Monday, September 22, 2008

Gators vs Air Force at Tampa Stadium, 9/21/68

Just one month after Tampa Stadium played host to its first NFL exhibition game 40 years ago, the stadium added yet another first: hosting a home game for a team other than the University of Tampa. In an event several years in the making, the Florida Gators took the field on Sept. 21, 1968, against the Air Force Academy Falcons.

As the Gators prepared for their season opener, the team entered the contest ranked sixth in the nation and a two-touchdown favorite over the Falcons despite a 1967 season that did not include a bowl game appearance.

Five days after presidential candidate Richard Nixon famously uttered "Sock it to me" on "Laugh-in," the Tampa Stadium crowd of 52,000 – mostly Gator partisans – surely expected a resounding triumph in their school’s first game in Tampa since 1949. But if the Air Force cadets were intimidated by the sea of orange and blue, they didn’t show it as the game got underway.

On his first ever kickoff return, Air Force sophomore Curtis Martin fielded the opening kick and sprinted 98 yards for a touchdown. The stunned crowd, which barely had time to settle into their seats, suddenly saw their Gators at the short end of a 6-0 score when Air Force missed the point after attempt.

A field goal by Gator Jack Youngblood cut the lead in half, but Air Force would add to their lead shortly before the end of the first quarter. With the ball at midfield, Air Force quarterback Gary Baxter found Charles Longnecker on a fly pattern that gained 44 yards to the Gator five yard-line. On the next play, Baxter scrambled left and outraced several pursuing Gators to the corner of the end zone. At the end of the first quarter, Florida trailed the Falcons 13-3.

The Gators clawed back into the game, however, when Steve Tannen electrified the pro-Florida crowd with a 64-yard punt return for a touchdown. Trailing 13-9 with the first half winding down, the Gators came up with another momentum-changing play. Bill Gaisford intercepted an errant throw by Gary Baxter and returned the ball 31 yards to the Air Force 26-yard line.

With time winding down in the 2nd, Florida advanced the ball to the 8-yard line, facing 4th-and-2. Rather than kick a field goal, Florida opted to go for the first down. Gator quarterback Larry Rentz then found wide receiver Guy McTheny at the 3-yard line to set up first and goal.

Running back Larry Smith – a product of Tampa’s Robinson High School– capitalized by scoring on the next play to give Florida a 16-13 lead at the half.

In an odd twist to a game that already featured the lack of a functional game clock, the halftime show was to highlight the Air Force’s live falcon mascot. Instead of returning to his trainer, however, the falcon took one lap around the stadium and then headed for parts unknown.

Although the falcon never came back, the same would not be said about the football team. Air Force scored on its first possession of the second half, driving 69 yards on three plays to reclaim the lead. Curtis Martin added his second touchdown of the day, this time a 3-yard run, to give the Falcons a 20-16 advantage.

Trailing by four in the fourth quarter, the Gators took advantage of another big play by their defense. As the Falcons attempted to run precious time off the clock, Florida recovered a fumble by Martin at the Air Force 23 yard-line. Set up with excellent field position, the Gators needed just five plays to put the ball into the end zone. Larry Smith added his second three-yard touchdown of the game to give Florida a 23-20 lead that would cap the day’s scoring.

Graves felt all along that Air Force was an underrated team – and that perhaps his Gators had been rated too highly – so he felt happy to come away with the 3-point victory.

“Even though we played sloppy,” he said, “it makes us proud of the boys that they were able to pull it out over a good football team.”

After the game, Gator players took little solace in their comeback victory. The overwhelming feeling among the players was that they were lucky to win the game and played far below their potential. Mark Ely, a graduate of Tampa’s Plant High School, perhaps put it best when he said, “Boy, we played bad.”

Still, the victory got Florida off on the right foot, as the Gators went on to win their first four games of the season. The Gators then endured a 0-3-1 streak capped by a humiliating 51-0 loss to the Georgia Bulldogs in Jacksonville. Florida finished on a high note by winning their last two, but a 6-3-1 record failed to earn the Gators a bowl bid for the second consecutive season.

The Gators were not through with Tampa, however, as the team would come back for games in seven of the following eight seasons, thereby turning Tampa Stadium into their home away from The Swamp.

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