The special aspect of the Florida-Florida State rivalry at its 1990s height is the highly identifiable nature of the series’ greatest games.
The 1997 game was the one in which Steve Spurrier changed quarterbacks.
The 1996 game, which we looked at on Tuesday, was the contest in which Danny Wuerffel got pounded and kept getting up, only to receive more physical punishment.
The 1994 game was the “Choke at Doak.” The 1995 Sugar Bowl, played one month later, was the “Fifth Quarter in the French Quarter,” marked by a fight between two Florida players days before the game. The Gators’ night-before-the-game routine was to see a movie as a team. The selection that year?
“We saw Dumb and Dumber,” then-UF defensive coordinator Bobby Pruitt said. “Apropos.”
Every game had a very memorable dimension to it, something casual fans could immediately recall. The power of a memory is a sign of its importance. The value of a memory shows how much people care.
We choose to remember the things which matter, and we let go of the things which don’t. In the 1990s, virtually everything about Gators-Seminoles mattered. The two schools and fan bases — which, in previous decades, had rarely been able to gather around UF-FSU games involving two great teams on the same field at the same time — were suddenly thrust into a cauldron of searing emotions produced by larger-than-life athletes and generationally great coaches with personalities to match.
Florida-Florida State was consistently marked by hatred since the start of the rivalry in 1958, but it took great teams playing for high stakes under one-of-a-kind Southern ball coaches to set it on fire and completely change the nature of Gators-Noles.
The 1993 game between these teams fit neatly into the flow of this rivalry at its zenith. This clash is easy to remember.
Whereas some UF-FSU games were memorable because of a trend (Wuerffel getting crushed, Spurrier rotating QBs, Florida choking), this was a game defined by one moment in time, a play which owns immortality in the Gators-Noles series.
Against the hated Gators, Florida State Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward showed everyone in America why he was in fact the nation’s best player in 1993. He completed 38 of 53 passes for 446 yards and four touchdowns in this game. Yet, if you had told fans on both sides of this rivalry that Ward would post those numbers, they probably would have told you that this game would not have been close.
Well, for a period of time it wasn’t — FSU gained a 27-7 lead — but midway through the fourth quarter, it WAS close.
Danny Wuerffel and Terry Dean were shuffled around at quarterback by Spurrier in a rocky 1993 regular season. On this day, Wuerffel started well but then got knocked out by a knee injury. This left the matter up to Dean, who threw two interceptions as the Gators fell behind by 20, but then rallied Florida with two touchdowns. The Gators’ defense was constantly exposed by Ward’s elite skills, but it never stopped fighting — it managed to prevent Florida State’s offense from running away with the game. With just under six minutes left in regulation, Florida State held a tenuous 27-21 lead. Florida’s Kevin Carter then batted down two straight passes to force 3rd and 10.
The seemingly impossible — Florida making a comeback from a 20-point deficit against the No. 1 Seminoles, who were trying to give Bobby Bowden his first national championship — suddenly seemed very realistic.
That’s when Ward sealed his Heisman Trophy Award… and a Gator killer was born.
Ward eluded Florida’s Mark Campbell and Ellis Johnson and glided to his left. At an angle, Ward lofted a soft pass into the left flat, where his running back had begun to turn upfield and develop a full head of steam.
Warrick Dunn caught that pass on the run. He never stopped running along the left sideline until he got to the end zone.
A 79-yard touchdown pass instantly halted Florida’s rally, instantly quieted Florida State’s fears, instantly catapulted Bobby Bowden to the 1994 Orange Bowl against Nebraska, and instantly silenced what people on both sides of the rivalry widely acknowledge is the loudest The Swamp has ever been.
The greatness and significance of “Ward to Dunn” makes the play easy to recall 25 years later. It makes the 1993 game a worthy entrant on this short list of greatest UF-FSU games. It enabled Bowden to win his first national title. It represented Spurrier’s first loss at The Swamp — he had been 23-0 heading into that afternoon in Gainesville.
It forced the Gators to dig very deep one week later in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama, a scenario Florida and Spurrier would have to get used to in subsequent years. It enabled Bowden to claim that his best teams never did lose in The Swamp: FSU’s two No. 1 teams won in Gainesville in the 1990s, in 1993 and 1999. The 1997 team was No. 2.
The consequences of every UF-FSU game in the 1990s were enormous. The earth shook as a result of each Gator-Nole showdown… even when earth-shaking noise in Gainesville was abruptly silenced by one play from two iconic Florida State football stars who essentially passed the baton in 1993. That was Ward’s last year as a Seminole, and Dunn’s first. What one man did to terrorize Florida in the early 1990s, the other one continued into November of 1996.
Ward to Dunn ripples through the pages of time in the Florida-Florida State rivalry. William Floyd — the FSU fullback who later became a Super Bowl champion with the San Francisco 49ers — remembered the scene before the play unfolded:
“We couldn’t hear Charlie in the huddle. We kind of had to put our ears right up in his face. It’s the loudest place I’ve ever been.”
Then it became the quietest place Floyd and his teammates had ever been.
When one play turns over 85,500 fans into breathless, slack-jawed statues, it contains great power.. and forms the kind of memory which never leaves the human mind.
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