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THE BIG 1 EASY // Gators make case for trophy

After rumbling toward the pylon and barely tumbling headlong into the end zone, Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel didn't clasp his hands together in prayer.

Not this time.

Instead, the Heisman Trophy-winning Wuerffel, not exactly a feared runner, jumped up with both arms raised and pumped his right fist wildly.

His 16-yard run in the waning seconds of the third quarter had all but sealed No. 3-ranked Florida's 52-20 win over No. 1 Florida State in the Sugar Bowl on Thursday night before a record crowd of 78,344 at the Superdome.

Coupled with Ohio State's last-minute win over No. 2-ranked Arizona State in the Rose Bowl on Wednesday, the Gators (12-1) staked their claim to the first national title in the program's 90-year history.

"I just kind of fell in," Wuerffel said of his score. "I didn't do anything spectacular."

Coach Steve Spurrier would disagree.

"Danny was absolutely sensational," Spurrier said. "I think he's the best quarterback that ever played college football. The last two games he almost single-handedly took us to the SEC and hopefully the national championships... If one of those NFL teams wants to win a Super Bowl, get Danny Wuerffel on their team."

Wuerffel, pressured relentlessly in UF's loss to Florida State on Nov. 30, worked out of the shotgun and completed 18 of 34 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns to earn the MVP.

"I can assure you that celebrating a team game with teammates is so much better than being behind a podium by yourself," Wuerffel said.

"Wuerffel's the guy, men," said Bowden, gracious in defeat. "You can see why I didn't want to play them again. They're too good."

The win also helped make amends for past shortcomings compared to Miami and Bobby Bowden's Seminoles (11-1), who had won an NCAA-record 11 consecutive bowls and had not lost one since 1981.

Under Spurrier, the Gators were just 2-3 in the post-season, including last year's Fiesta Bowl debacle against Nebraska.

"I think we had false confidence going into the Fiesta Bowl last year," Spurrier said. "We had a lot of people in the country picking us to beat 'em and we got clobbered. It was embarrassing because we didn't even compete hard."

But after the game's first play, it hardly looked like it would be a landmark evening for the Gators.

FSU quarterback Thad Busby, dared to pass by a Gators defense that was packed in near the line to stop Warrick Dunn, opened the game with a 55-yard bomb to wide receiver Andre Cooper.

But Dunn, who had a career-high 185 yards against Florida in November, was stopped twice and then UF ended the Seminoles' threat by thwarting Pooh Bear Williams on fourth and 1.

On came Wuerffel, the silent storm of a controversy.

FSU sacked Wuerffel six times in the last meeting and hit him almost every time he dropped back to pass. The Seminoles' aggressive, relentless pressure _ the key to slowing UF's pass-happy attack _ drew two penalties for late hits and Spurrier's ire.

He insisted that FSU played "dirty" and questioned the integrity of Bowden and defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews.

After Spurrier spent a month making the world and in particular the Big 12 officials working the Sugar Bowl take note, Bowden admitted that he feared his pass rushers might pull up a bit when they reached Wuerffel. But defensive ends Peter Boulware and Reinard Wilson said Spurrier's remarks would only make them more aggressive.

But words meant little this night.

Wuerffel got more time, thanks in part to right tackle Mo Collins and left tackle Zach Piller, who were starting for the first time together since the Tennessee game.

More importantly, the Gators used the shotgun, a formation Spurrier once abhorred, on every play of their first possession, setting the tone for the offense.

Wuerffel, under little pressure on that series, was 5-of-8 for 76 yards, including a 9-yard touchdown to Ike Hilliard with 9:58 left in the quarter.

Busby and the Seminoles, without Dunn even touching the ball, responded with a drive that ended with a 43-yard Scott Bentley field goal with 7:49 left.

But after that, FSU's offense went stagnant. The next four possessions all were three-and-outs, during which FSU netted 7 yards. Meanwhile, the Gators scored late in the quarter on a 32-yard field goal by Bart Edmiston.

Then they opened a 17-3 lead on a drive that gained steam when Wuerffel, under pressure, lobbed a ball for Hilliard on a crossing route. Hilliard plucked it out of the sky in stride and turned upfield down the left sideline for a 47-yard gain. Back downfield, the Seminoles were called for a late hit to add another 15 yards and put the Gators at the 13.

Three plays later, tailback Fred Taylor bullied his way up the middle for a 2-yard touchdown with 11:29 left in the half. After the fourth straight three-and-out, the onus was squarely on FSU's vaunted defense.

And for the first time all game, FSU, which entered the game as the nation's best against the run (59 yards a game) and third in total defense and scoring defense (229.5 yards and 11.1 points), held the Gators without a first down.

After a solid punt return by Dee Feaster, FSU converted a first down _ its first in about 15 minutes _ on a Busby sneak on third down. Facing another third down, Busby hit Peter Warrick for 23 and then followed with a 29-yard touchdown to E.G. Green to cut the deficit to 17-10.

Back came Wuerffel.

A 40-yard bomb to Jacquez Green on third and 16 set up another Wuerffel-to-Hilliard touchdown, this time a 31-yarder, to give UF a 24-10 lead with 5:18 remaining in the half.

The Seminoles had only once before allowed as many as 24 points in a game _ in their 31-24 win against Atlantic Coast Conference rival Virginia.

The Gators forced another three-and-out, but so did the Seminoles, aided by Florida's 11th penalty of the half. Busby, looking more poised than he had all season, directed a 66-yard scoring drive, capped by a 12-yard run by Dunn with 40 seconds left.

Before that run, Dunn had just 16 yards on 7 carries. It would be his one highlight; he would be hampered by cramps in the second half, and there would be no Rock Preston to replace him. Preston, who averaged 7.9 yards a carry, was academically ineligible.

"We lost a lot with him, but it wasn't enough to win the ball game," Bowden said.

"I want to say what Danny always says, we were fortunate and God certainly smiled on the Gators this season," Spurrier said. "All of our players realize maybe there was a divine guidance that helped us win whatever we won. We won't know for sure until tomorrow. Hopefully we can win at least one of those polls. If we do, we'll be a happy bunch of Gators."