Late TD lets Tigers stun top-ranked Florida, 36-33 Penn State, Auburn looking out for No. 1

October 16, 1994|By Gene Wojciechowski | Gene Wojciechowski,Los Angeles Times

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They stopped just short of calling Florida's coaches stupid. The words formed on their lips, the temptation to rip never more appealing than after the Auburn Tigers' last-minute, 36-33 shocker against the No. 1 Gators yesterday at Florida Field.

Why, asked Auburn's players, did some rocket scientist in the Gators coaches' booth -- a.k.a., defensive coordinator Bob Pruett -- decide free safety Michael Gilmore could cover the Southeastern Conference's third-best wide receiver, Frank Sanders, one-on-one?

Gilmore: 5 feet 11 (if that), 180 pounds, a Rhodes Scholar finalist last year, but not to be confused with anyone who can actually jump.

Sanders: 6-2, 200 pounds and the same guy Florida coach Steve Spurrier had identified earlier in the week as Auburn's go-to player, especially on lob passes.

With 36 seconds left, Auburn trailing 33-29, the ball on Florida's 8-yard line, Sanders trots into position and sees Gilmore across from him. Worse for the Gators, Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix saw him, too. Sanders sprinted for the end zone. Nix lofted the ball toward the left corner. Gilmore and the Gators died.

"I have to question their defensive strategy on that one," said Nix, who completed 28 of 51 passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns. "They put [Gilmore] over Frank and blitzed us . . . on the 8-yard line. We can't throw the ball too far down the field, so I don't know why they blitzed."

It was one of nearly two dozen crucial mistakes the Gators made.

The Florida Flop in detail: five interceptions (four thrown by former Heisman Trophy contender Terry Dean, who was benched midway through the third quarter), one fumble, nine penalties, five sacks given up and one of the strangest defensive calls you'll ever see.

"They gave Frank man-to-man coverage, and as soon as we saw it, it was like little kids at Christmas," Nix said. "It was there, and we both knew it was there. As soon as we got up to the line of scrimmage I knew it was going to be a touchdown."

The win ended Florida's stay atop the polls and, probably, its chance at a national championship. Now the Gators (5-1) will have to depend on the kindness of strangers -- anyone who plays unbeaten Auburn, Nebraska, Penn State and Colorado.

"We come down here, 16-point underdogs, and beat them again," said Auburn coach Terry Bowden, whose team beat Florida 38-35 last year, but is ineligible for postseason play this year because it is on probation for NCAA violations. "You tell me, should we be No. 1? I say yes."

Gone was Spurrier's string of 15 consecutive home victories against Southeastern Conference opponents, to say nothing of his pre-game contention that No. 6 Auburn was something of a pretender, that the Tigers' schedule was borderline laughable. The comment rankled Auburn (7-0), but then again, Spurrier is famous for spouting off.

"I told our team we didn't coach our best game and a lot of players did not play their best game," said a slightly humbled Spurrier.

Dean was 7 of 19 for 126 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions, two leading to Auburn scores -- a field goal and a touchdown. A fumbled snap by Dean accounted for another Tigers field goal.

The victory was especially sweet for Bowden, whose team had listened to Florida's staff and players issue assorted slights against the Tigers, who extended their NCAA-best consecutive victory streak to 18. The schedule was soft . . . Auburn's victory against Florida last year was a fluke. This would be different, Florida vowed.

So much for vows. Four of Spurrier's past five losses have come against Bowdens, two against Terry, two against Terry's father, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. In all, Spurrier is 1-5 against Terry and Bobby.

The Gators couldn't stop anybody when it counted. They botched the coverage against Sanders in the waning moments and were fooled completely in the second quarter when Sanders ran a 28-yard reverse for another touchdown.

Still the Gators had a 33-29 lead with 1:45 left.

But for reasons unclear, the Gators decided to pass on a third-and-15 from their 29-yard line. They could have run the ball, knocked precious time off the clock, forced Auburn to use its second of three timeouts and then punted and force the Tigers to drive 70 or so yards for the winning touchdown.

Instead, Spurrier, who prides himself on calling all the plays, instructed Danny Wuerffel to throw for the first down. Wuerffel had played wonderfully in relief -- 10 of 13 for 171 yards and three touchdowns -- but this time he made his first and only mistake.

With no Florida receiver in sight, Wuerffel let loose with a pass anyway and then watched as free safety Brian Robinson made the interception, his third of the game. Rather than have to start their final drive at, say, the Auburn 30 after a punt, the Tigers started at the 45.

The Tigers had 1:20 and two timeouts to move 55 yards. Nix found Sanders for a 13-yard gain. Later, on a third-and-10 at the Florida 42, Sanders dropped a pass that hit him in the hands.

With 51 seconds left and no choice but to try for the first down, Nix found Bailey open for 14 yards.

Nix hit Willie Gosha for a 20-yard gain to move the ball to the Florida 8. That set up the Sanders-Gilmore matchup.

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