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Thursday, April 25, 2024

Break off a branch: Gators score 52 between the hedges

Members of the 1995 Florida football team reflect on their historic trip to Athens

<p>Linebacker Jamer Bates (left), quarterback Eric Kresser (middle) and wide receiver Chris Doering (right) were members of the 1995 Florida football team. </p>

Linebacker Jamer Bates (left), quarterback Eric Kresser (middle) and wide receiver Chris Doering (right) were members of the 1995 Florida football team. 

The pitch-back hand-back pass. 

That was the name of the play called by Florida head coach Steve Spurrier in the closing moments of the 1995 meeting between Florida and Georgia. 

The Gators led 45-17 when Eric Kresser — backup quarterback to eventual Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel — took the snap and tossed it behind him to tailback Terry Jackson. As Jackson rushed towards the line, he handed the ball back to Kresser, who then took off rolling to his right. He threw a strike downfield to wide receiver Travis McGriff. 

“We practiced it all the time,” Kresser said. “Spurrier was a big trick play guy.”

Florida, who was 6-0 and the No. 3 team in the nation, ended the game with five straight passing plays. These included the trick play and a touchdown pass, also from Kresser to McGriff. 

The Gators beat the Bulldogs 52-17. To this day, no team has scored more points in Sanford Stadium than the 1995 Gators.

The circumstances of this game were special. The annual neutral site meeting between the Southeastern Conference rivals had to shift away from its normal setting in Jacksonville for two seasons. The National Football League had just granted Jacksonville an expansion team, and the city needed to make major modifications to its current stadium — the Gator Bowl. 

A home-and-home series was put in place for the 1994 and 1995 seasons; the former would be played in Gainesville and the latter in Athens, Georgia. The Gators handily won both matchups, but the players involved knew the weight of getting the unique opportunity to go play “between the hedges.” 

James Bates, a linebacker at Florida from 1992-1996 and a current UF adjunct professor, said the trip to Sanford Stadium wasn’t daunting. There was such confidence around the program at that time, he said, that it didn’t even feel like a test. 

“Coach Spurrier was swagger before everyone was using it,” Bates said. “He was so confident and he’s so competitive. It was contagious throughout the building.” 

The story goes that someone on the Florida sideline told Spurrier late in the game no team had ever scored 50 or more points against Georgia in its home stadium. This “new” information was what prompted him to call the aforementioned string of plays with Kresser at quarterback, pushing the Gators past 50. 

“Of all the head ball coach stories that everybody tells, that’s got to be the best,” Bates said.

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However, he does have one hang up with the scenario. Bates doesn’t believe someone would have to remind Spurrier that no team had never crossed the half-century mark. Kresser supports this, and said he remembers Spurrier bringing up the score during practice.

“I’m pretty darn sure that was mentioned before the game,” Kresser said. 

Wide receiver Chris Doering, who is a lifelong Gainesville resident and Gator, doesn’t remember it being mentioned before the game, but it's just the type of thing Spurrier would know, he said. 

“I’m sure he was aware of it on the sideline and didn’t need any reminding from anybody else as it got close to the half century mark,” Doering said. 

Florida’s star pass catcher was a major factor in the game becoming so lopsided. Doering caught three touchdowns in just the first half, along with two more that got called back on the same drive he got his third. It was his second straight game with three scores, also doing so against Auburn the weekend prior. 

Doering and Wuerffel had a prolific connection during their time at UF, and the trip to Athens was just one of many examples. Both of them were inducted into the Florida-Georgia Hall of Fame: Wuerffel in 1997 and Doering in 2001. Additionally, Bates was inducted in 2014. 

“The fact that it has a Hall of Fame just for that game speaks to what a big game it is,” Doering said. 

Florida had already put the game away by the time the starters checked out. The stadium was nearly empty by the fourth quarter, Doering said, as only the Gators fans who made the trip remained. The celebration was on.

The victory would’ve been storied regardless of the final points — the feat of scoring more than 50 was the cherry on top. 

Both Bates and Doering recall Gators players breaking off and taking pieces of the famous hedges that border the field inside Sanford Stadium; the branches were the ultimate keepsake from Florida’s lone trip to Athens since the game became a Jacksonville staple in 1933. 

“Somewhere I got some hedges. I took them and put them in a book and pressed them back in my college house,” Doering said. “I was definitely getting a little to-go memento.” 

The rivalry runs deep for fans, but even more so for the players involved. 

Bates and his wife Tina, who was a swimmer at Florida, never lost to the Bulldogs during their time as UF student athletes. The couple named their third child Georgia. Florida fans would tell them they couldn’t do that, Bates said, but he feels their reasoning was sound. 

“We really liked the name and the Georgia Bulldogs were no trouble and baby Georgia is no trouble either,” Bates said. 

The Bulldogs and players like Herschel Walker, Buck Belue and Lindsey Scott tormented his childhood, Doering said. So, when he got to play at Florida under Spurrier, it wasn’t difficult to get on the same page as his coach when it came to his number one goal each season: beat Georgia. 

“You could always tell there was a little extra pep in [Spurrier's] step when it was Georgia week,” Doering said. “It was cool being one of the few teams that ever got the chance to play Georgia in Jacksonville, Gainesville and then going up there in ‘95.”

Contact Joseph Henry at Follow him on Twitter @Josephhenry2424.

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Joseph Henry

Joseph Henry is a fourth-year sports journalism major and is the Alligator's sports editor. He previously worked as senior news director, assistant sports editor, men's basketball beat reporter, volleyball beat reporter and golf beat reporter. He enjoys sitting down to watch a movie as often as possible, collecting vinyl and drinking Dr. Pepper. 

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