The Sunshine Showdown pits two of college football’s greatest programs against each other. Traditionally played on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, the Florida Gators and Florida State Seminoles treat fans to a little more dessert with a can’t-miss regular season finale. Since first playing in 1958, the University of Florida boasts a 35-26-2 edge heading into the rivalry’s 64th meeting on November 30, 2019.
Both teams were ranked heading into this game 24 different times, and iconic quarterbacks like Charlie Ward and Danny Wuerffel played their best games in this historic rivalry. The “Swindle in the Swamp” and the infamous “Choke at Doak” mark pivotal moments, but no matchup was as important as the 1997 Sugar Bowl.
UF and FSU met 14 times between 1990 and 2001, with two of those matchups being bowl games. Florida, led by Steve Spurrier, stood toe-to-toe with the dynasty built by Florida State University head coach Bobby Bowden. That ’97 Sugar Bowl wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill New Year’s bowl game, though.
These Florida powerhouses were playing for the national championship of the 1996 college football season.
Because Arizona State — led by Heisman Trophy candidate Jake Plummer and the iconic Pat Tillman — were named Pac-10 Champion, they were obligated to play Big Ten Champion Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and couldn’t compete in the old Bowl Alliance.
On Jan. 1, the Buckeyes defeated the Sun Devils, which meant the next day’s Nokia Sugar Bowl between the ACC and SEC champions would be for the national title.
1997 Sugar Bowl
Just a few weeks prior, No. 2 FSU knocked off No. 1 Florida in a hard-fought 24-21 victory. Heading into that Sugar Bowl, Florida was ranked third and FSU was ranked first. The two matchups may have been only a month apart, but the Gators brought a surprise that wasn’t there before.
Two-time All-American and 1996 Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel was sacked six times and hit behind the line 21 times in that regular season loss. In an attempt to protect his star quarterback, Spurrier decided to bring the shotgun formation into the SEC Championship game against Alabama, and it was brilliant; Wuerffel tied his career-high with six touchdown passes, four of them from the shotgun.
The new wrinkle gave Florida a huge advantage in the rematch at the Louisiana Superdome.
The FSU defense hung tough with Florida’s top-ranked offense for a while, trailing 24-17 at the end of the second quarter. The first-half shootout featured 462 combined passing yards between Wuerffel and FSU’s Thad Busby, which forced All-American running back Warrick Dunn to largely be a non-factor for the ‘Noles.
Scott Bentley’s 45-yard field goal narrowed FSU’s gap to four points to start the second half. It was also the last time the ‘Noles would score.
Ike Hilliard’s “Stop-N-Pop” TD
One of the more memorable plays from this game came at the expense of the ankles of two Florida State defensive backs.
In the second quarter, Gators wide receiver Ike Hilliard caught a pass from Wuerffel. Instead of continuing after catching it, he stopped on a dime. The move sent one Seminole player into the other and became forever known as the “Stop-n-Pop” play.
Hilliard took it to the house for a 31-yard score, giving the Gators a 24-10 lead they’d never relinquish. Hilliard himself wasn’t done scoring, and neither was that potent Florida Gators offense.
Florida Beats FSU for the Title
Wuerffel took home Sugar Bowl MVP honors by throwing for 306 yards and three touchdown passes, all of which went to Ike Hilliard as part of his seven-catch, 150-yard day. Wuerffel added a 16-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, running back Terry Jackson scored twice in the fourth quarter, and the Florida Gators football team captured its first-ever NCAA national championship in a 52-20 beatdown of rival FSU.
After the game, Bobby Bowden gave the quote of a lifetime when he said, “Now do you see why we didn’t want to play them again?”
Florida may have had an advantage in recent years, but don’t expect this rivalry to be one-sided for very long. Anything can happen when in-state rivals meet. Whether this football game is played in Gainesville’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Tallahassee’s Doak Campbell Stadium, over in New Orleans, or on the freaking moon, there’s always added motivation when the Gators and Seminoles take the field.
This post was originally published on November 26, 2019.