War Stories is a feature devoted to discussing the most memorable games in the history of Florida's rivalries. Previously in War Stories: The most memorable Florida-Tennessee games, Nos. 10-6 and Nos. 5-1.
5) No. 2 Florida 44, No. 18 LSU 15: Rex Grossman Day (October 6, 2001)
The Florida Gators, led by Rex Grossman, put on quite a show on this day in Baton Rouge. Florida wasted no time getting started with a big kickoff return by Robert Gillespie, and Grossman made the drive pay off with a touchdown to Taylor Jacobs. LSU kicked a field goal in response, but Grossman led Florida right down the field again, this time hitting Reche Caldwell for the score. The next Florida drive started badly- with a holding penalty. No problem for Grossman, who found Jabar Gaffney streaking down the sidelines for another easy touchdown. Barely ten minutes into the game, and Florida had 21 points.
Unfortunately for LSU, it never really got better. Rohan Davey did guide LSU to a touchdown right after Grossman hit Gaffney for the touchdown, but it was also right before Grossman hit Gaffney again for another score. The conversion attempt failed, but who really cared- Florida had four touchdowns with 10 minutes left in the second quarter. At that point, the offense decided it was nap time and let the Gator defense take over. Florida's defense forced three turnovers, and Alex Brown set a career record for sacks as the Tigers never had a shot of getting back into the game.
Of course, in typical Spurrier fashion, the game wasn't over because Rex Grossman hadn't thrown for enough touchdowns. He added one more, to Aaron Walker, and with just two and a half minutes remaining, Spurrier allowed Brock Berlin to throw one of his own. When it was all said and done, Grossman had amassed 464 passing yards, and Florida as a team has totaled up 632.
If nothing else, this game showed just how incredible the 2001 Gator team was. This game was memorable because Florida walked into one of the nation's toughest venues to play and walked out of it with a 44-15 beat down that was worse than the score indicated. Oh, and by the way, this LSU team the Gators dismantled on their own turf turned out to win the SEC.
So this game serves as a miserable reminder of what could have been that season. The Gators were really hot early in the year, and with a healthy Earnest Graham, would likely have clobbered Tennessee at home in September. Instead, Florida was upset early in December by the Volunteers, who, naturally, lost to LSU in the SEC Championship Game.
Unfortunately for LSU, Florida picked this game to make its case for one of the best Gator teams of all time. The funny thing is that Florida would soon tank and lose to heavy underdogs Auburn and Tennessee; other than a loss to Ole Miss, LSU ran the table after this game, including four wins over ranked teams, an SEC Championship and a Sugar Bowl victory. So let's make no mistake, this turned out to be a really good LSU team that Florida manhandled in its home stadium. But I remind you of the continuing theme of this series: Florida has had remarkable success in Death Valley.
4) No. 12 LSU 33, No. 14 Florida 29: The Fake Field Goal (October 9, 2010)
Clear a little more time for the recap of this one. It needs the extra space and time.
It was a typical day in the Swamp for Steve Addazio. Other than one single play- a 51 yard strike from John Brantley to Carl Moore- the offense was downright pathetic all night. The Gators' playbook basically consisted of three plays the whole year under him: dive left, dive right, and three yard hitch route, but only on 3rd and 12+ (can't you tell how I really feel towards him?). However, the Gators' defense and special teams kept them in the game far longer than LSU fans- already beginning to question Les Miles' future after a near fiasco at the goal line against Tennessee the week before- would have liked.
Despite a myriad of blunders, LSU built a 26-14 lead, which basically meant game over against any offense run by Addazio. But luckily Urban Meyer still had his ace in the hole, special teams, and Andre Debose did the only thing he's done well so far for Florida- run a kick back for six to light up the Swamp and send it into a frenzy. Of course, the touchdown probably wouldn't have happened without the ridiculously short kickoff by Josh Jasper, but that's another story. A few minutes later, Brantley hit Moore for the aforementioned 51 yard pickup to get into scoring range, and a few plays later, Mike Gillislee (bless his heart) punched it in to give Florida its first lead (29-26) since midway through the second quarter.
