The Gators, up 22 at halftime and 21 with a little more than five minutes left in the third quarter, had seen their lead cut to 11. Though the weather was a tad too nippy for the record crowd of 85,711 to start sweating, it was becoming a bit too close and a little too familiar.
"We didn't really bring up negatives," Florida coach Steve Spurrier said later. "Everyone knows what happened last year [when Florida's 31-3 fourth-quarter lead turned into a 31-31 tie]. No need to talk about it. Some bad things kept happening out there, but we just had to keep playing."
Eventually, the bad things stopped happening to the Gators.
Eventually, the ghosts disappeared.
Eventually, the Gators hung on for their biggest win. Ever.
Despite the fact that neither team scored in the final quarter, Florida's celebration of a 35-24 victory didn't really begin until Lawrence Wright intercepted Danny Kanell as the clock ran out.
While their fans roared in the wake of the first 11-0 regular season in school history, the first victory over the Seminoles since 1991 and a likely trip to the Fiesta Bowl, Spurrier and his players pointed to Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game against Arkansas at the Georgia Dome.
"It makes our game with Arkansas extremely important," said Spurrier. "Right now, it's our biggest game of the year."
It is also the only stumbling block, however small, between a true national championship game between Florida and top-ranked Nebraska on Jan. 2 in Tempe, Ariz. With their victory over the sixth-ranked Seminoles and second-ranked Ohio State's 31-23 loss at Michigan, the No. 3 Gators will move to No. 2 when the polls come out today.
"Our whole season kind of rides on next week," said Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel. "All our goals are in front of us. We can play for one ring next week and another in January."
If yesterday's game kept Florida in the hunt for a national championship, and knocked Florida State (9-2) right into a meaningless Sugar Bowl game for the second straight year, Wuerffel's dominating performance might have put the redshirt junior squarely in the middle of the race for this year's Heisman Trophy.
Despite consistent pressure that resulted in his being sacked six times, Wuerffel completed 25 of 40 passes for 443 yards and four touchdowns. He was 16 of 21 for 246 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, with two of those scores coming in the last 3:54 of the second quarter. A 20-yard pass from Wuerffel to Chris Doering with 47 seconds left in the half helped the Gators to a 28-6 halftime lead.
"He was close to super," Spurrier, ever the perfectionist, said of a quarterback who yesterday set an SEC single-season record for touchdown passes (33). "Except for one pass, he threw it where it was supposed to be."
Spurrier, the only Heisman Trophy winner ever to play at Florida, was referring to the only interception Wuerffel threw. The Seminoles had closed what had been a 35-14 deficit to 11, the result of Scott Bentley's third straight field goal and a botched punt by the Gators leading to a quick-strike 8-yard touchdown pass from Kanell to Andre Cooper.
More than a few here held their breath when FSU defensive end Reinard Wilson picked off Wuerffel's pass, then rumbled 20 yards to the Florida 41 before being tripped up by offensive tackle Mo Collins. "He may have made the play of the game," Spurrier said of Collins, who caught Wilson from behind. "He could have gone all the way."
Instead, it was the much-improved Florida defense that wound up stopping Florida State. On the ensuing possession, cornerback Anthone Lott intercepted Kanell in the end zone after the ball went through Cooper's hands. It was the first of three straight interceptions of Kanell, who wound up 17 of 44 for 184 yards.
"Last year we were able to make some big plays on them, but today we couldn't," said tailback Warrick Dunn, who had made his share against the Gators in Tallahassee. "Their defense was good, but mostly it was us not executing."
Conversely, the Seminoles' young secondary likely cost Florida State the game. After his fumble on the opening pass of the game led to an early Florida State field goal, Ike Hilliard accounted for 192 yards on six receptions, two of them for touchdowns. Doering finished with seven catches and 124 yards, and his touchdown helped him also break the SEC's single-season mark (16). Doering, a former walk-on, had another apparent scoring pass nullified by one of the all-ACC officiating crew.
Some of the most questionable calls might have caused Spurrier to lose his composure and his hat -- "It was the first time I went out with a visor and came in without one," he joked -- but it didn't cause the Gators to lose theirs. Nor did any mental blunders prove decisive, as has been Florida's recent history in big games.
This time, it was Florida State's turn to feel the pain.
"He killed me," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said of Spurrier. "He killed me and my boy [Auburn coach Terry Bowden] in the same year."
Chased away a few ghosts, too.