'96 Blitz: It was a year to remember - especially because of three games

Published: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
LSU defensive backs, bending at the waist, hands on their knees, sucking wind in The Swamp. In the first quarter.
Auburn coach Terry Bowden pacing the sideline, bewildered, looking like a little lost boy at Florida Field.
Georgia players and coaches staring blankly at the Alltel Stadium scoreboard, down 45-0 with a full quarter still to go in Jacksonville.
These scenes of devastation are from 10 years ago, when the greatest team in Florida football history went on the greatest three-game run in school history, a perfect storm that laid waste to three of the Southeastern Conference's proudest and most traditional programs.
Looking back on the 1996 national championship season, the climatic moments in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 are what everyone seems to remember. But these forgotten scenes from late October and the first Saturday of November carry just as much power when it comes to defining this special team, this special season.
"I hate to use words like unstoppable," said star wide receiver Ike Hilliard, who is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "But when you look back at it 10 years later, we were pretty unstoppable in those three games. We went into games feeling like no matter who we were playing we were going to win and we had a chance to put up a bunch of points."
"We were in a heck of a groove," said James Bates, the starting middle linebacker on the 1996 team. "I know it sounds strange, but it's a run we kind of expected."
It was a remarkable streak in a remarkable season. Given the strength of the SEC and the quality of the opponents, the Gators probably will never have one like it again. No one probably will.
"It was very bizarre," said Danny Wuerffel, the Heisman-winning quarterback. "I don't want to sound arrogant, but it was very much like going into practice and doing passing drills where you complete everything. For whatever reason, we just got on a roll and were hitting on all cylinders. It was an incredible run.
"It was amazing the way we were able to dominate those game. That's when our offense was clicking as good as it ever had and the defense was dominating."
Florida 56, LSU 13. Florida 50, Auburn 10. Florida 47, Georgia 7. In those three victories, the Gators outscored the opposition 154 to 30, gained 1,788 yards of total offense (compared to 748 by their opponents) and amassed 96 first downs.
Making it even more astounding is that two of the teams were ranked. LSU came into The Swamp at No. 11 in the nation, while Auburn was 16th.
Neither team had a chance. LSU, which had held Steve Spurrier's offense to 28 points in a 28-10 UF win in Baton Rouge the year before, found itself down 42-6 at the half.
"LSU was the offensive explosion," Spurrier said. "They had held us to 28 the year before and their defensive coaches were giving clinics on how to slow down the Gators. So, we came our firing. Danny was hot, all the receivers were catching everything.
"We scored 42 by halftime and in the second half (LSU) went to a prevent defense. They rushed three and played everybody back and said, 'You boys can run up and down the field, but we're not going to let you score too fast."
Wuerffel was flawless early in the game, throwing a TD pass to Reidel Anthony on the opening drive and scoring on a 1-yard run later in the quarter. The Tigers' cornerbacks were winded by late in the first quarter. From there, the UF running game took over. Tailbacks Elijah Williams and Fred Taylor both finished with more than 100 yards rushing and the Gators actually gained more yards on the ground than in the air (327 to 308).
A week later, it was Auburn's turn to get spanked.
The Tigers were actually in the game at the half, trailing only 20-10, but the Gators put the game away with a 16-0 third quarter and turned it into a rout with a 14-0 fourth.
Wuerffel threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns and for the second week in a row both Williams and Taylor went over 100 yards.
"They killed us," Bowden said. "I remember standing on the sidelines wondering which one of their players was going to score next. They had so many weapons and they were so precise. Plus, they had (defensive coordinator) Bobby Stoops and that was the last piece of the puzzle."
While Spurrier's offense was putting up huge numbers during the three-game run, Stoops' defense was stifling. The Gators held a potent Auburn offense to a mere 173 total yards and gave up an average of only 249 yards in the three victories.
Two weeks after the big win over Auburn, the Gators overwhelmed arch-rival Georgia even though two key offensive staters were missing. Hilliard was suspended from the game for missing classes and starting All-SEC center Jeff Mitchell fractured a bone in his ankle on UF's opening drive.
Even without Hilliard and Mitchell, the Gators rolled.
Wuerffel threw four touchdowns passes and Taylor scored on a 2-yard run to give the Gators a 42-0 halftime lead. Just like the LSU game, this one was over at the half.
"I remember Dougie (backup quarterback Doug Johnson) threw a little pass to (tight end) Taras Ross for a touchdown (late in the game) and the fans went crazy because we beat the spread."
Florida's explosive run was ended a week later by, of all teams, Vanderbilt, which held the Gators to 28 points as UF struggled to a 28-21 victory in Nashville.
Ten years later, that three-game blitz against LSU, Auburn and Georgia seems more amazing than ever.
"Still to this day, it blows me away," Bates said. "To run through those teams like we did was fun. That's what all the hard work is about, getting out there and performing like that. To do it against teams like that is just incredible.
"We were on such a roll I don't think we even thought, 'This is Auburn coming to town, this is LSU.' It was just another Saturday. Looking back, it's kind of scary how good we were."
Yes, it is. Contact Robbie Andreu at 374-5022 or andreur@gvillesun.com.

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