A little help from friends

Back in the 1960s, the artist Andy Warhol stated, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” which means Justin Trattou has another 14:46 of fame remaining before his candle burns out. Perhaps Trattou is destined for bigger and better things in the future, but for Gator fans, the 14 seconds of his allotment that he used up Saturday night will last forever.

Should the Florida Gators go on to win the national championship, Trattou’s interception and 53-yard runback that plunged an 11-inch stiletto deep into the heart of the South Carolina Gamecocks will be remembered as a play that defined an entire season. Ironically, it came against South Carolina, which in 2006 provided the stage for Jarvis Moss to block a field goal on the last play to preserve Florida’s 17-16 win that year. Just as the Moss block is remembered as the defining play of that first national championship season under Urban Meyer, Trattou’s play that helped the Gators earn a 24-14 win in Columbia has a chance to live on as one of those Kodak moments in the mind of every Gator fan.

Everyone will remember what Trattou did, but how many will remember all the things that turned an interception of a deflected pass into a play that flipped the field and gave the Gators a chance to score the game-sealing interception?

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It was the very first play of the fourth quarter. Florida held a precarious 17-14 lead and the Gamecocks had driven from their own 29 to the Florida 22 in ten plays. There was no question the Gators needed a big play because South Carolina seemed destined to either score a go-ahead touchdown or at least tie with a field goal.

The play began with an overload to the right side with tight end Weslye Saunders and wide receivers Jason Barnes (outside) and Moe Brown (slot). Prior to the snap, Brown came in motion to the left side and set up as the slot receiver with Alshon Jeffery on the outside. Garcia lined up under center with Brian Maddox at tailback, offset to the left side about seven yards deep.

Florida was in its Joker package (3-3-5 alignment) with Trattou on the nose, flanked by Jermaine Cunningham on his left side and Carlos Dunlap on the right. Ryan Stamper was set up as the middle linebacker. Brandon Spikes (right side) and Brandon Hicks (left side) lined up on the outside shoulders of Cunningham and Dunlap. Joe Haden had single coverage on Barnes on the right side while Markihe Anderson had the coverage on Brown and Janoris Jenkins was one-on-one with Jeffery. Major Wright was lined up on Stamper’s left side, three yards deeper, with Saunders as his coverage responsibility. Ahmad Black was the one-high safety, responsible for the deep coverage sideline-to-sideline but he was shaded to the right to help out on Jeffery.

Steve Spurrier’s play call was a slant, and originally it was supposed to go to Barnes on the right side, but Garcia said in his post game remarks that Haden had the inside shoulder on Barnes so there was every likelihood the timing of the route would be disrupted. Over on the left side, Anderson lined up seven yards off the line of scrimmage on the outside shoulder of Brown so he became the hot receiver. Just prior to the snap, Garcia took a step back and looked to Brown and Jeffery over on his left side.

Brown said after the game that he didn’t know the play was coming his way and so he was surprised that Garcia threw to him but in his Sunday teleconference, Spurrier confirmed that Garcia made the proper read to go to Brown.

At the snap of the ball, Trattou got cut by the center and knocked to the ground. The left tackle and left guard went low to cut Dunlap at the knees. Over on the right side, the left guard had solo responsibility on Cunningham while the right tackle tried a cut block on Hicks, who had the short zone on the outside. Stamper’s coverage responsibility was Maddox, freeing Spikes to rush Garcia.

On the right side, Barnes ran a slant but Haden had the inside and impeded his progress. Saunders tried to sell a slant, but his real job was to settle in the middle and provide a block to spring Brown once he caught the ball.

Over on the left, Jeffery tried to sell a deep route to occupy Haden and Black. Brown ran a slant and had inside position briefly but Anderson closed the gap very quickly. Stamper broke to his right and was in position to make a tackle if Brown had caught the ball but there was no way he could have made a play on the ball.

Garcia had a lane between Spikes and Dunlap to throw the ball, but both Florida defenders jumped at the same time with their arms extended, impeding his vision somewhat. While Spikes was in the air, Maddox tried to take his legs out from under him but Spikes caught himself with a hand on the ground to keep from being taken out completely. The replay seems to confirm that Dunlap got just a small piece of the ball with his right hand because it does have a slight change of trajectory.

It is unclear whether the ball hit Anderson in the hand or the helmet but Meyer and defensive coordinator Charlie Strong confirmed that Anderson got a piece of the ball. The ball popped off the facemask of Brown and sailed back toward the line of scrimmage. Trattou was on one knee when he saw the ball coming his way. As he made the catch, Wright took out Brown and Dunlap sealed off the offensive line, creating an alley for Trattou to run through.

