said Menard. "He kept his head up all year, just waiting." Hilliard's patience was rewarded with seven catches for 150 yards.

Even in punting, which Spurrier enjoys about as much as toenail surgery, Florida was exceptional. Sophomore Robby Stevenson, whose first punt in Tallahassee was blocked, leading to a Florida State touchdown, averaged 48.1 yards on seven kicks and twice pinned the Seminoles near their goal line. With Florida State struggling on offense but hanging close, 24-20 in the middle of the third quarter, Stevenson stuck the Seminoles back at the two with a 69-yard punt, taking the upper hand in the battle for field position and effectively stunting their offense for the rest of the game.

The entire night was one long, improbable gift to one of the last power programs in the country without a national title. In fact, the unlikely succession of events that opened the back door for the Gators began even before their loss in Tallahassee, when Ohio State, then ranked No. 2 in the nation, was upset by Michigan on Nov. 23, effectively eliminating the Buckeyes from the race. Two weeks later Texas shocked two-time defending national champion Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game, and Florida was elevated to No. 3 in the polls, behind Florida State and Arizona State.

The last sweet piece fell into place for the Gators on New Year's night, when Arizona State was upset by Ohio State (page 64) in the Rose Bowl. In a departure from his bowl custom, Spurrier took his team out of New Orleans, to a small Holiday Inn in Gonzalez, La., 58 miles away. The plan was for the team to immediately eat dinner upon arrival, but Spurrier, eerily prescient, dispatched the players to their rooms to watch the finish of the Rose Bowl. "Our food was ready," Spurrier said, "but I said, 'Aw, go ahead and watch.' " When Arizona State's Jake Plummer scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:40 to play, Florida senior center Jeff Mitchell heaved his remote at the television. When Ohio State scored the game-winner with 19 seconds left, Gator players streamed into the hotel's courtyard in celebration. At a 10:30 p.m. team meeting, Spurrier told them, "Gentlemen, they say God helps those who help themselves. We've got a chance. It's in our hands."

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