Two days later, I’m still in a slight state of shock over seeing what I saw Saturday night. You hear about these huge moments in college football, you catch them on replays and highlights. If you’re lucky, you had your television on the right channel as they happened. If you’re really, really lucky, you get to see it in person.
Saturday night, I got to watch verifiable Florida Gators history in person, and holy cow was it a special moment.
There is really no way to describe what Ben Hill Griffin Stadium felt like on that evening, as Florida executed an improbable come from behind win to beat Tennessee 28-27. Mere words seem futile and insignificant, but I’ll try and if it wasn’t supremely annoying, I would do the whole thing in all caps because, honestly, this game deserves it.
If the first two games were a roller coaster of emotions, as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, then Saturday night was a pot boiling over with virtually ever emotion on God’s green earth, all coming out in The Swamp.
And that’s where we need to start and end—The Swamp.
The Tennessee Volunteers stepped on to Florida Field, hoping to break a 10—game winning streak held over them by the Florida Gators, and had the confidence and swagger to truly believe it’d happen. Media pundits, football analysts and the entire state of Tennessee just knew that this was the year. If we’re being honest, a good portion of the state of Florida feared this was the year as well.
For about three quarters of the game, 90,000 fans in The Swamp had accepted the fact that this would indeed be the year.
Fans are an interesting conduit for the games running commentary. Of course they’re seeing it through rose-colored glasses, but they also know the history better than most and they have the highest expectations. So watching the game from the stands with the fans provides a unique point of view.
Fans swayed a lot on redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier. As he insisted on leaving the pocket, holding on to the ball and taking sacks, there was disappointment. Not disgust, as one would assume, just disappointment with the occasional explanation of “That’s a freshman mistake, but he better learn it quick”; that one was usually followed with an expletive as well. Then one fan that has been coming to Florida games for over 30 years shut everyone up with the magic word—“Tebow used to do that. Always felt like he could still make a play. Can’t fault him for that.”
After that, there was just a sense of resignation whenever Grier would take off, like “Welp there he goes again. Three receivers wide open over the middle of the field. Gotta learn to go through those progressions boys.”
Midway through the 4th quarter though, down by 13 and when Florida started knocking on the door of the endzone to actually pull this thing off, the tone changed to “Look at our quarterback!”
Grier was running the two-minute offense (even at 5 minutes left) to perfection. He was getting guys to the line when they needed to get to the line; he was letting them take their time when the clock needed to milk (even with fans screaming in the moment “Get to the line!”) He found open receivers all over the field, led them with throws and played just about as well as you can play in a pressure situation. On the Monday following the game, wide receiver Brandon Powell said that the teams practice on the previous Thursday prepared for those moments in the game.
“We finished off practice with a two minute drill and we actually drove it down the field making some good throws and some good catches,” he said. “I mean I guess that’s what helped, we had a good practice that day and it translated over to the game and we won the game in a two minute situation.”
Keeping his cool and doing what he knew he could do was the most impressive part of Grier’s game on Saturday and one that fans took notice of.
As the last couple of NFL Drafts have shown, the Florida Gators have consistently fielded a very talented team. But with the exception of the three—overtime win over Kentucky in 2014; they haven’t been a fighting team of late. Sadly, that seemed to show in the body language of a few older guys as well. Someone who showed nothing but fight in those last crucial minutes was Will Grier and it came as no surprise to anyone that has watched Grier closely the last couple of weeks.
While previewing the game on Friday, former Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow said of Grier, “The one thing that’s impressed me about his game is he’s played with a lot of courage, and a lot of heart and he puts forth a lot of effort. That’s really given him the chance to make some of the big plays that he’s made.”
As the clock ticked down on Saturday night, fans seemed to agree as I heard more than one exclaim, “We’ve got ourselves a quarterback!”
