Florida junior Kerwin Bell, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, started Saturday's game against undefeated, sixth-ranked Auburn in an unfamiliar position: backup quarterback. Bell finished the game, however, in his customary role of hero. Along the way he and the Gators demonstrated that sometimes you will get a win even when it looks as if the wheels are coming off.
Despite six first-half turnovers, despite minus 11 yards offense in the first quarter, despite spotting Auburn, which won its first seven games by an average score of 39-8, a 17-0 lead, Florida, with Bell dragging his left knee in a brace and carrying the offense on his back, scored all its points in the game's final 12:09 for an 18-17 upset at Florida Field. "I'm very, very proud," Gator coach Galen Hall said. "I'm also emotionally drained."
Understandably. For starters, there was Florida placekicker Robert McGinty, whose 51-yarder with 7:10 to play pulled the Gators to within seven, 17-10. McGinty hadn't made a field goal since 1984, when he played for, of all schools, Auburn. That year he missed a game-ending 42-yard attempt that would have beaten Alabama. The next spring Tiger coach Pat Dye refused to award him a scholarship, so McGinty departed. "Coach Dye came up to me before the game when we were practicing 60-yarders," McGinty said without irony, "and said, 'I see you've gotten a lot stronger since you left.' " Dye's current kicker, Chris Knapp, missed two attempts on Saturday, including a 52-yarder at the gun that would have won the game.
Florida senior wide receiver Ricky (Rocket) Nattiel separated his left shoulder in the third quarter, yet caught four passes for 53 yards in the fourth, including the five-yard scoring pass with 36 seconds left that pulled the Gators to within a point. The pass, over Nattiel's shoulders into the corner of the end zone, forced him to lift his hands over his head to catch the ball. "It hurt," said Nattiel later, his arm in a sling. "But a touchdown is an instant painkiller."
Finally, there was Bell, who put an end to one of football's shorter quarterback controversies. Bell led Florida to consecutive 9-1-1 seasons in 1984 and '85, but he suffered strained knee ligaments against LSU last month. Junior Rodney Brewer stepped in and led the 1-4 Gators to victories over Kent State and Rutgers. Although Bell was ready on Saturday, Hall refused to bench a winner. That is, until the Gators turned over the ball on five of their first 16 snaps. Four of those were Brewer boo-boos.
Late in the first half, without warming up, Bell entered the game and threw an interception. At halftime, he came out of the locker room early to loosen up, and by the end of the third quarter, Bell had begun to click. Auburn took away the middle of the field, so Bell began throwing sideline passes. The Tigers never adjusted. Florida drove 79 yards on 10 plays for its first TD as Bell dived one yard for the score. After an Auburn punt, Bell moved the Gators into field goal range for what McGinty called his "chip shot."
Bell, who wound up completing 17 of 31 passes for 182 yards and one TD with two interceptions, got his last chance with 1:41 left, after Auburn fullback Reggie Ware fumbled the ball at the Florida 34. Six passes later it was 17-16 after Nattiel's catch, and the Gators lined up for the two-point try. Bell dropped back and watched Auburn tackle Tracy Rocker come straight at him. "Somehow I made a move," Bell said. "He must have had his eyes closed." Bell shifted to his left, and thought he had room to score. "It seemed like it took me all day," he said. "I'm still not full speed straight ahead, and even without this brace I'm not too fast. I just put my head down and got as low as I could." The hardest lick Bell took came when his teammate, guard Bob Sims, flattened him in the end zone celebration.