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Greatest of all-time (GOAT) Florida-FSU games, part V

Matt Zemek

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Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

In the 1990s heyday of the Florida-Florida State rivalry, Florida State won most of the games which were decided by a small scoreboard margin or came down to one defining play. Florida did win a very close game in 1991, but FSU prevailed in most of the especially tense games from the series.

The 1991 win for the Gators did announce Florida’s arrival as a formidable foe for the Seminoles. Yet, it didn’t mark an oncoming Orange and Blue wave of dominance. Bobby Bowden’s teams usually fended off Steve Spurrier’s squads. They regularly had to work very hard for their victories, but they did indeed win more often than they lost. Florida earned fresh respect, yes… but it didn’t cross the threshold as often as it had hoped.

Florida State held the upper hand in the 12 years Bowden and Spurrier coached against each other. FSU won twice on the road, Florida none. FSU won two national titles in those 12 seasons, Florida one. The Seminoles played for the national title four times in those 12 years, the Gators only twice. FSU was more of an obstacle for Florida than vice-versa. It’s the kind of thing which makes one fan base smile and the other one toss and turn at night.

Indeed, in the previous installments of this series from the 1990s, three — 1993, 1994, 1996 — were all bitterly disappointing moments for Florida, two defined by losses, one marked by a tie which felt like a defeat. It is said that a rivalry isn’t much of a rivalry if one side is doing most of the winning. Why is this such a celebrated rivalry, then?

While FSU did most of the winning, Florida landed its share of punches.

Most of the time, the Gators rocked Florida State from a position of strength: 1991, 1995, the 1997 Sugar Bowl, and 2001. The Gators were either comprehensively better in the regular season or on the particular day they faced FSU in those four instances. Florida State gained the head-to-head advantage in the Bowden-Spurrier years because it did better when it was either the underdog or the more vulnerable team. The 1994 Choke at Doak was one such instance.

The 1996 regular-season game could be viewed as another such episode. The 1998 game probably tops the list, since Marcus Outzen was replacing an injured Chris Weinke under center for the Noles, whose defense throttled Doug Johnson and the Florida offense.

Florida State had a better knack for flustering Florida — not with airtight consistency, but certainly more often than the Gators were able to stymie the Seminoles.

This could have created a very imbalanced rivalry, to the point that Gators-Noles wouldn’t be as worth celebrating as it is. How could one come up with a list of greatest UF-FSU games and have FSU wins (or the 1994 tie) dominate the list?

This is why the 1997 regular-season game between the two schools is such an important game in the history of the series. This was the one time when Spurrier was the pronounced underdog, backed into a corner… and ambushed Bowden with a remarkable offensive game plan. This was the time when Florida lacked the better team yet still ruined FSU’s season.

This game gave contextual balance to a battle which had all the other ingredients of a first-rate rivalry.

That point aside… it was an unforgettable game.

The old expression about quarterbacks is that if you have two of them, you really have none. Most of the time, this statement is true. Yet, in November of 1997, Spurrier managed to refute it on one Saturday evening in The Swamp.

The 1997 season was — until that FSU game — a miserable one for the Gators. Their four-year hold on the SEC championship was broken. Their five-year hold on the SEC East was also busted. Tennessee became the first team other than Florida to play in the SEC Championship Game. Spurrier had dominated the league and his division with near-complete mastery, only for the aforementioned Doug Johnson to hijack the 1997 season with disastrous performances against LSU and Georgia. Johnson briefly played in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons.

He had the arm strength and the physical makeup of a gifted athlete. However, he simply didn’t see or process the game with the instincts and awareness of a truly great quarterback. Johnson’s inability to see the field and handle pressure caused Florida to slip in the years following the graduation of Danny Wuerffel, the man who enabled Spurrier’s offensive vision to come together.

