Dooley: Three Gator teams that defied the odds vs. 'Noles
Published: Friday, November 29, 2013 at 6:05 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 29, 2013 at 6:05 p.m.
You want hope.
No. 2 Florida State (11-0) at UF (4-7)
WHEN: Saturday, noon
RADIO: 103.7 FM, AM-850
You want to believe.
You can't stomach the thought of having no chance.
You are a Gator fan who has suffered through one of the most miserable seasons in the program's history, and you feel like you deserve something to salvage it.
You resisted the urge to sell your tickets and will be there for every play no matter how bad it gets because that's what you do.
You want hope.
You want a reason to be optimistic.
You want something more realistic than the view behind the orange-and-blue glasses.
You've seen your team lose to Georgia Southern. You've seen your team lose six straight games. You've seen your players spend more time getting MRIs than first downs.
You're sick of it.
You want hope.
I can't give it to you. But I can give you precedent.
■ ■ ■
It was a strange Friday night for the 1971 Florida football team. To save money that year, coach Doug Dickey had discontinued the practice of putting the team up in a hotel in Alachua the night before home games. So the players were milling around Yon Hall.
They hadn't won a game all year. They had started the season by losing to Duke in Tampa. They had been shut out by Alabama. They had lost the previous week in Baton Rouge 48-7.
They were 0-5, unranked and unloved. Florida State was 5-0 and ranked 19th by The Associated Press, 16th by United Press International. They had won at Miami and at Virginia Tech. They had beaten the same Mississippi State team that had beaten Florida.
Florida Super Sophs had grown into Slumping Seniors. But on that night before the game, the team was called to a players-only meeting on the 50-yard line of Florida Field by captain Tommy Durrance.
They were frustrated with Dickey, who had taken over for the beloved Ray Graves the year before.
“Nobody was buying in,” said Carlos Alvarez, a senior wide receiver on that team. “That night, we bought into it. We knew we had to go all out.
“A lot of times you just say that and it doesn't mean anything. That night, it meant something.”
Florida, despite having record-setting quarterback John Reaves, threw only 12 passes the next day, but pulled out a 17-15 win over the Seminoles.
“What I remember most from that game was covering a punt and Tommy was covering it down the other sideline,” Alvarez said. “We both hit the guy and someone — I think it was Willie Jackson — recovered. Tommy and I were hugging each other. That was as elated as we have ever been on Florida Field.”
But that team had leadership. That team had seniors who had been through so much that they were able to bond. This team's leaders were Dominique Easley and Jeff Driskel. Neither has played since the third game of the season.
“We had great leadership,” said Alvarez, the honorary Mr. Two Bits for Saturday's game. “And we had a great captain in Tommy Durrance.”
■ ■ ■
It was 11 months after Florida had won its first national title by beating the hated Seminoles in New Orleans. The 1997 Gator team started the season No. 1, but lost at LSU and quarterback Doug Johnson was suspended for the Auburn game.
Like the 2013 team, this Florida team had quarterback issues the rest of the season, but they were self-inflicted rather than caused by injuries. By the time the Gators lined up to face heavy favorite No. 1 FSU in The Swamp, nobody knew for sure who would start.
All they knew was that if FSU won, the Seminoles would be playing for the national championship. Florida, meanwhile, had failed to win the East for the first time since the SEC split into divisions.
“The flipping of the quarterbacks confused our leadership role on the offensive side,” Johnson said. “We were inconsistent due to our maturity level, me included.
“We lost to Georgia that year and that was the worst Georgia team we played during my four years at Florida.”
In one of the most exciting games ever played in Gainesville, Florida used a 63-yard pass to Jacquez Green from Johnson in the waning minutes to set up Fred Taylor's fourth touchdown of the game. The Gators won 32-29 as Steve Spurrier alternated Johnson and Noah Brindise at quarterback on every other play.
“Our belief grew during the game,” Johnson said. “We were always confident, but we didn't know how the mechanism or the flow of the game would work.”
But that team was loaded with talent. It wasn't missing its tackles or its tailback or its best defensive player.
There were 13 players on that team who would be taken in the next two NFL drafts.
“We might have been a notch below FSU in talent but we weren't far off,” Johnson said. “We could play with anybody.”
■ ■ ■
By the time Florida's 2004 football team made it to Tallahassee, the Gators had four losses and a lame-duck coach.
Ron Zook had been fired seven games into his third season as the Gators coach and would be coaching his final game.
Florida State came into the game ranked 10th in the country. Two losses (in overtime to Miami and by three to Maryland) had eliminated the 'Noles from the national championship picture, but they still hoped to play in a BCS bowl.
Florida had other ideas.
“It was our Super Bowl,” said running back Ciatrick Fason. “It was such a big game for us. We wanted to send Zook out the right way. And we wanted to help him get another job.”
Florida played brilliant third-down defense, holding the Seminoles to 1-of-15 conversions. Fason scored the game-winning touchdown with 4:59 to play, and Jarvis Herring picked off a pass deep in Florida territory with eight seconds to play.
After the game, Zook was carried off the field by his team.
But that team had inspiration.
“We knew that Gator teams in the past had trouble winning at Doak Campbell and we were able to come together,” said Chris Leak, the sophomore quarterback on that team. “And you know that the FSU game is a special moment in your career. We wanted to win for Coach Zook, but we also knew that this game isn't about the X's and O's. It's about which team wants it more.
“And we were on a mission.”
If it wasn't enough that they were playing their last game for a coach they loved, Florida's players knew that this was also the night Florida State would name the playing surface after Bobby Bowden.
“Bobby Bowden Field, that made it an even more emotional game,” Fason said.
There was also this — the coaching staff thought a win at FSU might change the mind of Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley and they would keep their jobs. It didn't happen.
There was plenty of incentive that night and there should be plenty on Saturday. I'm not sure these examples give Gator fans any more hope. Your best hope might still be that the FSU buses accidentally take a left on I-75 off I-10.
But at least you know it's possible.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.