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Manhandled
Tim Layden
September 29, 1997
Sparked by a jarring defense and the inspiration of a little sister, Florida again pushed around Peyton Manning and Tennessee
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September 29, 1997

Manhandled

Sparked by a jarring defense and the inspiration of a little sister, Florida again pushed around Peyton Manning and Tennessee

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Genius takes many forms. In the case of Florida coach Steve Spurrier, it has taken the form of offensive creativity—the beloved ball plays, as he calls them, that propelled the Gators in seven years from outlaw mediocrity to last season's national championship. But there can also be genius in a simple phone call, such as the one Spurrier made to Kansas State codefensive coordinator Bob Stoops in the winter of 1996, offering him the defensive coordinator's position at Florida. That small piece of fiber-optic business paid a huge dividend in the Gators' 33-20 victory over Tennessee last Saturday and has at least temporarily turned the Florida program on its head. It's true the Gators still lack balance: Now their defense is much better.

As Florida sent the Volunteers into consolation mode for the fifth consecutive year (and quarterback Peyton Manning for the fourth), Spurrier's offense relied almost exclusively on the big-play receiving of junior wideout Jacquez Green (eight catches for 185 yards) and the second-half running of senior Fred Taylor (134 yards on 17 carries, after only three yards on one carry in the first half). The Gators looked as if they were still struggling to replace last year's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Danny Wuerffel, and the two wide receivers taken in the first round of the NFL draft, Reidel Anthony and Ike Hilliard.

The defense, on the other hand, was relentless. It intercepted Manning twice, sacked him twice, pressured him on at least a dozen more of his 51 passes and made him suffer for his 353 passing yards. The Gators also held Tennessee to 45 yards on 20 rushing attempts. In the dressing room after the game, Spurrier gave Stoops a game ball for the third time in his two years in Gainesville.

Moments later Spurrier leaned against a wall outside the coaches' dressing room, sipped from an orange can of sports drink (guess which one), savored the victory that would vault the Gators to No. 1 and thanked heaven for Stoops's presence. "Shoot, yes, this is what I was thinking about when I hired him," Spurrier said, running a hand through his sweat-matted hair. "Can you imagine this game in the old days? If we played that bad on offense back then, we'd have had it very tough. Might not have won at all."

Those old days would be Spurrier's first six years as Florida's coach (1990 to '95), when he honed the Gators' offensive edge but lost four games in which Florida scored 28 points or more, and won or tied four others in which the opposition ran up 30 or more. Spurrier's philosophy was simple: Outscore everybody. The flaw in that thinking was exposed in the national-championship game following the '95 season, in which Nebraska treated the. Gators like tadpoles as it rang up a 62-24 Fiesta Bowl victory. Meanwhile Stoops had built a unit at Kansas State that led the nation in total defense and probably in total attitude. On the statistics alone, Spurrier called.

He got himself an assistant for whom coaching defense is what politics is to a Kennedy. Bob Stoops's father, Ron, was the defensive coordinator at Cardinal Mooney High in Youngstown, Ohio, for 30 years, until his death in 1988. Bob's brother Mike, 34, worked with him at Kansas State and is now defensive coordinator for the Wildcats. Another brother, Mark, 30, coaches defensive backs at Wyoming, and a third, Ron Jr., 40, is defensive coordinator at Boardman High in Boardman, Ohio. "It had to be something with my dad," says Bob. "We all understand defense pretty well." Bob, 37, was a four-year starter as (what else?) a defensive back at Iowa. He became codefensive coordinator at Kansas State in 1991 and there developed many of the attacking schemes that are now immensely popular in the college game.

Stoops approached Tennessee as a professional and personal challenge. His pet blitz packages and bump-and-run coverages would be severely tested because Manning is such a gifted passer, with superb vision and a quick release. "We knew we had to get to him in three seconds or less, because he's going to be effective if you don't," Stoops said after Saturday's victory. On the personal level Stoops was angry that the Volunteers constantly talked about their "comeback" in last fall's game against Florida, which Tennessee lost 35-29 after trailing 35-0. The Vols scored their last touchdown in that game with just 10 seconds to play. "It was silly," Stoops said. "We backed out of our blitzes and made them use time to score. They picked their way up the field with short stuff. It didn't even seem like they were trying to win."

A single play on Saturday—perhaps the most significant of the game—illustrated Stoops's high-risk defensive philosophy. With the Gators leading 7-0 in the final minute of the first quarter and Tennessee facing third-and-11 on the Florida 24, Stoops sent right cornerback Elijah Williams on a blitz from bump-and-run coverage far outside the interior line, a huge risk. But Williams and tackle Ed Chester reached Manning together and forced a horrible throw into the middle of the field. It was intercepted by junior strong safety Tony George, who ran 89 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead. The Vols never really recovered.

The interception was the biggest play in a huge game for George, a 5'11", 200-pound fourth-year junior who, like his coordinator, is a child of the Midwest. George also helped sack Manning once, had three solo tackles, broke up two passes, forced one fumble and recovered another. He's a prime example of the huge talent pool that may keep the Gators in the Top 5 for years to come. George sat behind 1996 Thorpe Award winner Lawrence Wright for two seasons before being elevated to starter this year, and there's no more certain indicator of a team's arrival as a powerhouse than its ability to replace quality with more of the same. George, in fact, chose Florida over Tennessee because Gators coaches told him he would sit and mature as a red-shirt in his true freshman season, a luxury the Volunteers didn't offer. " Tennessee was talking about playing right away, and I didn't want any part of that," he says.

His interception was prosaic—the product of solid coverage and heavy pressure on the quarterback—but his runback was poetry. He slid to the left sideline and then rolled past the Gators' bench. Twenty yards from the end zone, George raised his right hand toward the sky. Sitting in the players' family section of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, among the school-record crowd of 85,714, was 15-year-old Tari George. Tony's gesture was for her, another message among many from her big brother. "Everything I do is for her," Tony says. "I started thinking about her as soon as I reached the sideline and turned up."

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