Fla. proves W.Va. doesn't rate, 41-7

January 02, 1994|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS -- Never mind. The voters in The Associated Press college football poll were right. West Virginia didn't belong in the debate over who's No. 1.

The Mountaineers' first trip to the Sugar Bowl in 40 years turned into a crusade for national respect, but they didn't earn any last night. Florida's talent and West Virginia's blunders added up to a 41-7 Gator runaway at the Superdome, the third-largest margin of victory in the 60-year history of the game.

It was a bitter end to a season that saw the Mountaineers carry an 11-0 record into New Year's Day for the second time in six years. At the end of the 1988 season, they gave Notre Dame a fight before falling in the Fiesta Bowl, but this New Year's Day they quickly crumbled against a twice-beaten Florida team.

The AP voters, unimpressed by West Virginia's non-conference schedule and several close calls in the Big East, ranked them No. 3, incurring the wrath of coach Don Nehlen and nearly 30,000 fans who followed his Mountaineers here. West Virginia, however, was resoundly silenced by its own mistakes and Florida's big-play capability. By the fourth quarter, most of the folks in blue and gold had departed.

"We got whipped big-time," said Nehlen, who winced through eight Mountaineers penalties, most at inopportune moments. "Early in the game we had some penalties that just killed us. We did some things that were uncharacteristic of the things that got us here."

"I never said we were underrated," Nehlen added. "I said if we win this game, we should get a piece of the national championship."

Eighth-ranked Florida (11-2), conversely, made a strong bid to move into the Top 5 for the first time since 1985, and backed up the oddsmakers who made it a six-point favorite. Now the Gators will play a waiting game involving coach Steve Spurrier, who is sure to get an offer from the Carolina Panthers.

"All of us are ready to walk down Bourbon Street or do something," Spurrier said. "Everything seemed to go our way."

Spurrier's offense had way too many weapons for West Virginia. Errict Rhett, the Gators' all-time leading rusher, looked like a first-round NFL draft choice with his three touchdown runs, which tied the Sugar Bowl record. The game's Most Valuable Player had 25 carries for 105 yards.

"I didn't realize how small their linebackers were," said Rhett, who helped Florida out-gain West Virginia 482 yards to 265. "Plus, they weren't in very good shape, and they know it. When I start helping them up, I know that's the case."

Just as dazzling was wide receiver Willie Jackson, who had nine catches for 131 yards and a touchdown. The Gators' receivers and the Mountaineers' lack of a pass rush made quarterback Terry Dean, who was benched for much of October, look better than he really is. The junior finished with 22 completions in 37 attempts for 255 yards.

Jake Kelchner guided West Virginia to a touchdown on its first possession, but he completed only nine more passes. His alternate, Darren Studstill, also fared poorly.

West Virginia stumbled over the mistakes it avoided during the regular season. Despite a 21-7 deficit, the Mountaineers were still breathing at the half, but they proceeded to bury themselves with two final, fatal blunders that led to Rhett's second and third touchdowns.

A pass-interference penalty led to Rhett's 2-yard dive that made it 28-7, and on the ensuing kickoff, Mike Logan lost possession when he was brushed by teammate Lovett Purnell. Five plays later, Rhett made it 35-7, and the Mountaineers still had nearly 24 minutes of embarrassing garbage time to endure.

Florida's three first-half touchdowns showcased the Gators' superior athletic ability, and they followed the type of mental NTC mistake the Mountaineers couldn't afford if they were to claim their first bowl victory in 10 years.

West Virginia had a 7-0 lead and Florida pinned deep in its territory with four minutes left in the first quarter when they dropped Rhett for a two-yard loss on third-and-3. Defensive end Steve Perkins was called for a late hit, however. Given another chance, the Gators delivered a 12-play, 91-yard drive that erased the Mountaineers' only lead.

Rhett provided a stirring finish to the surge, as he carried left on third-and-2 at the Mountaineers' 3 and saw a wall of tacklers. He calmly reversed field, however, eluded cornerback Aaron Beasley at the 5 and got in the end zone with 21 seconds left in the first quarter.

"We had a bad play called," Spurrier said. "They had two extra players stacked over there. A lot of plays tonight were by his individual effort."

It was the first of three brilliant touchdown plays by Florida. Six minutes later, Studstill, taking his usual turn in the rotation in place of Kelchner, was hit trying to pass. Freshman Lawrence Wright, a fifth defensive back, easily picked off the weak throw at the Gators' 48, and began a journey that confounded the Mountaineers.

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