It's been more than a year since Florida made it fashionable to play tandem quarterbacks. Saturday, the Gators were at it again.
Out of necessity.
No. 7 Florida's 31-10 victory over No. 18 Syracuse in the Orange Bowl was soured by an injury to starting quarterback Doug Johnson that forced Jesse Palmer off the bench in his first game back since breaking his collarbone Oct. 10.
Talk about timing.
Bad and good.
Johnson broke his left fibula _ the outer of two leg bones below the knee _ at the end of an 18-yard completion late in the first half. During a clean hit by lineman Marc Pilon, Johnson's leg got twisted beneath him and buckled.
Johnson was wheeled off the field on a stretcher, his lower leg immobilized by an air cast. As the Orange Bowl crowd of 67,919 cheered in salute, Johnson clapped his hands and pumped his right fist to encourage his teammates.
They got the message.
Leading 14-3, the Gators finished what Johnson started as Palmer threw a 4-yard touchdown to tight end Erron Kinney on his first pass attempt in nearly three months. Palmer was 5-for-5 for 56 yards in the half and scored his first career rushing touchdown on a 2-yard sneak that gave Florida a 28-3 halftime lead.
The victory gave Florida its sixth consecutive 10-win season and assured the Gators of a top-10 ranking for the eighth straight year.
Florida also purged the demons of its most recent visit to the Orange Bowl stadium _ a 31-4 regular-season loss to Miami in 1987 _ in their first trip to the Orange Bowl game in 32 years.
"I'm proud of our senior class," Florida coach Steve Spurrier said. "This is the first time Florida has ever won three straight bowl games. Our bowl history not been that illustrious. But we're excited about winning three in a row, about winning 10 games and finishing up in the Top 10."
Facing a potent Syracuse offense led by dynamic senior quarterback Donovan McNabb, the Gators played perhaps their best defensive game of the season for interim coordinator Bob Sanders.
McNabb, playing his final game for the Orangemen, was unable to pull off his usual heroics _ his 62-yard touchdown pass to Maurice Jackson with 3:33 to play was too little, too late. Rather, Florida harassed McNabb into committing three turnovers _ two first-half fumbles and a second-half interception.
Syracuse mounted just one successful drive in the first half _ a 16-play marathon that consumed 7:32 but netted only three points on a 36-yard field goal by Nathan Trout with 13:32 left in the second quarter.
McNabb finished 14-of-30 for 192 yards passing and rushed 20 times for 72 yards, numbers that belie the Orangemen's offensive struggles. McNabb's frustration was a sharp contrast to Johnson's early success.
After playing badly in a 23-12 loss at Florida State in the regular-season finale, Johnson seemed eager to succeed amid speculation he would give up his summer baseball job with the Devil Rays to focus on his senior season.
Against the Orangemen, Johnson completed his first six passes for 133 yards and touchdowns of 51 and 26 yards, both to Travis Taylor, as the Gators took a 14-0 lead. Johnson's operation of the Fun 'n' Gun was so precise that each drive consisted of three plays and lasted just 39 and 40 seconds, respectively.
"Doug was throwing the ball beautifully there early," Spurrier said. "He threw a great ball on the one he got hit."
For some teams, losing the starting quarterback in a crucial game might have been a problem. Not so for Florida. The Gators play dueling quarterbacks as if they were banjos.
Last season, Johnson alternated plays with Noah Brindise in an improbable upset of then-No. 1 Florida State. The shuttle system worked again in a Citrus Bowl victory over Penn State.
This year, Johnson and Palmer alternated plays against Tennessee and continued to share time for three more games until Spurrier named Palmer the full-time quarterback. Johnson took over when Palmer broke his collarbone, and Saturday Palmer returned the favor.
"It's not a bad injury," said Johnson, who will have surgery Monday and be out 12 weeks. "If there was one bone to break, the doctor said this is the one to break. I think I could have had a pretty good game if I'd stayed in there."
Johnson, who hopes to participate in spring practice, was 12-of-17 for 195 yards and two touchdowns when he left the game. Palmer was 10-of-14 for 113 yards and one touchdown. Neither was intercepted.
But they were not the only offensive stars for Florida.
Taylor was named the Most Valuable Player. His career-high 159 receiving yards, on seven catches, tied the Orange Bowl game record set by Ray Perkins for Alabama against Nebraska in 1966.
Senior running back Terry Jackson, healthy for the first time since severely spraining an ankle against LSU, rushed for 108 yards on 21 carries.