The orange and blue. The chomp. The visor.
It was a steamroller in the 1990s. Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators had represented the SEC East in all five SEC Championship Games and had the league by the throat, winning the last four. They had won 25 straight SEC games by an average of 27 points.
The Gators came to Tiger Stadium in October of 1997 to face a team that had limped, literally and figuratively out of Nashville a week earlier, winning a 7-6 game against lowly Vanderbilt but losing powerful running back Cecil “The Diesel” Collins in the process.
Even though the game technically featured a matchup of Top 15 teams, the favorite was as hard to identify as a bullshark in a koi pond.
“I said in my press conference, the hardest thing for Florida was to decide which wide open receiver to throw the ball to,” said Gerry Dinardo, the Tigers’ coach at the time. “I was kidding around. In fact I told the team I said it so they wouldn’t take it to heart.
“Our guys were great. We didn’t play well at Vanderbilt, but sometimes that helps you. I don’t remember it being difficult to get the guys up for Florida even though we hadn’t played well the week before.”
Preparing for the juggernaut that was the Florida passing game couldn’t be done in one week. At least, it didn’t appear that way as the Gators lit up scoreboards throughout the southeast.
Florida had beaten the Tigers, 56-13, in Gainesville a year earlier en route to a national championship.
Dinardo recalled his week of preparation for the aerial assault led by quarterback Doug Johnson and his devastating duo of Reidel Anthony and Jaquez Green. Someone named Fred Taylor shared the backfield with Johnson, too.
“We broke out the ‘Bandit’ which was a defensive scheme that (Mississippi State Defensive Coordinator) Joe Lee Dunn had popularized,” Dinardo said. “It was a 3-3-5, and we substituted frequently. The way it turned out we had guys that wouldn’t have ordinarily been playing in the game playing against the No. 1 team in the nation.
“I don’t really remember doing anything psychologically that week to get the guys ready. I just know the guys were really excited to play Florida.”
The Tigers leapt out to a 14-0 lead on the shoulders of a 40-yard option touchdown by quarterback Herb Tyler and a seven-yard rumble by fullback Tommy Banks.
Dinardo said the gameplan called for a steady diet of running to keep the Gator offense on the sideline. Though the option play wasn’t something he loved, he felt it played to Tyler’s strengths as a runner.
“Even when I was an option coach at Vanderbilt and Colorado, I never wanted to pitch the ball that much,” Dinardo said. “You start pitching the ball around, and that’s a turnover waiting to happen. As I remember, it was all tight end stuff. It was called, ‘lock the box.’ We brought Herb to the perimeter, and it was basically two-on-one fast break.”
Those fast breaks resulted in a pair of touchdowns, both on keepers, just like the head coach wanted.
Tyler finished the night a steady 10 of 17 for 182 yards and no turnovers. It was a microcosm of his career. He was productive and unflappable.
“Herb was a real steady performer who played inside himself,” Dinardo said. “He had a great sense for that. I think it’s safe to say a lot of guys on the team had their best game of the year that night or else we wouldn’t have won it. Herb was part of that group.”
Much of the defense fell in line.
Johnson was harassed all night, sacked five times and hurried four more. The relentless pressure resulted in turnovers, the lifeblood of any rabid crowd. The Gator gunslinger was picked off four times, as well.
Johnson was obviously accustomed to open receivers and easy throws. Dinardo and his staff decided the easiest way to take that away was just that, easy. The Tiger defense sat back in a three-deep coverage and relied on the defensive line to do the heavy lifting.
“You’re not a great play caller because you have a lot of plays, you’re a great play caller because you call the right plays at the right time, and that’s what Steve does,” Dinardo said. “What we did was we sat back in a Cover 3 and simplified everything we did.”
Still, it was impossible to totally shut down the Gator offense. After falling behind 14-0, Florida rallied to knot the score on a pair of Taylor rushing touchdowns.
As the game reached the fourth quarter, the Gators had the ball in a tie game as Johnson dropped back to throw.
“The pass is picked off. That’s (LSU cornerback Cedric) Donaldson. And he…will…score,” said ESPN’s Ron Franklin.
The Tigers had the lead, and magic of Tiger Stadium had reemerged. Further proof of that came on the ensuing kickoff when Bo Carroll coughed the ball up and into the welcoming arms of LSU’s Troy Twillie.
Four plays later Tyler scampered into the south end zone on an option keeper to give LSU a 28-14 lead.
Florida mounted one long drive to cut the lead to seven, but it would stay right there.
The goalposts would not.
As the clock hit zeroes, the Tigers had knocked off a No. 1 for the first time in school history, and the goalposts were swallowed by purple and gold tidal wave.
“I can remember Herb Vincent telling me (ESPN’s College) Gameday wanted me on set, but I had to do radio with (LSU’s) Jim (Hawthorne). Herb said, ‘No, don’t worry. I’ll cover Jim for you,” Dinardo said. “We lived off Highland Rd., and we partied all night with the neighbors.”
It was, without question, one of the great nights in the history of the LSU football program. The story, however, cannot be told without the next chapter, a 36-21 defeat at the hands of Ole Miss in the same stadium.
The emotion and jubilation resulting from a win that was supposed to signify the resurrection of a program locked in the darkness of the mid-90s was too great to reproduce.
“I brought in ‘The Advocate’ to the team meeting, and (Equipment Manager) Jeff Boss got me a trash can and a cigarette lighter,” Dinardo said. “I burned Sunday’s paper in front of the team. I was trying to say, ‘it’s time to move on.’
“I often wonder if I blew it. In other words, was it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Did I put it in the players’ mind that we have to put this behind us? Judging by the result of the game, it wasn’t a very good strategy.”
The Ole Miss game likely sapped some of the energy out of the program in 1997. Not anymore. Today, the Florida win is etched in stone as one of the best in school history.
Few games can be recognized with a year and an opponent.
1959 Ole Miss.
Those certainly can be. 1997 Florida has its place.
“It was one of those games that you can say you had fun coaching the game,” Dinardo said. “Most games we coach, they’re really not fun. They’re back and forth, and it’s hard. I just remember feeling like we had nothing to lose in that game. It was a fun game. We had a good plan. The crowd was into it. It was just one of those rare moments when it was really fun to coach that game.”