LSU appeared beat on its final drive, as Miles elected to slam Stevan Ridley right up the gut on third and one, which failed because it was so predictable that even I knew it was coming right after their second down play. In fact, that was the first of two straight plays I knew was coming. Too bad none of the Gators coaches knew it, and if only one of the guys wearing the pumpkin colored jerseys was aware of the possibility of what was about to happen, Florida would have a four game winning streak in the Swamp against the Tigers.
It was 4th and three from the Florida 36. Too far to go for it with a run, and way too far for a field goal. With images of the shanked kickoff-turned touchdown a little while earlier crystal clear in my head, I knew Miles would never trust Jasper with such a long kick. Then I remembered the 4th downs he'd ordered against the Gators three years earlier- all five of them- along with the one he'd converted earlier that night. At the very least, why was a fake not even in the minds of the Gators as a possibility?
But in typical Les Miles fashion, it just couldn't work so easily. Holder Derek Helton just couldn't make a perfect pitch to Jasper, who would then pick up the first down. And if that had happened, then I would say Florida deserved it for being caught napping in crunch time against a man known for his trickery. That's like taking your three year old daughter to the zoo and then being paralyzed with shock when she freaks out because she is deathly scared of lions. So shame on Florida for falling asleep... but for the love of God, I still am not quite sure how this happened.
Helton blindly flung the ball over his head, where it bounced like a soccer ball, right into Jasper's arms, who easily beat the frozen Gators for the first down. We all know what a football looks like. How many times out of 100 do you think you can blindly throw a ball behind your head and have it bounce perfectly? Even the slightest hint of a wobble, and the ball tilts ever so slightly, and then bounces another way. That's just physics. Also, the angle of trajectory of the ball was perfectly sideways, meaning it was not a pass, but a lateral. So LSU got the first down, and two passes to Terrance Toliver later, LSU had the 33-29 victory.
The 31-6 defeat at the hands of Alabama the week before was one thing. But under Urban Meyer, home games at night were sacred. Nobody was supposed to come into the Swamp and leave with a win at all, but especially not at night. This loss was when I knew Urban was finished. Of course, I didn't know that he would retire after the season, but I did realize that the best he had to offer the program- his glory days- were behind him. And I was right: other than an admittedly sweet win over Georgia, and a bittersweet moment in the waning moments of the Outback Bowl, he had nothing more to give to the program. Florida went on to lose three straight home night games, something I can't even remember happening before, and Florida finished with a Zook-like 8-5 record.
Meanwhile, LSU rode this victory to a Cotton Bowl berth, which they won over future SEC West rival Texas A&M. But it seemed to epitomize something else- Les Miles is the luckiest SOB on the planet. A few weeks later, Miles gambled on 4th and 1 against Alabama, ordering a reverse to tight end DeAngelo Peterson that worked to perfection and spurred the Tigers on to a huge victory over the Crimson Tide.
3) No. 1 LSU 28, No. 9 Florida 24: Five Fourths (October 6, 2007)
The Full Game
Coming off a tough loss to Auburn, I was worried about how Florida would play. I didn't need to, because this turned out to be one of the most exciting games I've ever seen. And before everybody asks why I put this game at #3, let me assure you, you could order these last three in any order you want, and I wouldn't argue. Anyway, the week before the game, LSU fans hijacked Tebow's cell phone number and placed hundreds of calls and texts. It all went something like this. How low can you get?
It seemed to energize Tebow, because Florida raced out to a 10-0 lead early, and after Tebow flipped a quick touchdown pass to Kestahn Moore, he pretended his hand was a phone, punched some numbers and put it to his ear to mock the LSU student section. Surely some of them had a hand in the whole thing. But the game went back and forth after that until late in the game. LSU trailed, 24-14 early in the fourth quarter, but they mounted a drive. They had a 3rd and 1 from the Florida 2, and Keiland Williams was stood up by Joe Haden. So Miles elected to go for it on 4th and 3, and Matt Flynn hit Demetrius Byrd for the score. The extra point cut the Florida lead to 24-21. Florida could do nothing with the ball, and punted back to LSU, giving them the ball on their own 40.
