Was there a better way for it to end? Redemption surged across
Florida Field like an unstoppable current last Saturday, like a
tide turning, and suddenly it was nearly done. The clock was
blinking toward 0:00, and the news was on the scoreboard:
second-ranked Ohio State had lost. Florida State quarterback
Danny Kanell flung his final pass into the end zone, and safety
Lawrence Wright made the interception and ran--10 yards, 25, 35.
As 85,711 mouths howled, every bit of last year's disappointing
finish dissolved away. "There're no words that can describe this
feeling," said Wright after Florida's 35-24 win over Florida
State in Gainesville.
The crowd felt it. So did the Gators, including their coach,
Steve Spurrier, their quarterback, Danny Wuerffel, and their
running back, Terry Jackson, all of whom played massive roles in
the victory. After all, this 37-year-old rivalry had never been
more vital to the national championship picture than it was this
year. What's more, Florida's win will do much to erase the gummy
aftertaste of last season, when the Gators tied the Seminoles
31-31 after having taken a 28-point lead into the fourth quarter
and then lost 23-17 to Florida State in a Sugar Bowl rematch
five weeks later. No one was happier on Saturday than Wright. He
took a huge pole with a Florida flag and began to dance. He let
out a huge grin, waved the giant F and hopped from one foot to
the other. He felt so free.
"We've fallen short on a lot of occasions, but we continued to
fight," Wright said. "That's what I'm all about: continuing to
fight, no matter what you're going through. We scrambled and we
fought, and today we finally got it done."
He wasn't just talking football. Yes, Wright, the Gators'
leading tackler this fall, made a team-high eight tackles and
that final sweet interception. Yes, he knows how far this
defense has come. Against the Seminoles it overshadowed
Wuerffel's Heisman-worthy performance (443 yards passing and
four touchdowns), Ike Hilliard's 192 yards receiving and Chris
Doering's SEC-record 30th career touchdown reception. But that
is nothing. Fact is, Wright, who is a junior, has fought and
scrambled plenty to get where he is. He made up for a delinquent
adolescence on the streets of Miami's Liberty City by starting
Right Trak, a privately funded program for at-risk kids in
Miami, and by overcoming a learning disability to earn
All-Academic SEC honors in each of the last two years. He also
has endured the loss of his best friend, Arthur King. In August
1994, after football practice at Austin Peay University, King
died in his sleep from a heart attack.
"Last year I went through a tremendous loss," says Wright, who
has AK4EVER #1 printed on the back of his helmet. Wright started
most of last season, but his hopes for working in the inner city
with King, the one comrade he could always count on, were gone.
"But I came back in the off-season and said, I have to regroup,
do what's best for me," Wright says. "I was going to fight hard
and be a leader and put my team in a position to win. All I want
to do is win. I don't care if it's ugly or pretty."
When he experiences a victory like Saturday's, "it's always for
him," Wright says of King. "That's my motivation. He's in my
heart and mind when I make plays. It's all in memory of what he
did--or should have done. I'm playing for two now."
He's playing for even more than that. Spurrier's offense cruised
at its usual supersonic level on Saturday. But the key to
Florida's win was Wright & Co., which, two weeks after having
shut down South Carolina quarterback Steve Taneyhill, held the
nation's No. 1 offense to only three third-down conversions and
322 yards--253 below the Seminoles' season average. Every time
Spurrier began exploring the positives of his team's
performance, he came back to the same place. "Ike Hilliard,
Danny Wuerffel--but, really, it was the defense," he said. "To
hold them to 24, the defense was just sensational. I don't know
how many punts we forced [eight], but when you can do that
against the Seminoles, it gives you a chance to beat them."
That such near-blasphemous words now come from the mouth of a
self-proclaimed offensive mastermind is a telling admission.
It's no mistake that the newly stingy Gators are 11-0 for the
first time in school history and sit a mere two victories away
from their first national championship. Or that Spurrier swept
the Bowdens for the first time, having beaten Terry of Auburn
and Bobby of Tallahassee without much trouble. "He killed me,"
Bobby said on Saturday. "He killed me and my boy in the same
That was, after what happened last year, precisely the point.
