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As Sweet As Sugar

Florida pulled out all the stops to hand Alabama its first loss, earning a trip to New Orleans and a rematch with Florida State

It was deep in the final quarter of last Saturday's SEC championship game at the Georgia Dome, and Florida coach Steve Spurrier was desperate. His team trailed unbeaten Alabama 23-17, and his supposedly high-tech offense of the '90s was being smothered by the Crimson Tide's old-fashioned, kick-butt defense of the '60s. Indeed, the Tide had gotten its lead when linebacker Dwayne Rudd picked off a tipped pass and rambled 23 yards for a touchdown with 8:56 to play. So on the sidelines Spurrier grabbed second-string quarterback Eric Kresser and yelled, "Get in there."

When starting quarterback Danny Wuerffel saw Kresser, he knew Spurrier had called "hobble off," a trick play the Gators had practiced all week. Feigning an injury—he had taken a hard lick on the previous play—Wuerffel limped off.

On came Kresser, and who expected that he would instantly drill a 25-yard completion to freshman wide receiver Ike Hilliard at the Alabama 42? Apparently not the Crimson Tide defense, which never seemed to suspect that the play was deviously planned, designed to take advantage of the fact that Kresser's arm is stronger than Wuerffel's. "You're hoping the defense will be thinking the substitute quarterback will be conservative," Wuerffel said. "It was a great call." Even Bill Oliver, Alabama's defensive coordinator, couldn't argue. "Our kids were aware of what he could do," Oliver said of Kresser. "We didn't play it good."

On the next play, Wuerffel returned to the field.

In the week preceding the game, as Florida headed into its third consecutive SEC title game with Alabama, the rap against the Gators was that they came up toothless in the big ones. As evidence, the doubters pointed to Florida's only slipups, a 36-33 loss to Auburn on Oct. 15 in the Swamp and a 31-31 tie with Florida State on Nov. 26, when the Gators blew a 28-point fourth-quarter lead.

While the Gators were underachieving—in the eyes of their critics, at least—Alabama was showing the moxie that Florida seemed to lack. Although the Tide didn't blow out anybody by the margins that were commonplace for the Gators, it always found a way to win behind quarterback Jay Barker, who came into last week's game with a 34-1-1 career record as a starter. A victory over Florida would move Alabama to 12-0 and give it a chance to challenge Nebraska and Penn State for national-championship honors.

The Gators, however, perked up when they learned early in the week that Florida State had accepted the Sugar Bowl's invitation to play the SEC champion. "We'd like another chance to show people the kind of team we are," said Florida wide receiver Chris Doering, "instead of having them remember us for collapsing in the fourth quarter against FSU."

Now it was late in the fourth quarter at the Georgia Dome, and the Gator drive, sparked by the hobble off, needed another jolt from Spurrier. So with first-and-10 at the Alabama 31 and 6:21 to go, he called time and gave Wuerffel a two-play sequence to run.

The first play required both the tackles and the ends to be split wide. Wuerffel threw laterally to Reidel Anthony, a freshman wideout, who then ran for a nine-yard gain to the Alabama 22 to set up the second play in Spurrier's sequence, known as nine double pass. After taking the snap, Wuerffel took two steps back, turned and again threw laterally across the field, this time to Doering. He caught the ball, then drilled a perfect spiral to wide receiver Aubrey Hill, who made the catch inside the 10 and dashed to the two. "It was the first time for that play," Doering said. "You've got to admire Coach Spurrier and his guts."

Was the Tide surprised? "Everybody's got that play," snorted 'Bama coach Gene Stallings, who became peeved during his postgame press conference at questions about why he didn't go for two points—and a seven-point lead—instead of kicking the extra point after Rudd's interception and TD. His testy, and weak, explanation was that a six-point lead was better than a five-point advantage because Florida could have overcome the five with two field goals. (When this was related to Spurrier, he smiled. "Have we ever kicked two field goals in a game?" he asked.)

On the play after the double pass, Wuerffel called a quarterback sneak but checked off at the line when he saw the defense loaded up in the middle. The new play, a quick slant to Doering, worked perfectly: Florida 24, Alabama 23.

However, 5:29 remained, plenty of time for Barker to move the Tide within range of Michael Proctor, the chain-smoking placekicker who had already converted field goals of 22,47 and 48 yards. But after Barker completed a five-yarder to running back Sherman Williams on the first play of what was to be the Tide's final drive, the conservative Stallings called seven consecutive running plays that left his team with third-and-eight on its own 49 and 1:12 remaining. An illegal procedure penalty then left Stallings with no choice but to have Barker throw.

First he let go a pass that was tipped. Then, on fourth down, his pass to wide receiver Toderick Malone was tipped by cornerback Fred Weary and intercepted by strong safety Eddie Lake, who ran out-of-bounds with 44 seconds left.

As Barker left the locker room, he was philosophical about the most crushing defeat of his career. "I've had so much fun at Alabama, to let one game ruin it, it's not worth it," he said. "I know I let some people down. Hopefully, they'll love us unconditionally."

Unconditional love. It's something that Spurrier, for all his success, has never found at Florida. There's even talk that despite winning three SEC titles in his first five years, Spurrier is so unhappy with his critics that he may bolt to coach the expansion NFL Carolina Panthers next year. For one night, though, he put that aside. "It really feels good to win a close one and to come from behind," said Spurrier.

That's a nice feeling to take to New Orleans.



Doering (28) made his winning TD catch after throwing a pass of his own.



The conservative Stallings found reasons to be peeved, but the inventive Spurrier was riding high.



[See caption above.]