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Game just not same in Swamp

It wasn't the same. Georgia-Florida didn't seem right, being so separated from the St. Johns River. When it's Gators and Bulldogs, patrons should be able to glance over the stadium's East stands, admiring Jacksonville's aquatic bookends, the Mathews and Hart bridges.

When it's genuine Florida-Georgia, ballpark noses irritatingly twitch, getting whiffs of Duval County's signature paper-mill odors. It's an arena geometrically divided, half red-and-black zanies and half orange-and-blue loons.

Saturday night was something different. In many ways, something less. Just a game. Stripped of locale uniqueness. Gators-Georgia in Gainesville is a lot like Gators-Ole Miss, Gators-Auburn or Gators-Anybody. Even when viewed by 85,604, biggest football gallery ever in our state.

Ten thousand Bulldog screamers, after half a century plus of audio equality in Jacksonville's Gator Bowl, found themselves uncharacteristically swamped by a 75,604-voice Gator chorus.

Fitting, perhaps.

Florida Field is nicknamed The Swamp. Forty-five minutes before ESPN aired, the field was swamped by blowing rain. Thunder got scary, accompanied by lightning far more frightening. Kickoff was delayed 15 minutes. Finally, they did play.

Georgia got swamped.

You knew it would be a night of endless airings, with Georgia sky king Eric Zeier opposing Florida's erratically potent quarterback alternative, Danny Wuerffel.

Gator defenders were resigned to constant backpedaling, working to survive even if Zeier launched a hundred mortars. Florida used as many as six defensive backs. But suddenly, from the scorching smoke, came Gator opportunists to scoop up Bulldog passing mistakes and dramatically snap Georgia's disintegrating football spine.

First it was senior safety Michael Gilmore, a Rhodes scholar candidate from Chipley, sucking up a fumbled-away Zeier completion to Larry Bowie and wiggling 59 yards for a touchdown.

Tame stuff compared to what Darren Hambrick would do for Florida on the first half's supercharged final play. Becoming perhaps the night's biggest Dawg killer, the sophomore linebacker from Dade City intercepted Zeier in mid-grass, then went huffing toward the right sideline. Scoreboard clock was ticking near 0:00.

Hambrick had only begun.

Surely the UF bench, which was mere inches away, must've been yelling, "Get out of bounds," hoping for a few seconds to attempt a field goal. Hambrick kept on plowing, bouncing off inept Georgia tacklers, miraculously avoided stepping out of bounds. As the tumult climaxed, he steamed the last of 81 yards into the end zone.

Zeier is still a whiz, no matter how often Georgia crumbles in 1994. No matter if the Gators did eventually slap the 'cuffs on Eric, intercepting him for two touchdowns and skewering their old Jacksonville rival. Even if Zeier was benched with the game miles out of reach in the fourth quarter.

So overbearing was the Saturday night challenge on Zeier that Florida's defense, embarrassed by Auburn two weeks ago, caught up to Eric the Great and then badgered him.

James Bates, like Hambrick, returned a Zeier interception all the way, making it three defensive TDs for the Gators. Something they never accomplished in 60 Jacksonville years. Something they'd never done anywhere in a century of Florida football.

Ray Goff stumbled onward, one more step in search of execution as Georgia's head coach. He's 0-5 against Florida since Steve Spurrier became Gator commandant in 1990. That's not the red-and-black worst of it. This season, the overmatched Goff even managed to get his Dawgs stampeded by those academics from Vanderbilt.

Trouble is, if Goff gets the noose, the Dawgs could consider the in coaching thing by hiring one of Bobby Bowden's kids. Whoa! Did I just feel the earth shake? Was that Spurrier shuddering?

What if, after the infamy of repeated poundings by both Daddy 'Noles of Florida State and his eldest coaching son, Auburn's Terry, the Gator fellow found himself confronted by a future Georgia enemy head-coached by Tommy and Jeff Bowden?

Nah, I'm just playing.

Can't you take a joke, Steve?