It was the most hyped game in the country, played before a record crowd of 90,711 fans in The Swamp and a national television audience on CBS. It was supposed to be Urban Meyer's innovative spread option offense against the see if you can stop us power running game of the Tennessee Vols, but instead of high tech sprinting past old school or old school teaching the new kids on the block a few lessons, we saw a pair of heavyweight defensive units trading jabs and occasionally unleashing a thunderous right to the jaw.
This was two heavyweights duking it out, keeping their cornermen busy closing up the wounds between rounds. It was only during those precious television time outs that a crowd intent on breaking every decibel level known to man collapsed in their collective seats but once the whistle blew and play resumed, they were back on their feet, turning healthy vocal chords into raw pulp as they watched the warriors on the field punch and counter-punch.
There probably hasn't been a better defensive game played by both teams at The Swamp since the 1991 Florida-FSU game that the Gators won, 14-9. Just like that 1991 classic, this game was a real war, and like all wars, there were casualties.
Florida's two casualties were players the Gators could ill afford to lose, wide receiver Bubba Caldwell, who scored Florida's only touchdown on an 18-yard reverse in the first quarter, and end Ray McDonald, a power guy with speed off the edge and the best player on the Gators' ever-improving defensive front four. Caldwell went down on the opening kickoff of the third quarter with a broken leg that will require surgery. McDonald damaged an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) barely a minute into the second quarter.
The injuries caused Meyer to wonder where the plays would come from in their place? He had no idea at the time how the Gators would respond to the losses of such important personnel.
"Take Ray McDonald out and I thought my goodness how are we going to win?" said Meyer. "Then Bubba goes down and you're at the bare knuckles at wide receiver."
How the Gators met the challenge is how warriors have met the challenge in battles since time began. Whether the battles are the kind fought to the death or the pitched battles of teams in packed sports venues, the winners have usually been the ones whose replacements picked up the sword of a fallen comrade and stepped in to continue waging the battle.
Quarterback Chris Leak #12 of the Florida Gators looks to see if he got the first down after getting tackled by defensive end Jason Hall #94 of the Tennessee Volunteers at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 17, 2005 in Gainesville, Florida. Florida defeated Tennessee 16-7. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
In the case of Saturday night's game, the soldiers who stepped in were wide receiver Jemalle Cornelius on offense and ends Derrick Harvey and Joe Cohen on the defensive side. Cornelius came through with 51 receiving yards on three catches including a huge 24-yard reception on a third and six in the fourth quarter that kept a 16-play, 68-yard Florida scoring drive alive. On defense, Harvey and Cohen stepped in for McDonald on a line that stuffed Tennessee's running game (66 net yards) and got enough pressure on quarterbacks Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen to force them into a 16-35 throwing night that produced only 147 yards.
"When a soldier drops a rifle next one has to pick it up and go a little harder," said Meyer.
"When one of our soldiers drop a rifle the next person has to pick it up and that's what Harvey and Joe Cohen did," said cornerback Dee Webb, who did a bit of soldiering himself. Webb broke up three passes and blocked a field goal. It was the block of the field goal that was the game's turning point.
Tied 7-7 in the second quarter, the Vols were driving on a short field, having taken over at the Florida 44 when Chris Leak was stopped inches short on a fourth down quarterback sneak. The Vols did what the Vols do best, got the ball in the hands of their big, fast tailback Gerald Riggs, and let the offensive line hammer away. Three straight running plays landed Tennessee on the Florida 10.
Poised to power the ball in for a go-ahead touchdown, the Vols incurred a couple of self-inflicted wounds when they sandwiched a second and eight incompletion between a false start and a delay of game. On third and 18 from the 19, Ainge scrambled to his right and then threw to Bret Smith for what officials ruled a catch at the Florida one. Instead of fourth and inches or a first down, though, instant replay proved conclusively that Smith had trapped the ball, moving the ball back to the 19 and forcing the Vols to settle for a James Wilhoit field goal attempt. The 37-yard attempt should have been a chipshot for Wilhoit who hit a 50-yarder to win last year's Florida-Tennessee game in Knoxville, but Webb broke through from the left side to block the kick with his right hand.
"I'm a big proponent of instant replay," said Meyer. "That was one helluva change of events."
Tennessee was never the same on offense after Webb blocked the field goal. The closest the Vols came to scoring again was in the second half when they penetrated to the Florida 48 but Florida stuffed Riggs on a third and three when Earl Everett blew by his blocker to knock down the UT tailback.
The normally steady Tennessee special teams had three other breakdowns that contributed to the Florida win. On Florida's first possession of the second half, Jonathon Hefney bobbled Eric Wilbur's punt at the Tennessee 30. Billy Latsko launched himself at Hefney to complete the separation of the ball and Tremaine McCollum fell on it for the Gators. Florida got a Chris Hetland field goal from the mistake to take the lead at 10-7.
Tailback Gerald Riggs Jr. #21 of the Tennessee Volunteers is brought down by safety Kyle Jackson #3 of the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 17, 2005 in Gainesville, Florida. Florida defeated Tennessee 16-7. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
On Tennessee's next possession, the Gators baited the Vols into a second critical mistake from the special teams. With fourth down at the UT 32, Tennessee punter Britton Colquitt thought he saw his gunner Inquoris Johnson uncovered on the right side so instead of punting, he tried to throw for the first down. Instead of an easy gainer down the east sideline, the pass was nearly picked off by Tony Joiner, giving Florida possession deep in UT territory. That mistake led to a 35-yard Hetland field goal that gave the Gators a 13-7 lead with 5:14 remaining in the third quarter.
The mistake was calculated by Meyer who set the play up by having his gunners on the outside give the appearance of leaving their man to either rush the punter or get back quickly for a return. Joiner apparently abandoned Johnson but he got back quickly into the passing lane.
Meyer admitted that he told Joiner to "cheat a little early … come out a little early. He should have intercepted that thing. A punter throwing to a gunner … we'll take that chance."
The third and final mistake was also turned in by Colquitt, who shanked his next punt, ripping off a mighty eight-yarder that turned the ball over to the Gators in good field position. Florida followed that up with a 16-play, 68-yard drive that finished with Hetland's third field goal of the night from 20 yards with 8:02 remaining. The drive took 7:42 off the clock and was saved by four critical third down conversions.
Florida got a four-yard run by DeShawn Wynn for its first first down of the drive, a 23-yard completion from Leak to Dallas Baker on third and 19 for the second, the 24-yard Leak-to-Cornelius connection on third and 11 and an eight-yarder from Leak to Chad Jackson on a third and four.
It was that kind of night for the Gators. Offensively, they didn't overwhelm Tennessee's exceptional defense with big plays but time after time in the second half when Florida had to have something, someone stepped up. Defensively, the Gators blanketed the Vols receivers and stuffed the run. On special teams, the Gators came up big for three plays that led the three field goals that provided the final margin of victory. It was a total team effort. Every time a soldier went down, there was another soldier there to pick up the rifle.
"We are not a great football team," said Meyer. "That was a great win by a good defense … no, that was an excellent defense, pretty good special teams and an inadequate offense right now."
There were no style points for this win but given the choice between style and substance, Meyer and the Gators will take the substance every time. At the end of the game Saturday night, they were the last man standing, covered with blood and sweat, but walking away 1-0 in the SEC East.
"A victory is a victory," summarized Joe Cohen.
That's all that mattered Saturday night.