Then came one of the greatest drives of all time. Facing a 4th and 1 from their own 49, LSU chose to go for it rather than punt and pin Florida back against their goal line, still with seven minutes to play. Jacob Hester bulled his way for the first down, and into Gator territory. LSU then continued on its merry way against the weak and inexperienced Gator defense, mostly via Jacob Hester's power running. But the Florida defense stood up near its own goal line and forced a 4th and 1 at the 7. Miles decided to forgo the 24 yard field goal to tie and sent Hester through the line again, and of course Hester made it. Three plays later, Hester plowed his way into the end zone from three yards out.
But of course, no game with Tim Tebow in it is really over until the clock shows all zeroes. He had 1:09 to work with, and he got Florida to the LSU 44 before he was forced to throw up a Hail Mary. It failed, and LSU hung on for a thrilling 28-24 victory.
It's hard to say that this game had any definite long term implications, although with a third loss, LSU certainly would not have made it to the national championship game. But had LSU lost this game, they may not have gotten complacent and lost silly games to Kentucky and Arkansas, either. The best Florida could have done with this win was force a three way tie atop the SEC East with Georgia and Tennessee, and we can only speculate how that would have turned out.
This was the night that Les Miles really earned his stripes as the Mad Hatter- his Tigers attempted five fourth down conversions, and got all five. You can certainly say that Florida's defense was simply beaten up, and Miles was counting on that when he made the calls, but there's still significant risk in declining a 24 yard field goal and going for it. Miles knew this, went for it, and was rewarded with a huge victory.
In the end, it was just a great game between two great teams that will be remembered by fans of both teams for years to come.
2) No. 14 LSU 28, No. 1 Florida 21: And The Valley Shook (October 11, 1997)
Florida, the defending national champion, was in trouble the minute LSU got the ball. The Tigers drove right down the field on Florida, and though they didn't actually score, it set the tone for a long day for Bob Stoops' defense. Herb Tyler got the scoring started with a 40 yard jaunt, and right after, Doug Johnson's pass sailed on him and was picked by Cedric Donaldson, who returned it 69 yards to the Florida 5. That set up a touchdown for fullback Tommy Banks, and LSU was up 14-0, just like that.
Florida responded with two touchdown drives of their own, both capped off by Fred Taylor to tie it at 14. Despite consistent heavy pressure on Johnson, he managed to avoid big mistakes- until the fourth quarter started. The first sign of trouble was when Donaldson picked off a floating pass and took it 31 yards for the score. The Gators then fumbled the ensuing kickoff, which Tyler turned into another touchdown.
But Florida wasn't done yet. Johnson lead the Gators back for another touchdown (Taylor's third of the day), and the Gators defense then held. Florida had one more chance, from their own 30. But the Gators quickly went backwards, and Johnson's desperation 3rd and 22 Hail Mary was picked off by Raion Hill. That made five Florida turnovers, and LSU ran off the last three minutes of the clock to preserve the 28-21 victory.
LSU's victory not only broke several Florida streaks, but sent tremors throughout college football. Gone was Florida's air of invincibility, along with their 25 game SEC win streak and four year non top 10 ranked opponent win streak. In its place was a decent Florida team that lost to Georgia two weeks later, ending any chance of a repeat.
For once, losing to Georgia alone didn't cost Florida anything. It was this loss that wound up killing the Gators. Florida wasn't really in the Georgia game the whole way the way they were in this one. Florida kept self destructing against LSU, and it cost them big time. Had Florida won this game, they would have tied with Tennessee atop the East, and would have made it to the SEC Championship Game due to the fact that they beat the Vols earlier in the year. They would have faced the same Auburn team that they had handled 24-10 in Jordan Hare Stadium, and I'd like to think they would have won that game, too.
