"I've been telling them all year that if they'd just believe, something like this would happen," said Croom. And yes, the first-year head coach even meant something like knocking off a top-twenty team. This day, the Dogs' faith was finally rewarded with SEC success. "You can't express it," center Chris McNeil said, "all the tears in the locker room." Tears of joy, of course, but also of satisfaction at going cleat-to-facemask with a league power and coming out ahead.
"We put it together," quarterback Omarr Conner said. "We went with one heartbeat today."
Conner actually was the heartbeat of the Bulldogs. Returning after missing almost ten whole quarters with a sprained knee, the sophomore kept State's offense pumping. Conner accounted for 208 yards total offense, throwing for 158 yards and running—usually on purpose—for 50 more. His strong arm and fancy footwork didn't just put balance back in the Bulldog gameplan, it kept Florida's defense utterly off-balance all day. "With Omarr in the backfield we have a couple of threats," said Norwood.
Croom called Conner the "heart and soul" of the team Saturday. Norwood, though, was "the intestinal fortitutde." Or more simply, the legs of the offense. The junior tailback was marvelous, taking the ball a career-high 29 times and gaining 174 yards with two touchdowns. The last was by far the best, on a series when the Bulldog offense showed heart, soul, and plain old guts.
Trailing 31-24, Florida had tied the game on a 73-yard drive as with 5:05 left splendid soph Chris Leak outran safety Darren Williams to the right pylon for a one-yard touchdown. The Bulldogs did get as far as the Gator 36-yard line before Conner overthrew Tee Milons on 4th-and-3 to hand the ball over at 2:39. When Florida immediately struck for a 20-yard gain Croom's fears went from having to play overtime to keeping the Gators from winning in regulation.
Fortunately the next snap changed the outlook and outcome, as Leak forced a low throw for his slanting tight end that safety Jeramie Johnson dove for and snared a foot off the turf. Suddenly State had another chance to play for the win at 2:03. But on a seond-down keeper Conner, running out of bounds, was seemingly hit late and knocked out, staying down on the Gator sideline. It was only a minor ding to the same tender knee. "I lay there a second," Conner said, "but I said whatever it takes I'm going back on that field regardless."
"When he got up I didn't even worry about it," Croom said. Conner did have to take a play-off, but Norwood was still in and turned a handoff from Kyle York into a 11-yard gain and first down. Conner kept for two yards, then coordinator Woody McCorvey called a sprint-left draw. "The line blocked and got me through," Conner said. "After that I was in the end zone, you can't ask for nothing better than that!" There was more to it than that as the tailback had to shed one tackler at the 25-yard line and had another dragging his facemask at the goal line.
"He's a heckuva football player," said Croom of Norwood, who followed up a 201-yard effort against Alabama-Birmingham with a much more satisfying victory. A heckuva victory, too, and by far the best all-around effort the Bulldogs have put together this season. State did give up 441 yards, 6.8 per play, and 31 points to the high-flying Gators.
But the Dog defense also made more plays and forced Florida to work far harder than anyone could have expected of this statistical mis-match. Leak did complete 20 of 35 throws for 260 yards, and Ciatrick Fason ran for 143 more yards on his 16 blazing carries. Yet much of the day the Gators seemed slightly out-of-rhythm, while a revised State lineup was playing to a faster, harder tune.
"We had gang-tackling, not gang-grabbing," Croom said. "When we hit guys today they went backwards. Putting those new linebackers in there changed our attitude, our speed was different."
"The gameplan was to make (Leak) get out of the pocket and disrupt his throwing," defensive end Willie Evans explained. "Maybe he'd make a bad play and we would capitalize." In fact Leak was not sharp in the first half, though it also helped State greatly when some wide-open opportunities were missed badly. "That might have been some big plays but I guess we got lucky," said safety Slovakia Griffith. "Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good!"
