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Friday, May 20, 2022

The Best Game I Ever Saw Live: The Swamp hasn’t been the same since

Best Game
Best Game

Sitting in the chair backs of the south endzone at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is a weekly routine of mine (when classes are in session and there isn’t a global pandemic, that is). My time in The Swamp typically gives me whatever I need – whether it be time to study or time to self-reflect.

October 8, 2018, was no exception as my trip through Gate 18 cured my typical Monday blues. But what I felt was different. The bleachers looked more naked than usual, and in turn, the orange walls were brighter.

I don’t know what else I should’ve expected though. Especially considering my most recent memory within The Swamp came just two days prior as I witnessed the best game I had ever been to, alongside 90,000 members of the Florida faithful.

I was always jealous of my little brother’s birthday. It comes early in October – the heart of the college football season. And every other year it seemed, in lieu of a birthday party, my family and I celebrated with my brother by way of a trip to Florida Field.

In 2018, however, my brother was turning 18. And the reality was, the adult-version of Chase didn’t want to celebrate with his parents. But his older, UF-enrolled sister? You betcha.

And the weekend of his birthday, the then-No. 22-ranked Gators were set to host the then-No. 5-ranked LSU Tigers in front of a sellout crowd. To top it off, Tim Tebow would be inducted into the Ring of Honor at the end of the first quarter.

It was a no-brainer.

We got into town early, but it was clear we weren’t there early enough.

I had been to countless football games in Gainesville, but none felt anything like this game day in particular.

There were stuffed tigers hanging from the trees that lined Gale Lemerand Drive. There was an arrogance in the air – one that hadn’t been felt in Gainesville since the Urban Meyer era.

I remember asking my brother over our lunch of Larry’s Giant Subs how he felt about the approaching kickoff. We both agreed something felt different -- not off, not bad… just different.

I bought my tickets off of a grad student and the seats were right on the 50-yard line.

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We got into the stadium early and watched The Swamp’s orange walls get masked by crowds of blue in cooperation with the “blue out”.

Pregame dragged on – more so than usual as the anticipation for kickoff grew. Finally, everyone was reminded by the videoboards that they were in The Swamp… where only Gators get out alive.

However, before public address announcer Jack O’Brien brought the Gators to the field with his familiar cadence, Dan Mullen stood at the edge of the tunnel and flailed his arms at the crowd.

Ben Hill Griffin Stadium erupted. It was the loudest I’d ever heard the stadium.

But the loudest was yet to come.

Joe Burrow and the Tigers scored quickly after Burrow found Justin Jefferson for a 35-yard pickup on the opening play of the game.

I remember glancing over at my younger brother and sharing a moment of uncertainty.

LSU would draw first blood after a 10-play, 75-yard drive.

Heading into halftime, Florida was white-knuckling a 14-10 lead over the fifth-best team in the country. Meanwhile, the guy sitting next to my brother and I was rocking back and forth from inebriation.

With 11:15 to play, the Tigers found themselves on top of the home team 19-14 after a failed two-point conversion.

And then, Mullen reached up his sleeve and pulled out the stops.

Tight end Lucas Krull threw the end-around pass back to Franks to place the Gators at the goal line, where Perine would eventually bulldoze in for his second score of the day.

Now, with the Gators up 20-19 mid-way through the fourth quarter, neither team was doing much.

Meanwhile, in the stands, my legs were growing sore from standing and my voice was becoming hoarse. I think my fingerprints had been rubbed off as well after countless “money downs”.

But the most important “money down” hadn’t even arrived.

Eighty-eight yards stretched between the Tigers and a 6-0 start to their 2018 campaign. Those same 88 yards stood between the Gators and their biggest win of the Dan Mullen era.

Ed Orgeron had one timeout in his pocket and 2:20 to find the endzone.

The Tigers’ drive was quickly stalling and it approached third down.

Between plays, the crowd noise grew. It took my brother and I a few seconds to figure out what all the commotion was about.

On the sideline, Mullen was flailing his arms once again – this time knocking his headset off.

I remember putting every ounce of my being into making some kind of noise during that third and short in the fourth quarter.

Little did I know, I had plenty left in the tank.

In a matter of seconds, the Gators deflated Burrow and the Tigers with a Brad Stewart Jr. pick-six to send LSU due west with the first loss of its 2018 campaign.

Meanwhile, my brother and I were being soaked with water, Gatorade and soda as fans behind us threw their hands up in celebration. The popcorn came toppling down after, making for a movie-theater-scented perfume.

And though I felt like I had been hit by a truck, I didn’t want the walk back to my car to end.

Gators fans sang in the streets. Some clamored that “It’s great to be a Florida Gator,” while others threw insulting darts at purple-and-gold-clad passersby.

But I didn’t want to reach my car because I knew the next time that I walked through Gate 18, my younger brother wouldn’t be by my side. And the experience would be nothing like what I had just encountered.

And sure enough, to date, no trip to Steve Spurrier-Florida Field has topped that barnburner.

Follow Ainslie on Twitter @AinsliesTwoBits and contact her at alee@alligator.org.

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