1991 was a seminal year for both Big East football and Florida football. Although the conference had been formed in 1979, it was formed primarily for basketball. It was until 1991 that the league also began playing football with original members as well as five new members including Miami, Temple, West Virginia, and Virginia Tech. For Florida, 1991 was to be an historic year that would see the Gators win their first (official) SEC title and go to the Sugar Bowl. The Gators won the SEC in 1990, but were not allowed to be named champions officially because of NCAA violations committed by previous coaching staffs. Head coach Steve Spurrier in just his second season at the helm in Gainesville, but had already turned the SEC on its ear with his aggressive offense and the stellar quarterback play of Shane Matthews.
When Spurrier and his high flying offense headed to Syracuse, few figured it would be much of contest. Paul Pasqualoni's Orangemen (yes they were Orangemen back then) struggled with a pretty bad Maryland team the week before and as we'll see, Spurrier thought this just might be the week to try out a new, more mellow, coaching style. His experiment with being mellow would last just one week.
Steve Spurrier and his animated sideline demeanor, his whining to officials, and his infamous visor tossing, were all still new to Florida and SEC fans in early 1991. So new, in fact, that some fans worried he was too animated and would burn out. So, fans wrote Spurrier letters, asking him to cool it down a little so he could stick around. Spurrier decided that the trip to Syracuse was just the game to try his new style out. As he tells it in his book Gators: The Inside Story of Florida's First SEC Title:
After hearing these concerns and reflecting on my normal game-day demeanor, I decided to make a change the week of the Syracuse game. I thought, this week I'll act like most head coaches. I'll be calm, cool and collected. In practice, I won't scream and holler too much. Since the game is indoors, I won't even wear a visor.
It's hard to imagine a coach so notorious for his animated sideline behavior and his stubborn streak to admit he was taking to heart fan concerns over his drive. But, in 1991, Spurrier was just 46 years old and in his second season at a very high profile job. He was a much different character than he developed in to over the years. Still, this excursion into being a CEO style head coach didn't last long, as Spurrier again recounts:
As it turned out, our team needed their head coach to be emotional and to drive them. My decision to do the opposite that week was a mistake. We had no idea coach Paul Pasqualoni and his team would be laying for us the way they were. It turned out they had an excellent game plan on offense, which kept us off balance all afternoon. Their defense played the way they always did, but they outhit us from start to finish.
It wasn't clear at the time, but, Syracuse had some of its most successful players on that team and the 1991 season would be a great one. Quarterback Marvin Graves ran Pasqualoni's odd option style offense to perfection, ending his career at Syracuse as one of the school's all time leading passers. That day, Graves would finish 13 of 16 for 162 yards and two touchdowns. Six of those completions went to another future star - Qadry Ismail. Spurrier describes the way his defense was confused by Pasqualoni's offense all afternoon:
We were back on our heels on defense. If we set up for a pass, they ran the option. If we expected option, they ran the sprint draw. If we expected the sprint draw, they passed. It was that sort of day against an offensive game plan that was masterfully drawn up and executed perfectly.
The offense wore Spurrier's Gators out, but, it was the Syracuse defense that was dominating. On the day, facing a Florida team that crushed Alabama 35-0 to the week before, the Orangemen harassed Shane Matthews from the outset. While Matthews finished with 342 yards passing, he was forced to throw the ball 42 times and was sacked seven times. In all, Florida finished the game with -17 yards rushing and were dominated at the point of attack the entire game.
The indelible image of that game is Kirby Dar Dar racing down the sideline on the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Dar Dar was never much of an offensive weapon, but he was one of the nation's most dangerous return men and even found his way to the NFL for a couple of years returning kicks. The interesting thing about Dar Dar's opening kickoff touchdown was that Spurrier warned the team as they went out onto the field that the Orangemen would try something like the reverse on the return that ultimately burned the Gators:
Just before we went out for the TV introductions - ABC was broadcasting the game - I told the kickoff coverage team to look for a reverse on the opening kickoff. It fell on deaf ears. After we watched Kirby Dar Dar run right past our bench on the way to a 95-yard touchdown on a reverse on the opening kickoff, I asked three members of the coverage team if they had heard me talk about watching for that play. All of them said no.
It was a great way for Big East football to make a statement to the nation and Dar Dar's touchdown remains an indelible memory for Florida fans to this day. The win helped propel Syracuse to a 10-2 season and a Hall of Fame Bowl win over Ohio State. It also refocused the 1991 Florida team that would win the rest of its regular season games, finish 11-1, and bring Florida its first ever SEC title.