Really, the Bulldogs were both. Particularly on offense, and right from the start. Conner used the first series to show what State had been missing, running or throwing on eight of 12 plays on an opening touchdown drive. He threw to Milons for a 32-yard gainer, bootlegged on 4th-and-1 for a first down, then ran a straight keeper for 14 yards to the Gator three-yard line. On second-and-goal he scooted around right end to conclude a six-minute possession, which was what the Dog offense had only averaged in three previous SEC first quarters.
"The coaches were calling the plays going toward my athleticism," said Conner. "I ran the ball, I threw the ball." And State moved the ball, though the score stayed 7-0 at the quarter break.
Florida was able to tie the count on a 94-yard drive as Leak hooked up with wideout Chad Jackson, in close contact with cornerback Jamaal Johnson, for a 46-yard touchdown strike at 11:18. On that play State put eight men on the line with three deep defensive backs, a sample of how coordinator Ellis Johnson was trying new wrinkles. And the offense showed new resilience, answering with a 80-yard series. Conner found Joey Sanders for the key 34-yard pass play, then hit Milons at the six-yard line. On second down Conner lobbed for McKinley Scott, and the senior made the reaching grab and got a foot down in the corner of the end zone at 7:14.
Defensive end Michael Heard stripped DeShawn Wynn and caught the carom at Florida's 24-yard line, setting up a 40-yard field goal by Keith Andrews at 5:27 for a 17-7 lead. And the Bulldogs could have padded the margin or at least run out the clock, but tight end Blake Pettit fumbled a catch at Florida's 42-yard line with 2:55 left. The Gators didn't even need two of the minutes to score, with four first downs in seven snaps. On 1st-and-goal at the Bulldog nine Leak again looked to Jackson for a catch-and-dash into the end zone at 0:57.
And one series into the new half the score was tied as Matt Leach crushed a 50-yard field goal through at 12:16. The third period was the real make-or-break test for State, as Florida kept possession almost 11 minutes on 25 snaps. Bulldog salvation came on special teams, in the form of Jonathan Lowe. When Florida punted on the next turn, he drifted almost to the right sideline for the catch at the MSU 27.
Though only a freshman, Lowe had seen that both Gator ‘gunners' were lined up on the right side. So he started back to his left, evaded one tackler at the 30 and then split a pair at the 45. "I knew it was an opportunity and I had to take advantage of it," he said. Lowe did, cutting back towards the right sideline and beating the last Gator (Chad Jackson) to the pylon. Actually, Lowe was outside the orange but he stuck the ball back inside it while wiping out linesman James Hix. "I saw him on the ground with his arms up!" said Lowe. His 73-yard touchdown return was State's first on a punt since the 1998 SEC Championship Game.
It also meant State was playing ahead or at least even the rest of the way, because Florida's Fason answered with a 55-yard touchdown gallop to re-tie the score 24-24 at 6:23 of the third period. Still the defense had enough left to force a punt before the quarter ended, and the tandem of Conner and Norwood strung together a crucial drive that not only produced a touchdown but took 17 plays and almost seven priceless minutes. The drive ended as Norwood vaulted over McNeil's block in the middle and broke the plane before a thundering collision with Todd McCullough.
"The defense put the ball in our hands," Conner said. "And we put it in Jerious' hands."
After Norwood's second and decisive touchdown, Florida did move the chains once on a Leak scramble. But snapping with seven seconds left the Gators had to resort to repeated laterals, the last ending as Heard blasted Leak from behind for a game-ending fumble recovered by Brian Staley.
The win was State's first over a ranked victim since 2000 (Auburn), and obviously Croom's first SEC win as a head coach. "I've been involved in a lot of good wins in my life. But this is #1. Even the championship games." The 2004 Bulldogs are far from a championship team, of course, but there was no over-stating how big this victory was. Or, how rewarding to everyone involved. "It feels real good to win," said Norwood, simply.
"Coach told us to leave it on the field," Heard said. "If we lost or won he'd be happy. I give this to Coach Croom."