A simple chalkboard mocked them all. Tennessee players shuffled
about the visitors' locker room at the south end of Florida's
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium last Saturday evening, beaten and
wordless, while the white scribbles on the green board condemned
their effort. 4 qtrs, it read. Four quarters. Play a full game.
In the halftime clamor two hours earlier, Tennessee coach
Phillip Fulmer had bounced through the room, slamming shoulder
pads. "Thirty more minutes," he had shouted. "Thirty more
minutes and you're the Number 1 team in the Southeastern
How could they have known what would hit them in the second
half? Full of the ease with which they had twice led by 16
points in the first half, buoyed by the knowledge that Florida
seemed so beatable, how could they have known? Two days earlier
Tennessee senior offensive tackle Jason Layman had said, "I've
never wanted to win a football game as much as this one." It was
the game that would define the Volunteers' autumn. And surely
after dominating for 30 minutes, they would win it. "Let's go,
baby, let's go baby," yelled senior center Bubba Miller, as he
led his teammates into the bludgeoning Florida heat for the
second half. "Don't let 'em breathe."
In fact, last Saturday proved a breathtaking occasion in the
upper precincts of college football. Both No. 1 Florida State
(page 25) and No. 2 Nebraska scored 77 points, against North
Carolina State and Arizona State, respectively; No. 6 Penn State
and No. 7 Colorado each got 66 points, against Temple and
Northeast Louisiana, respectively; and No. 3 Texas A&M went easy
on Tulsa, 52-9. Those inflated scores are becoming the norm, and
the games have been paced like MTV: blink and you miss three
touchdowns. The Cornhuskers hung up 63 points before halftime.
The Seminoles, Aggies and Nittany Lions punted four times ...
But what Florida did to Tennessee was something different.
Unlike the Temples and the Tulsas, the Volunteers were not some
piece of fresh fall meat, brought in as scrimmage hamburger for
Gator coach Steve Spurrier's high-powered offense. Tennessee was
ranked eighth in the country by the Associated Press; it was a
potent offensive force in its own right, and it had owned the
first half against Florida. The Gators, however, had pulled to
within striking distance, with just nine seconds left in the
second quarter, when their quarterback, Danny Wuerffel, threw an
11-yard touchdown pass to Ike Hilliard to make it 30-21. That
gave Spurrier the courage, he said later, to tell his team at
halftime that they "were in good shape."
And then for 30 spectacular minutes, Florida ran across
Tennessee like some awful storm, dropping 41 consecutive points
on the Volunteers en route to a 62-37 victory. That was more
points than any Tennessee team had given up in a century. The
Gator scoring strikes spanned the unpredictable central Florida
afternoon, from Wuerffel's sun-splashed six-yard touchdown pass,
again to Hilliard, with 7:10 left in the third quarter, to the
last of his six TD throws, a 20-yard fly to Chris Doering
through the remnants of an evening downpour that turned Florida
Field into a celebratory mosh pit. Unlike most of the scores
last weekend, those 62 points were the product of excellence,
not adroit scheduling and merciless coaching.
In the aftermath the 50-year-old Spurrier stood soaked and
satisfied, bathed in the youthful confidence that so infuriates
his peers and so ingratiates his constituents. "I said to myself
during the game that I thought we could score about every time
we got the ball," he said. "As it turned out, we almost did."
If it can be said that a shoot-out like this has a turning
point, then that moment occurred on Tennessee's first drive of
the second half. Sophomore quarterback Peyton Manning, who had
completed 13 of 16 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns in
the first two quarters, drove the Volunteers swiftly to a
first-and-10 on the Florida 11-yard line. It seemed certain that
Tennessee would hold serve, would again stretch its lead to 16
But that drive stalled after Manning was sacked on the 16 by
Dexter Daniels. The Volunteers' redshirt freshman kicker Jeff
Hall, who had beaten Georgia with a field goal one week earlier,
missed a 22-yard attempt. This, Spurrier thought, was a good
omen. "I figure we've got a good chance against the guys who
attempt field goals against us," he said, "because we don't try
too many of those."
