60th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1994
#8 Florida 41 (Final: 11-2-0, #5)
#3 West Virginia 7 (Final: 11-1-0, #7)
How Florida and West Virginia Met in the 1994 Sugar Bowl
Steve Spurrier and the Florida Gators may not have captured a national title in the 1994 Sugar Bowl, but they did win their first-ever Sugar Bowl, in their fourth try, and earned their first 11-win season.
And the critical play in the victory was a memorable interception return that will likely be included in every Sugar Bowl highlight film ever produced.
Gator defensive back Lawrence Wright, before the end of the first half, snagged an errant West Virginia throw and tip-toed his way through the Mountaineers, not once, but twice, in perhaps the most exciting dash in the six-decades-old annals of the Sugar Bowl. Slipping and sliding maybe 120 yards from sideline to sideline on his way to the end zone – and the touchdown that put Florida ahead for the first time 14-7.
The play was born with West Virginia playing a first-and-10 at its 30-yard line and quarterback Darren Studstill scrambling out of the pocket. Rover Monty Grow fired in on a blitz, zeroed in on Studstill and caught him chest-high just as the ball was being released. Studstill’s head shot backward as his mouthpiece flew off to the side.
Grow’s shot turned Studstill’s pass into a wounded duck that fluttered into the open arms of Wright, who made the Mountaineers dizzy with his broken-field virtuosity that was right out of a game of “touch” and which officially ended 52 yards from the point of the interception.
“That was a key play,” Gator coach Steve Spurrier understated.
Indeed. The game was never really close again.
“The shot was definitely one of my best this season,” Grow, a 6-foot-3, 222-pound senior, said in explaining how it lifted Florida from early lethargy. “It was a good solid shot, and it felt real sweet. After that hit everybody was smacking each other around before the next play, saying, “C’mon, let’s play ball!'”
Wright said simply, “Monty’s hit got Studstill rattled. Once you take a big hit like that, you don’t focus on the game the same way you normally would.”
The route Wright took to Sugar Bowl fame is a story unto itself. Out of high school he had signed not with the Gators but with the Miami Hurricanes, which was no surprise seeing as how he was a blue-chipper out of North Miami High School. But as fate would have it, he didn’t have the necessary grades and wound up at a prep school, Valley Forge Military Academy in Fort Wayne, Pa.
When Wright lifted his grades and was ready to re-enter college, his young life took a sudden twist. Because his high school dream was to build a recreation facility in his depressed neighborhood, he decided on the University of Florida, not Miami, when he discovered Florida’s School of Building Construction ranked No. 1 in the U.S.
Wright went quickly from being academically suspect to a spot on the SEC’s All-Academic Team, thanks to a 3.2 GPA.
As Paul Harvey would say, now you know the rest of the story of how Lawrence Wright galloped into the Florida Hall of Fame.
Grow’s memorable hit and Wright’s return changed the tide in a hard-fought game that opened with the Mountaineers scoring on their first drive on a 32-yard connection between Kelchner and Jay Kearney. Florida countered with a three-yard scoring dash by Errict Rhett in the second period before the pyrotechnics began.
Behind by the margin of Wright’s touchdown with less than a minute to play in the half, Mountaineer linebacker Wes Robinson came in on a blitz as Gator quarterback Terry Dean got off a sideline pass to wide receiver Willie Jackson. Jackson had to slow down for the under-thrown ball, and as he jumped for it, West Virginia cornerback Mike Logan slipped. Jackson made the catch near the 20-yard line, then casually trotted into the end zone to complete a 39-yard scoring play with 51 seconds to go until intermission. Florida led 21-7 at the break.
If West Virginia had any serious notions of coming back, they were dispelled in the third quarter when Florida scored twice in the first six minutes to push the lead to 35-7, including a 1-yard run by Rhett, his third touchdown of the game, with 8:58 to go in the third quarter.
“We felt like we were still in it at the half,” said West Virginia wide receiver Jay Kearney. “When they scored those two quick touchdowns, that was it. There really wasn’t any way we were coming back from that.” Spurrier agreed. “After we scored on those first two (second-half) possessions,” he analyzed, “we were pretty much in control.”
There is one very important coda to this game: Wright eventually became one of the University of Florida’s most renowned building construction graduates. And he did build the recreational facility for the kids in his old neighborhood.
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.