Heading into this season, Spurrier had won three SEC titles. But
his Fun 'n' Gun offense couldn't overcome defensive weaknesses
in big games. So Spurrier adjusted. The loss of three top
defensive linemen forced second-year defensive coach Bobby
Pruett to fine-tune his secondary into a cohesive man-to-man
unit, but Spurrier set a new tone by expanding his interest to
defense for the first time. He wasn't developing defensive
schemes; he was "just trying to let those guys be more
accountable to the head coach," Spurrier said. "Just hanging
with them. I ride on the defensive bus now. I watch the tape
with them every Monday. They answer to me a little bit more."
So far no one in Gainesville considers Spurrier's newfound
interest anything but a plus. "I was a little surprised at how
much he knows," says Florida nickelbacker Ben Hanks. "But being
an offensive genius, he knows what hurts a defense."
Actually, genius wasn't necessary on Saturday. Execution was.
Florida State running back Warrick Dunn had hurt the Gators the
previous two years with dramatic, backbreaking plays, but this
time his longest gain was 15 yards. The Florida secondary picked
off three of Kanell's passes, the most important of which was a
momentum-crushing interception by Anthone Lott in the end zone
with slightly more than six minutes left. And in stark contrast
to last year's regular-season game, Florida State scored no
points in the fourth quarter.
"We're just on a roll, and we're going to take every opportunity
to take advantage of it," Wright said. "We're pretty healthy.
And we've got a lot of love for each other."
Florida, which is now No. 2 in the polls, must still beat
Arkansas in this weekend's SEC championship game in Atlanta and
then No. 1 Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2 before a
national title can be won. What the Gators can enjoy now is
superiority in the state of Florida. The three main universities
in Florida have a savage rivalry, with Miami's vaunted
Hurricanes being the established national power, Florida State
winning its first national title in 1993 and Florida, until this
year anyway, sitting one step below them both. The players at
the three schools know each other, often having played together
or against one another in high school, but the alums drive
football fever in this state. "You can describe it like a Civil
War: It's people you live next to, and for this one week you're
going after each other's throats," says Doering.
Now, though, for the first time since the state began producing
the richest talent in the nation, the balance of power has fully
shifted the Gators' way. Miami's storied Hurricanes are closing
in on NCAA sanctions, and the Seminoles not only lost to Florida
for the first time since 1991 but also could wind up out of the
top five in the final rankings for the first time in nine years.
Florida has sealed its position as a force beyond the borders of
the SEC, and it figures to take full advantage of the resulting
recruiting edge. Wright says he felt the rumbling of change
beginning back in 1991, when he committed to his beloved
Hurricanes but changed his mind after Spurrier told him, "You
don't want to go to Miami, where they've won a bunch of national
championships. You want to come to Florida, where you can be one
of the first to win. I felt it was the up-and-rising program."
Wright is on track to graduate, but he has even bigger plans.
For two years, his Right Trak athletic-academic program has
helped guide 40 at-risk kids in his old neighborhood. A
building-construction major, he has also drawn up architectural
plans for a complex that would serve as a community center. His
staff includes Hurricane football players from the area and
Florida State running back Rock Preston. Says Wright, "A lot of
people said, 'Oh, Lawrence Wright, he's not going to make it,
he's going to be dead or in jail.' But I'm 22 years old, playing
for the Florida Gators. We're 11-0. I made it."
So has Florida. The stadium- record crowd pulsed with that new,
almost scary feeling: With Gator resources, connections and
clout, the sky's the limit. Wright finally stopped dancing, and
handed off the flag. Then he began running.
"We're like that Money Train!" Wright shouted as he passed the
milling players and fans and officials on the grass. "We've got
no brakes! Full speed ahead!"
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Doering burned the Seminoles and set an SEC record for touchdown receptions in a season with 16. [Chris Doering]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Lott's fourth-quarter interception ensured that there would be no Seminole comeback this year. [Anthone Lott]