When the 1997 FSU game arrived, Spurrier realized that he couldn’t entrust the whole game to Johnson but also couldn’t deny him some snaps. The Head Ball Coach arrived at a plan in which he would play Johnson and backup Noah Brindise in alternating sequences or plays. He would send in Johnson with certain kinds of plays and Brindise with others. Each quarterback was able to be coached on the sidelines before coming in with the next play.

It was demanding and exhausting, but if Spurrier could pull it off, he could have the best of both worlds: Brindise could be the game manager who limited mistakes. Johnson’s arm and overall ability could still be used, but on far fewer snaps, so that he would not have to carry as large a workload.

In a game which ping-ponged back and forth for 57.5 exhilarating minutes, it is hard to think that the reduced workload for Johnson had nothing to do with the game’s denouement, which the embattled quarterback authored when he took the huddle with 2:33 left and Florida trailing, 29-25.

Imagine if Johnson had played every offensive snap for Florida in those first 57.5 minutes? Chances are he probably would have made more mistakes. Chances are he probably would have taken more hits. Chances are he would have had more occasions in which to doubt himself. Without that constant pounding or incessant stress, Johnson entered the final minutes with fewer scars and a fresher arm.

His first throw on that Florida possession changed a game and transformed the way this rivalry is remembered.

Sean McDonough of CBS was calling the national television broadcast of this game. Jacquez Green cleanly beat his man in single coverage near the right sideline. Johnson delivered a frozen rope roughly 40 yards down the field. When Green caught the ball, McDonough exclaimed, his voice cracking, “BEHIND THE DEFENSE!”

Gator fans, enjoy it, again, here:

It’s a call instantly recognizable by every Gator fan old enough to remember the play. Green cut back to his left and made a diagonal across the field to the Florida State 18. On the first play of a season-defining drive, Florida gained 62 of the 80 yards it needed. The Swamp erupted.

The next play was a Fred Taylor 17-yard run to the 1. The noise from Johnson-to-Green remained thunderous. Taylor then strolled in from a yard out, and in just 43 seconds on three plays, the Gators had retaken the lead with 1:50 left.

With the crowd roaring, FSU quarterback Thad Busby had time to score — 1:46 after a short kickoff return — but he didn’t have any sort of comfort zone. Two passes netted nothing, and Busby’s third-and-long pass was intercepted, setting off a celebration in Gainesville.

After dealing with quarterback struggles for nearly two whole months (struggles which didn’t decrease in similarly frustrating 1998 and 1999 seasons with Johnson), Spurrier somehow used a two-quarterback balancing act to bring out the best in his inconsistent offense. It is not something coaches normally do, but it is something more coaches should consider if they have uncertain quarterback situations. Commentators might scoff at the notion, but the idea of offering personalized coaching for specific plays has merits which are underappreciated.

Reducing the workloads of two quarterbacks so that they can be more focused, organized and relaxed when they DO play is the even stronger line of thought which supports an in-and-out “revolving door” system.

Look at this year — 2018 — in the existences of Miami, FSU and Florida football. Imagine what a “revolving door” QB shuffle might have been able to achieve for Mark Richt, Willie Taggart, and Dan Mullen. Maybe this wouldn’t have been sustainable on a weekly basis, but in a few games, it might have worked: Coaching up quarterbacks for a specific play or a series of downs might have offered benefits which a more traditional rotation system (you play this full game today, the other quarterback plays that full game next week) could not have achieved.

Two quarterbacks with noticeable weaknesses and limitations might have become more than the sum of their strengths — not less — if given the chance to play the way Steve Spurrier played Doug Johnson and Noah Brindise in 1997 against Florida State.

This was a remarkably entertaining game. It was a hugely important game. It balanced the Florida-Florida State rivalry in crucial ways… and yet it possessed football-specific significance beyond the Sunshine State. This is still a blueprint for quarterback coaching under less-than-ideal circumstances. The legacy of this particular Gator-Seminole football game will remain richly layered many years from now.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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