Summary: By Bob Redman The Florida Gators go into Knoxville Saturday night with a mature and veteran team, ready to face the kind of obstacles you go against in a hostile environment with 107,000 fans screaming and a big, physical team coming at you. You can’t afford to lose your poise as Dallas Baker can tell you. He remembers all too well what happened in 2004.
The last time the Gators went to Knoxville (2004), Florida was on the verge of knocking off the Vols when Baker got called for a personal foul that cost Florida 15 crucial yards. The foul occurred well after the play when Baker retaliated after a Tennessee player swung at him, the refs only caught Baker’s shot. Worse than the penalty yards that cost Florida critical field position, the referees forgot to start the clock on the play, a major gaffe that gave the Vols an extra 20 or so seconds, enough to allow them to kick the game-winning field goal.
Since that incident, it’s a brand new Dallas Baker and this one has matured. He’s a team leader that has grown since a terrific end of the 2005 season when he helped rejuvenate a stagnant Florida offense. He’s built on that success to start the 2006 season with 13 catches, 204 yards and two touchdowns. More importantly, he’s passing down the lessons he’s learned to the young Florida wide receivers that look up to him as a team leader.
Last Saturday, freshman Percy Harvin scored on a 58 yard touchdown on a spectacular pass-run play, showing his enthusiasm by slamming the ball to the turf when he crossed the goal line. Baker was quick to get to the rookie and tell him to just hand the ball to the referee. That is how it is done at Florida now.
Harvin’s mind goes blank moment reminded Baker all too well of what happened in that UT game in Knoxville.
“Getting a penalty like that and seeing it was all over ESPN and I know my teammates helped me, but I know some were thinking about [what] if it didn’t happen?” Baker said Wednesday after practice. “I was telling Percy not to go down the same path. Don’t be known for getting silly penalties. That’s why I tell him so much you don’t want to get a holding penalty then everyone thinks we might have scored if it weren’t for Percy holding.”
The evolution of Baker has been fun to watch. At the end of the year last season he was really coming into his own. He finished off the year as the Outback Bowl MVP. This evolution means understanding that whoever the team is across from him, it is just another team. Tennessee will be no different.
“That is our main focus is to take every game one at a time and practice the same way every week,” Baker said. “The reason we aren’t much different is because we practiced the same against Southern Miss. With the veterans on our team they are helping the younger players. They are helping each other relax and not get up tight because we are playing Tennessee, just play football.
“We played Southern Miss, and they are a great team and UCF went to a bowl game. We can’t change the way we act just because it is Tennessee. We lost to Mississippi State two years ago and they lost to Maine.”
He also knows that this isn’t do or die time with this one contest. Whatever happens Saturday, the Gators cannot afford to get too high or too low after the game.
“I don’t know about make or break, this is the third game of the season,” he said about the big meaning of the Tennessee game. “You can’t say make or break. We beat Tennessee last year and we didn’t go to any big time bowl. This is the first SEC game of the year and we want to come out on top.”
To that end, the team has to be able to adjust during the melee. Urban Meyer often points out that the Gators were great front runners last season. If they got off to a good lead, they usually finished. If the Gators got behind, it was usually disaster. When the Gators got behind against Southern Miss in game one, nothing looked pretty on the field, but there was no sense of panic.
“Coach tells us we play great when we are ahead, but when we were behind last year there were some players holding their heads down,” Baker said. “Our main focus now is when we are down, fight even harder.”
They ended up turning a 14-7 half time lead into a 34-7 route.
Meyer has made it a focus of his for the seniors to lead this team. Including the kickers there are 17 seniors that contribute a great deal to this Gator squad. Baker knows it is the seniors’ time to lead the way and their last chance to take home championship rings. It has been Meyer’s focus for the seniors to lead the way.
“They don’t take guys sitting back and being quiet,” Baker said about the coaching staff. “Chris (Leak) is one of the quietest guys I ever met, and Coach Meyer isn’t going to stand for that. They are pushing us to become mature and vocal and it really helps. If coach feels like he has faith in you that you can be a mature player and you can be very vocal, you might as well go ahead be a leader.”
As much as Tennessee is just another game on the schedule as far as squaring off on the field, Baker and his teammates know the fans, media, and a national audience will be looking to see who comes out on top when the two goliaths collide. Games like this are why he came to Florida. Florida may be the only team that has three or four games like this.
“We come here to be on television so everyone can watch you play and also play Tennessee,” Baker said. “Watching Peyton Manning play against the Gators and what kind of rivalry it was, that was part of the reason I came here. Playing Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida State, every week is like a rivalry game.”
It’s all about perspective for Dallas Baker. It is a perspective that has been nurtured through five years of college football experience. It is a perspective that has seen his ups and his downs and has shaped him into one of the best college wide receivers in America. On Saturday, he will take everything he has learned and try to beat the boys from Rocky Top. Once that game is over, it’s business as usual and on to the next opponent.