But even though the Gators crushed FSU's championship dreams later on that season, the glory days of Steve Spurrier died on this night. For the first time since Spurrier set foot on Gainesville soil, Florida did not have the best record in its division/conference (the SEC split into two divisions in 1992, but Florida finished first in the SEC in 1990 and 1991). No longer was Florida undoubtedly the team to beat in the SEC. Although Spurrier would briefly bring the Gators back to that point in the final two years of his career at Florida, it just didn't have the same magical feel to it.
For LSU, it marked the first baby step towards reaching national prominence. Yes, LSU was downright horrendous for the rest of Gerry DiNardo's tenure at LSU, but it served as a major recruiting tool and something to be excited about around the LSU program. It was the first time LSU had ever beaten the #1 team in the country, and it gave Nick Saban something to build on.
Which he did.
1) Florida 19, No. 6 LSU 7: And The Valley Was Zook's (October 11, 2003)
Note: I really wrestled with the order of these last three games. Here is how it was all decided: the 2007 game was tossed out because it wasn't an upset. That left 1997 and 2003. 1997 was a better overall game, but the shock value of the result of the 2003 game was far greater. In 1997, the 14th ranked, 4-1 Tigers defeated the top ranked, 5-0 Gators in LSU. The 2003 game saw a 3-3 Florida team that was nowhere close to sniffing the rankings after a sickening home loss to Ole Miss (sound familiar?) take down the unbeaten and eventual national champions on their home turf.
There weren't a whole lot of things to smile about for Florida fans during Ron Zook's turbulent tenure in Gainesville, but this game sure was one of them. Nobody gave the unranked Gators a chance against the 6th ranked Tigers in Death Valley. But that's why they play the games.
Florida went three and out on its first drive, and had to punt. Skylar Green caught Eric Wilbur's punt, and raced untouched 80 yards to send Death Valley into hysterics and give LSU a 7-0 lead just three minutes into the game. And then the Gators completely dominated the rest of the game- albeit not without plenty of help from LSU.
First, Chris Leak directed a 15 play, 80 yard drive that ended with a touchdown pass to Ran Carthon to tie the game. Three plays later, Matt Mauck was picked off deep in Florida territory by Keiwan Ratliff, who returned it 45 yards to the LSU 32. Matt Leach made the Tigers pay with a field goal. It remained 10-7 Gators for awhile until LSU gave Florida another gift. The Gators were supposed to start a drive on their own 35, but an unsportsmanlike penalty cost them 15 yards and moved the ball to midfield. Florida turned that mistake in for another Matt Leach field goal, and a 13-7 lead.
The LSU miscues just kept coming. Down 13-7 midway through the third quarter, LSU began a drive on its own 40. But a hold pushed it back to their own 30. Then Mauck found Michael Clayton on a dump off over the middle, and Clayton raced inside the Florida 30. But the refs caught LSU for holding again. That killed the Tiger drive, and altered the field position so that thanks to a nice return by Keiwan Ratliff on the ensuing punt, Florida started at midfield. Leak wasted no time hitting Ciatrick Fason for the touchdown, and while the two point conversion failed, Florida had a 19-7 lead.
The rest of the game was fairly boring, aside from the prospect of pulling the enormous upset, because Florida's defense (for once in Ron Zook's life) didn't completely collapse in the second half. On the contrary, LSU found themselves struggling to even get the ball into Gator territory. The one time Mauck did get LSU there, it lasted about half a second, because Devery Henderson was immediately stripped, and Daryl Dixon recovered to seal the game for Florida.
Yes, this ragtag Florida team that lost to Ole Miss and finished 8-5 really did walk into the house of the eventual national champion and come away with a two-possession win. It's mind-boggling to think about ... but then, a slightly better Mississippi team came into The Swamp and pulled off a similarly stunning upset five years later.
But this game proved two things. One, Ron Zook wasn't just a great recruiter, he was an excellent recruiter. I'm the first to criticize him, but the man knew talent, and how to bring it in. Two, it's the best example there is of a recurring theme of this rivalry: Florida has had a remarkable amount of success in Death Valley. Even when LSU is better, Florida finds a way to win on the storied turf in Baton Rouge more often than LSU fans would like.
Once again, could this be foreshadowing of some type? Let's hope so.