After what Head Coach Jim McElwain and company showed versus Tennessee, I’m ready to start calling this team the Florida Fourth Down Gators. The play calling was conservative at times—much to the annoyance of fans who long dream of the fun-and-gun return—and this was amplified by the Vols running such things as double passes back to the quarterback and jump passes from the running back. That’s supposed to be the Gators offensive playbook, not what the defense should be caught off guard by. When it counted most however, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier dialed up some simple passes that came across as doozies and resulted in the Florida Gators going 5-for-5 on fourth downs. It may not have been fun-and-gun but it was reminiscent of Steve Spurrier in ways, as fans declared, “This is what we want to see! Aggressiveness! Onions!”
I spent most of the game sitting next to a gentleman that has seen more Florida Gators football games than he can count. As a proud alumnus, he was extremely disappointed with the student section that began to filter out during the 3rd quarter. He couldn’t believe it, students not wanting to stick around and support their team even when it looked like a loss was imminent. But as the game wore on and Tennessee looked to have it locked up, it became clear he was thinking the same “I wouldn’t mind leaving this game early too.” I mean, seriously, who wants to see their team lose to a team they’ve held a decade long dominance over? No one; and if you said you’d love to stay, you’re lying.
But good things come to those who wait and fans that stuck around got to be apart of history. The Swamp has long been a feared stadium, but the past couple of years have bellied that. It had lost its teeth, so to speak. But on Saturday night, fans seemed to dig the stadium monster up from it’s grave and return it with a vengeance. McElwain even credits fans with the false start Tennessee suffered late in the fourth quarter.
Linebacker Jarrad Davis summed it up best when he said, “You feel dead in the fourth quarter at that point. Then that last minute and however many seconds it was you feel dead. And when the crowd is energized like that, its like the game just started all over again, and it’s time to make one more stop. That’s what we did. We used the energy from the crowd. It’s crazy. You won’t believe it unless you are out there. You will not believe how much that crowd affected us.”
It was like night games during the ‘90’s I’ve heard more than one fan say. The fans were in it, the team responded and it went down to the wire with 90,000 screaming all the way. If you left early, well I bet you never do that again.
When Grier hit Antonio Callaway on the route that resulted in the touchdown, the entire stadium seemed to shake, with the noise decibel growing increasingly higher with each yard he gained. As the young freshman finally crossed the goal lines, well the place just completely lost it’s collective mind. The ghost of years past still hangs around as one fans largest cheer was “No flags, no flags!” but it was overrode by the repeated exclamation of “How bout THEM GATORS!”
In the lower bowl, near the southeast endzone, three EMT’s created a bubble around an older gentleman, begging him to leave Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with them.
He had come to see the Florida Gators beat Tennessee for the 11th straight year, and dad-gum it if he was leaving before seeing it through.
During the 4th quarter this Gators fan, like many others, had been so taken with excitement at the Antonio Callaway go ahead touchdown that he passed out; sitting right there in the corner of the southeast endzone with a direct line of sight as Callaway ran into Florida Gators history, about 15 rows up, the fan turned to his comrades behind him, screaming loudly, jumping up and down, and then his poor body just couldn’t take it anymore, falling out on the bleachers.
The in-stadium EMT’s rushed to his side, quickly reviving him and determining that he was okay, but doing their do-diligence, asked for him to exit his seat so they could escort him to an area for a more thorough check up. With just a little over a minute left at that point and Tennessee getting the ball back, it would’ve taken a stick of dynamite to remove him from that spot. Not that it would’ve been heard in The Swamp at that moment anyways.
The sound wave from Callaway’s touchdown celebration hung in the air for the next minute and a half as well, giving the defense enough courage to make one last stand.
And when the Volunteers missed the (second) field goal, skirting just past the right upright, I thought to myself, this is the kind of game that would make someone a Gator fan.
Leaving the stadium was no small task either with thousands upon thousands crushing into tunnels and sidewalks, high fiving, hugging, sharing a moment with the only people on earth they wanted to share it with. One fan outside of a gate told me “I’ve just been high fiving everyone I see. I’m so excited, I don’t even care.”
That’s what college football is all about. That moment, when you’ve just shared something with 90,000 others and know that you’ll be forever connected through that game. It’s unbelievable. I still can’t grasp it. Let’s do it again on Saturday.
What a freaking moment in the Swamp pic.twitter.com/QxTALieX4L
— Andrew Spivey (@AndrewSpiveyGC) September 26, 2015