The Sunday Evening Quarterback: November 24, 2019

The dynasty had been dying a slow death ever since the national championship game in 2000 when Oklahoma and second year head coach Bobby Stoops had shocked the Seminoles 13-2. In the subsequent four years, FSU not only didn’t win the ACC championship but had only one 10th place finish in the final AP poll. This from a program that had finished no worse than fourth nationally for 14 straight years (1987-2000). When the Florida game rolled around Thanksgiving weekend in Gainesville, this was viewed almost in desperation terms by the Seminoles. They needed a win to end an inglorious two-game losing streak that had knocked them all the way down to #23 in the AP poll and to convince recruits that FSU was ever so close to rekindling the dynasty fires.


The Seminoles hadn’t cornered the market on desperation. Florida began the 2005 season ranked 10th and made it as high as #5 when the wheels came off at Alabama, a 31-3 loss that felt like the air was coming out of the Urban Meyer balloon. After a 21-17 loss to LSU in Tiger Stadium, Meyer broke down in tears post game because he had players like Dallas Baker, trying to go with broken ribs and a high ankle sprain, while some healthier teammates seemed to mail it in. After a 30-22 loss to South Carolina prior to the open date before the FSU game and with the Florida charter plane on the tarmac at the Gainesville airport, Vernell Brown, Jarvis Herring and Jeremy Mincey made what is best described as their either you’re all in with Coach Meyer or don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out appeal to the team. So when the FSU game rolled around a couple of weeks later, the Gators were every bit as desperate for a program-altering win as Florida State.


In many ways, this could have been billed as a winner-take-all steel cage death match for recruits. Florida and FSU were locked in pitched battles for players like Percy Harvin, Marcus Gilbert, Brandon Spikes and Riley Cooper. Whoever won this game would seize the upper hand in landing those guys. Florida was also sweating it out for quarterback Tim Tebow, who was torn between the Gators and Alabama, which had ace recruiter Dabo Swinney appealing to Tebow’s strong Christian faith.


Heading into the game, it was thought FSU would have a huge advantage in the passing game with its veteran receivers going against a depleted Florida secondary that would be forced to start true freshman Avery Atkins at one corner and converted wide receiver Reggie Lewis at the other. And how would the Gators counter FSU’s speedy threesome of running backs – Leon Washington, Lorenzo Booker and Antone Smith?


Florida’s defensive game plan was stuff the run and protect the corners by subjecting FSU QB Drew Weatherford to a relentless pass rush. FSU managed only 89 rushing yards. Weatherford was sacked five times for -31 yards, threw two interceptions and made at least a dozen bad decisions. For the most part, FSU’s passing game was nickel and dime stuff because Weatherford really didn’t have time to take a deep drop and then launch the ball downfield.


The decision to go after Atkins backfired. Atkins more than held his own. He picked off a second quarter pass and in the third quarter recovered a fumble after he and Jarvis Herring made a sandwich out of De’Cody Fagg on a crossing pattern.


The turning point of the game was in the second quarter with Florida leading 7-0. Chris Leak threw an interception that gave the Seminoles a first down at the UF 27. On first down, Jarvis Moss corralled Booker for no gain. On second down, Weatherford threw incomplete over the middle and on third down Mincey pressured Weatherford into a horrible throw that landed incomplete, forcing a field goal attempt. Marcus Thomas split the center-guard gap on the right side and blocked the kick, which Lewis scooped up and returned 52 yards for a TD and a 14-0 Florida lead.


The blocked field goal left the Seminoles gasping for air. They never recovered. Chris Hetland kicked field goals of 44 and 34 yards and Leak directed scoring drives of 44 and 85 yards as the Gators built a 34-0 lead. FSU scored a meaningless touchdown with 3:39 left, too little, too late to make a difference in the outcome.


It was in the Florida locker room post game that the fruits of victory began to pay off. Four recruits including future All-American kick returner Brandon James committed in the locker room that night. Two weeks later, Tim Tebow committed. Six days after that Percy Harvin broke the Seminoles’ hearts and chose Florida. The momentum from that game didn’t end there. Florida finished with the second ranked recruiting class in the country. Of the 24 players the Gators signed, 10 would play in the NFL and four (Tebow, Harvin, Spikes and James) would make All-American.


That recruiting class of 2006 had a hand in the 2006 national championship and formed the nucleus of the team that won the 2008 national title. The Gators dominated FSU from 2005-09 as well as dominated recruiting in the state of Florida.


* * *

Heading into the 2019 matchup between the Seminoles and Gators the circumstances are a bit different. FSU comes to The Swamp Saturday barely bowl eligible and with an interim coach after Willie Taggart was fired a couple of games ago. Florida, on the other hand, comes into the game needing a win to get to 10 in the regular season. A 10-win Florida is almost a lock for the school’s second consecutive New Year’s Six bowl.


Just like 2005, however, there is plenty at stake on the recruiting trail. FSU is down and Florida needs to keep the Seminoles down. The best way to do that is a convincing win Saturday evening. A Florida win will give the kids who fill the recruit benches in the South End Zone the distinct feeling that Dan Mullen has the Gators returning to the championship level that hasn’t been seen in Gainesville in ten years.


In 2005 there was no early signing period like there is now. That’s another incentive for Florida to win this game decisively. With the ESD less than three weeks away, a big win will be fresh on the minds of kids, all the more reason the Gators need to put the Seminoles out of their misery

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