NEW ORLEANS -- Round 2 in the Bayou was a nasty knockout for Florida, which secured its probable first national championship and some sweet revenge on Florida State with a 52-20 pounding of the Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl last night.
Four minutes into the third quarter, the Gators' lead was only 24-20, but they finished with four unanswered touchdowns and left no doubt that coach Steve Spurrier had the best team in the Bowl Alliance and the nation.
One confirmation came two hours after the game when the final CNN/USA Today coaches' poll was released, putting the Gators on top with 58 first-place votes. Ohio State finished second with the remaining four first-place votes.
Florida State dropped to third, with Arizona State fourth and Brigham Young fifth.
The Associated Press was expected to release its final poll early this morning.
Danny Wuerffel, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who was pushed around by Florida State during a regular-season loss, threw three touchdown passes to Ike Hilliard and ran for another to help No. 3 Florida (12-1) pick apart the No. 1 Seminoles (11-1) and surpass the Sugar Bowl scoring record it had set three years ago.
Wuerffel, the game's Most Valuable Player, completed 18 of 34 passes for 306 yards, given ample time to pass by a healthier-than-ever offensive line and a shotgun formation that Spurrier has abhorred in the past.
"I think he's the best college quarterback who ever played," Spurrier said. "We're not the strongest up-front team, but the shotgun gave us a chance. I don't know if we've won anything yet until the polls come in, but if they come in the way we want, we'll be a happy bunch of Gators."
Playing before 78,344, the largest crowd to watch a football game at the Superdome, Florida's unheralded defense put the clamps on tailback Warrick Dunn and Co. Dunn began to suffer leg cramps in the first half, sat out much of the second half and finished with just 28 yards on nine carries.
Florida State couldn't solve the Gators on that side of the ball, either, allowing 168 rushing yards, 118 of them on 12 carries by Terry Jackson.
After that game, which bounced the Gators out of the No. 1 spot and elevated Florida State, Spurrier squawked about the Seminoles' treatment of Wuerffel, and the ill will between the teams bubbled over last night. The two combined for 29 penalties, 15 by the Gators.
The Gators led 24-10 heading into the last two minutes of the first half. Florida State got the margin down to 24-20, but Florida stiffened its resolve, got some more big plays in the punting game, and ran off and hid with two touchdowns in the last six minutes of the third quarter.
The first required only a 24-yard drive, and followed pivotal punts, a facet that also hurt the Seminoles in the first half.
"The punts were big, big, big," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said.
Seven minutes into the third quarter and with the spread only four points, Florida State failed to field Robby Stevenson's kick for the second time in the game, and had to take over on its 3-yard line. Four plays later, Florida's Jacquez Green fielded Sean Liss' punt at the 50 and returned it 26 yards.
After a 17-yard run by Fred Taylor, Wuerffel went back to Hilliard, who had 150 yards on seven catches and tied a Sugar Bowl record with his third scoring catch, on a 7-yard slant that made it 31-20 with 5: 43 left in the third quarter.
After Florida State ran three plays and punted for the seventh time, Wuerffel showed he could run the ball, too. He scrambled for a 16-yard touchdown with 13 seconds left in the quarter to make it 38-20. The Seminoles mustered only 138 yards in the second half, and Bowden knew it was over.
"Without Dunn, you've got the spark plug out," Bowden said. "They took us out of the game tonight, and it wasn't even close. Do you see why I didn't want to play them again? They're too good."
The rout continued with 8: 52 to go, when Jackson took a pitch from Wuerffel and rambled 42 yards to make it 45-20. Florida State had lost its cool, and was hit with three late penalties that set up Florida's final touchdown, a 1-yard dive on fourth down by Jackson with 2: 12 left that might add to the bad feelings between the intrastate rivals.
"The way he scored was fair," Bowden said when asked if he thought Spurrier had run up the score. "He ran the ball. I would've done that. too. "I was disappointed in us, with the personal fouls. That was poor sportsmanship on my part. That was embarrassing."
The pre-game hype centered on Florida State's fierce pass rush, which gloated about its six sacks of Wuerffel in the regular season. Spurrier had Wuerffel in the shotgun much of the game, which slowed the Seminoles, and the Gators' pass rush was just as hard on Florida State quarterback Thad Busby.
Florida State's record run of bowl victories was stopped at 11 games. But Bowden's team figures to keep its other amazing streak going, the one in which the Seminoles have been ranked among the top four teams the last nine seasons.
Florida's opening was created by No. 2 Arizona State's loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, which dropped the Sun Devils to 11-1 and gave the Sugar Bowl the national championship game it was promised by the Bowl Alliance.
Florida twice built 14-point leads in the first half, but each time the Seminoles came back with touchdowns of their own, and the Gators' cushion was only 24-17 at the half.
The first half didn't have a stylish start, but it ended wildly when Dunn capped a 77-second, 66-yard drive with a 12-yard run with 40 seconds left. Florida came back to its 41-yard line, before Wuerffel's ill-advised lob was intercepted by Vernon Crawford.
It was the only turnover in the first half, but there were plenty of other mistakes, some physical, most mental.
When Florida State beat Florida in Tallahassee, the Seminoles used a blocked punt as the catalyst for their first touchdown, a lead that eventually grew to 17-0.
This time, it was Florida State's kicking-game mistakes that helped the Gators control field position for much of the half.
Florida State started hot again when Busby found flanker Andre Cooper for 55 yards on a fly pattern on the game's first snap, but the Seminoles quickly stalled and found themselves in a quick hole when Wuerffel, operating primarily out of the shotgun, moved the Gators 77 yards for a touchdown on their first possession.
The score came on a 9-yard slant to Hilliard 5: 12 into the game.
The Seminoles' no-huddle offense then helped split end E. G. Green get wide-open on a 34-yard catch that set up Scott Bentley's 43-yard field goal. On five of its next six possessions, however, Florida State ran three plays and punted, with Busby forced to throw on the run and Dunn shut down by the Gators.
When Florida State sent 11 men in to block a punt attempt, all the Seminoles got for the ploy was possession on their 1-yard line. When they couldn't get out of that hole, Florida took over on the Seminoles' 27, resulting in a 32-yard field goal by Bart Edmiston and a 10-3 lead with 2: 44 left in the quarter.
Florida's big win in the Sugar Bowl last night gave the Gators the inside track to the national title, but there are four other teams that can make a claim:
Gators won Southeastern Conference championship, took rematch against No. 1 Florida State, and defeated the other four SEC bowl teams (4-0 in bowls) by an average of 26.3 points.
Ohio State (11-1)
Buckeyes ended Arizona State's dream season and only lost to archrival Michigan.
Arizona State (11-1)
This season's Cinderella team upset defending champion Nebraska, 19-0, and fell one defensive stand short of unbeaten season.
Florida State (11-1)
Seminoles roughed up the Gators in the regular-season finale and shouldn't be penalized for splitting games against hated intrastate rival.
Brigham Young (14-1)
No spot in Bowl Alliance, but Cougars set NCAA record with 14 victories.
SEC on perfect roll
Florida's victory last night completed a perfect bowl season by the Southeastern Conference. Major-conference bowl records:
Conference ......... Record
Southeastern ....... 5-0
Big Ten ............ 4-3
Big East ........... 2-2
Western Athletic ... 1-1
Big 12 ............. 2-3
Atlantic Coast ..... 1-3
Pacific-10 ......... 1-3
Pub Date: 1/03/97