GatorZone.com Contributing Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Coming off the first Southeastern Conference championship in school history, the Florida Gators entered the 1992 season ranked No. 4 in the country. Considering the losses from the previous roster -- especially on both lines of scrimmage -- that projection was considerably optimistic (if not unrealistic).
Even with a Heisman Trophy contender, Shane Matthews, at quarterback.
It did not take long for the legitimacy of those lofty forecasts to be called into question, as the Gators were pummeled at Tennessee 31-14 in the season’s second week and destroyed even worse the following week in a Thursday night 30-6 road loss at Mississippi State that marked a rare game of the Steve Spurrier era that UF did not score a touchdown.
The Gators, by all accounts, were dead and buried in the first year of the SEC’s split-division, championship game format.
Then came seven straight wins, including a big upset of Georgia, capped by a road rout of Vanderbilt that gave UF the first SEC Eastern Division title and berth against unbeaten and second-ranked Alabama in that inaugural conference title game at Birmingham.
Florida, a 10-point underdog, threw a harrowing scare at the Crimson Tide, rallying from two touchdowns to tie the game in the fourth quarter before Antonio Langham’s interception return for a touchdown with just over three minutes to play gave ‘Bama a 28-21 win and left the SEC runner-up as Gator Bowl bait.
UF (8-4), ranked 14th despite four losses, drew 12th-ranked North Carolina State (9-2-1), which finished second in the Atlantic Coast Conference to league newcomers Florida State. Kickoff was set for 6 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.
To the time capsule we go.
THE DATE: Dec. 31, 1992
IN THE HEADLINES THAT DAY
- Jean Harris, the former girls school headmistress convicted of murdering her lover, “Scarsdale Diet” author Dr. Herman Tarnower, was granted clemency in Albany, N.Y., by Gov. Mario Cuomo.
- In Manama, Bahrain, U.S. fighter planes intercepted Iraqi warplanes that violated a flight ban over southern Iraq a day after American airmen shot down an Iraqi MiG-25, a US military spokesman said. The planes penetrated the “no-fly zone,” but turned back after being intercepted and no weapons were fired.
- The United States and Russia agreed on a treaty deeply reducing their nuclear arsenals and setting in motion plans for a New Year’s summit between President Bush and Boris Yeltsin.
- Ling-Ling, the female Giant Panda who symbolized the opening of relations between the United States and China and the National Zoo’s most popular feature for 20 years, was found dead. Zoo officials said the death was unexpected, although at 23, Ling-Ling was not old for a panda.
IN THE THEATERS
“A Few Good Men” -- starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore
“Scent of a Woman” -- starring Al Pacino
“Chaplin” -- starring Robert Downey Jr.
ON THE TUBE
ON THE RADIO
(Billboard’s Top 3 songs of 1992)
“End of the Road” by Boyz II Men
“Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix A-Lot
“Jump” by Kris Kross
3-bedroom, 2-bath home (avg. cost): $122,500
Ford Mustang convertible: $14,289
Postage stamp: 4 cents
Gallon of gasoline: $1.05
Super Nintendo: $159
Cellular car phone: $325
THE GATOR BOWL SET-UP
For the Gators, the biggest concern -- even nearly a month later -- was the leftover dismay of coming so close to a shocking upset that would have given them a second straight SEC title after winning one the previous 59 years. What’s more, Florida had been trounced 45-24 by Florida State the week before the crushing Alabama defeat.
But UF coach Steve Spurrier insisted his team had plenty to play for.
“We had the opportunity to win the conference, but we didn’t quite do it,” Spurrier said. “The opportunity to win nine games for the third year in a row would be excellent for our football program.”
Not only that, but the historic first conference championship squad of ’91 -- the first UF team ever to win 10 games in a season -- lost to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. The ‘90 team, that went 9-2 and would have won the SEC, was ineligible for postseason play because of rules violations by the previous coaching staff. The ’89 team had lost the Freedom Bowl.
So no player on Florida’s ’92 roster had ever tasted success in the postseason.
“We need to win a bowl game,” All-SEC junior tailback Errict Rhett said.
When UF took the field, wearing all-blue uniforms for the first time since Doug Dickey’s final game in 1978, it did so on a mission.
The season finale was much like the entire 1992 season in that you could never quite get a focus or a fix on how good this Florida team really was. This time, Mother Nature had a lot to do with it.
Not because of rain or cold, but a blanket of fog like something out of a John Carpenter movie that hovered over the Gator Bowl and at times even covered Florida’s 27-17 victory over North Carolina State to the point that parts of the game were invisible to the partisan UF crowd at the 46th edition of the game.
Florida tailback Errict Rhett rushed 39 times for 192 yards, record-setting quarterback Shane Matthews threw a pair of touchdown passes in his final game in a UF uniform and the Gators’ defense was terrific, limiting a high-powered Wolfpack offense that averaged nearly 400 yards per game to just 267.
“The story of this game was defense,” Coach Steve Spurrier said. “We played absolutely sensational in the first half and well all game. We just put the running game in and played defense.”
Despite starting five first-half possessions in NC State territory, Florida led just 10-0 at intermission, thanks to a 34-yard field goal from Judd Davis and 1-yard quarterback sneak from Matthews.
In the second half, with the fog becoming increasingly dense, the Gators took advantage of a Wolfpack fumble and marched 72 yards to a score, the big play being a 32-yard Matthews-to-Tre Everett completion that few people in the stands (or on the field, for that matter) even saw. The drive ended with Matthews finding Willie Jackson for a 17-yard touchdown pass and 17-0 lead.
N.C. State, behind quarterback Terry Jordan, scored 10 straight points, but a 42-yard David field goal pushed UF’s lead to 10 and Matthews finished the night with another touchdown toss into the fog, a 34-yarder to Harrison Houston late in the fourth quarter to ice the game.
IN THEIR WORDS
“Can you believe there has been such a big to-do among Jacksonvillians about the Gator Bowl’s decision to blackout this game to the local cable TV audience? Blackout? The fog nearly whited-out this game to the entire stadium and national television audience.”
--Mike Bianchi, TheGainesville Sun.
“When I saw it rolling in, I thought something was burning. I kept expecting to hear the sirens and alarms. But there was nothing on fire ... except maybe us.”
--Florida offensive guard Jim Watson.
“We didn’t want a team from up north to come in here and beat us in our own home state. Not a team we felt we were just as good as. We consider the Gator Bowl our second home.”
--UF coach Steve Spurrier.
“I really couldn’t see much of anyone through the fog. I just threw it in an area of the field where I thought Tre [Everett} would be open -- and he was.”
--Gators quarterback Shane Matthews of the key completion of the second half.
“I felt unstoppable tonight. Even on plays where they would stop me for three yards, I’d get an extra four yards.”
--Gators tailback Errict Rhett, who announced after the game he would return for his senior season.
“Errict Rhett was great. He’s the best back I’ve ever faced.”
--N.C. State linebacker David Merritt.
“They were more of a finesse team than we expected. They didn’t really step up to us. ... [Our defense] took a lot of heat this year. We deserved some of it. But I think we showed something tonight that maybe we had something to do with winning a few games too.”
--Carlton Miles, 12 tackles in his final game.