Spikes, Stamper and Wright started the convoy with Hicks, Anderson and Dunlap just a step behind as Trattou took off for the sideline. Black and Haden sprinted from across the field to join the convoy while Jenkins took care of Jeffery, allowing Trattou to cut inside at the South Carolina 32. Stamper peeled back to take out Garcia, who got a small piece of Trattou at the 36.

At the 40, the convoy was joined by Cunningham. At the 48, Spikes got a piece of Maddox, who retreated back to the South Carolina 48 where Wright got a block on him. As Maddox was knocked back to the 40, Spikes took on another South Carolina defender and impeded his progress. About the 38, Anderson zeroed in on a block but held off because Maddox turned his back. Cunningham came across to deliver a legal block that knocked Maddox out of the field of play but as he was engaged, Trattou tried to scoot through the opening and caught Cunningham’s leg across his thigh. Trattou fell forward to the South Carolina 26. As Trattou hit the ground, Wright was already making his third block on the play and Spikes was in the way of another Gamecock and Hicks was there to help.

* * *

Monday morning, Urban Meyer was still beaming about the play that changed the course of the game and perhaps preserved Florida’s undefeated season (Gators are 10-0) and 20-game winning streak. Asked at his Monday press conference to describe the play, Florida’s head coach explained, “First of all if it was the pressure. It was very good coverage by Markihe Anderson. He’s the one who deflected the ball.  Brandon Spikes got in the vision of the quarterback. A guy tried to cut him and he came back and got back on his feet and he led the convoy. Major Wright hit the receiver so if the ball had been caught it would have been a tough catch. You saw white shirts all over the place [leading the convoy].”

The play didn’t happen by accident. Knowing what to do after an interception is something they practice every single day during the spring and August drills. Once the season begins, it’s part of the Tuesday routine. You see one redundant drill after another all with the same goal — get the entire defensive unit to get on its feet and relentlessly run to the football. The pursuit drills might be monotonous, but they ingrain in the mind of every Florida defender that you never give up on a play and if the ball changes hands, you transform from defender to blocker instantly. 

“We do pursuit every Tuesday on the practice field and you saw that,” Meyer said. “It’s a little bit like you see our kickoff right now. It’s what you teach. It’s what you practice and our guys have bought into it.”

* * *

It isn’t the least bit surprising that the big play happened in the fourth quarter. Fourth quarter dominance is something else Meyer has gotten his players to buy into. That starts with their training routine under Mickey Marotti in the offseason. It’s designed to produce results late in the game when other teams are fading from fatigue.

We saw it last year in the fourth quarters of the SEC and BCS National championship games. In both those games, the Gators completely took over the game in the fourth quarter, both on offense and defense.

While the Gators haven’t been nearly as explosive as last year’s offensive unit, they haven’t needed to be in the fourth quarter because the defense has made a habit of taking over games in the second half. The numbers are impressive — 12 of Florida’s 17 interceptions have come in the second half; 20 of Florida’s 29 sacks have come in the second half; four of Florida’s eight SEC opponents have managed five or fewer rushing yards in the fourth quarter; and five of Florida’s 10 opponents have managed fewer than 100 second half yards.

South Carolina managed only 41 second half offensive yards Saturday, but in the fourth quarter the Gators reeled off four sacks and held the Gamecocks to minus 20 yards in total offense. 

Through the first seven games, defensive coordinator Charlie Strong never had a completely healthy unit to work with. In the last three games as the defenders have gotten healthy and returned to the lineup, the defense has become totally dominant.

“In the last three games in the fourth quarter — rushing yards: minus two; passing yards: 39; total yards in the fourth quarter: 37,” Meyer said. “That almost takes your breath away when you see something like that. That just tells you about the relentless pursuit and play of our defense.’

* * *

Florida’s defense comes up with big plays because they expect to make them. Part of that has to do with the conditioning — both mental and physical — that they get from Marotti, who is the best in the business. Another part of it has to do with the on-the-field training. The Gators are coached to play with relentless effort in practice and you see it in games.

Meyer says Trattou is “maybe the poster child for effort.” It is effort that allowed him to use up 14 seconds of his allotted 15 minutes of fame Saturday night. Fourteen seconds on the field went by in a flash. In the memory banks of Gator fans, those 14 seconds will live on for years to come.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.