Florida can turn a football game into something like grass
basketball, challenging an opponent to match fast breaks. The
game accelerates to a pace that the two teams can't possibly
sustain, and Spurrier is confident that his opponents will
weaken first. "I don't know exactly what to say," Spurrier said
after the game. "Tennessee, I thought, was executing pretty
doggone well." But following Hall's missed field goal attempt,
the Volunteers crumbled and the Gators exploded.
Florida scored on six consecutive possessions, benefiting
greatly from two fumbles by Tennessee running back Jay Graham,
but much more from Spurrier's planning--"Just draw up some new
ball plays and get out there," he said--and Wuerffel's execution.
"We really got on fire in the second half and never looked
back," said Wuerffel. It was largely he who was hot. Wuerffel is
in much the same position as anybody who plays quarterback at
Brigham Young or I-back at Nebraska. An outstanding day is
written off as the product of the system's efficiency rather
than of individual brilliance.
True enough, Wuerffel was looking at vast expanses of uncovered
grass on Saturday. Tennessee's defensive weaknesses were exposed
in the Vols' three-point win over Georgia and laid naked by
Florida. But Wuerffel was nearly flawless, completing 29 of 39
passes for 381 yards. His motion is like a shot-putter's, an odd
flick from off his shoulder, but his release is instantaneous,
and his decisions, well, there is no more discerning critic of a
quarterback's judgment than Spurrier, who says, "Danny certainly
has the ability to pick out the right receiver."
It is tempting to anticipate Florida's game against Florida
State on Nov. 25 in Gainesville. Gator defenders assert that
their unit is neither as porous nor as vulnerable as Tennessee
made it seem. "When you've got an offense that can score 100
points, your job is just to get it the ball," said Gator outside
linebacker Ben Hanks. The Gators did force fumbles, and they did
limit the Volunteer offense to one garbage-time touchdown in the
second half, but Tennessee finished with 460 yards of total
offense. Put the Florida-Florida State over-under line at about
Well before that game, however, Florida must play three
consecutive SEC opponents, beginning on Oct. 7 at much-improved
LSU (page 79), then at Auburn and finally at Georgia. Wondrous
offense aside, there is much work left for the Gators, the team
that everyone in the conference longs to beat, before a fourth
consecutive berth in the SEC title game is assured.
The role of the hunted for Florida has been equal parts earned
and inherited. Alabama's three-year probation and home loss to
Arkansas last Saturday have rendered the Tide temporarily
harmless. Auburn won at Florida last October but lost to LSU
last weekend and remains a quirky giant. The SEC is deep and
powerful, but Florida has become the target.
And Tennessee wasn't helped by being more single-minded than any
other team in the conference, in training its vision on the
Gators. "I've been thinking about Florida since last spring,"
said Manning. Last Friday afternoon, after a brief walk-through
practice at Florida, Manning stood on a sidewalk next to the
stadium and said, "I feel I'm ready to play. I'm imagining what
it's going to be like to run out through that tunnel and hear
people booing me." Before the game he meticulously instructed
his receivers on the hand signals that the Volunteers would use
when crowd noise made oral communication impossible.
For the older Vols, the game against the Gators meant even more.
In the middle of the summer Jason Layman had said, "If we lose
that game, our season is over." But none of them, not the
precocious and gifted Manning, who went 23 for 36 for 326 yards,
nor his elders on the offensive line, could have envisioned
Saturday's onslaught. Florida not only took Tennessee's best
shot but raced past the Volunteers, turning a scare into a
victory into a laugher. "No lead is safe against us," said Hanks.
The rain fell outside in wide, heavy sheets as Fulmer entered
Tennessee's locker room and faced his team after the game. "The
theme for this game was 60 minutes," he barked. A Tennessee
state trooper pulled closed a wooden door, muffling the noise. 2
QTRS played. Not enough. Not close.