After Paul Edinger's 39-yard field goal as time expired gave ninth-ranked Michigan State a 37-34 victory over No. 10 Florida in the Citrus Bowl today, the jubilant Spartans hoisted Coach Bobby Williams onto their shoulders and toted him into the end zone.
Williams dismounted and sprinted the length of the field until he reached a section of the grandstand bathed in green and white. His shirt soaked from the traditional postgame water bath, Williams stood in front of the shrieking Spartans faithful and pumped his fist.
Who says bowl games don't matter?
"When it went down the middle, I looked up at the clock and saw zero-zero," Williams said. "Then I got conked on the head with a bucket."
Williams was making his debut as the Spartans' coach, after succeeding Nick Saban last month following Saban's departure to Louisiana State. But he helped the Spartans (10-2) finish with their first 10-victory season since 1965.
"I'm really proud, and I know there are a lot of proud Spartans out there," he said. "I hope it's something we can build on for the future."
This was Florida's third consecutive loss, following a 30-23 defeat to archrival Florida State and then a 34-7 blitz by Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game. The Gators finished 9-4.
The Gators and Spartans never had met on the field, but they went after each other on a steamy 72-degree afternoon like a couple of ancient rivals. Two Florida players and one Michigan State player were ejected for fighting.
Perhaps it was fitting that a couple of Spartans with ties to Florida inflicted the most damage on the Sunshine State powerhouse.
Wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who always wanted to play for Florida but was rejected for academic reasons, was named the game's most valuable player. He had 13 receptions, the most by a Spartan in the postseason and a Citrus Bowl record, and scored three touchdowns, tying Andre Rison's Michigan State bowl record. Burress also helped with a touchdown-saving tackle on John Capel's long kickoff return in the third quarter.
Edinger, a senior, grew up in Lakeland, Fla., just west of Orlando. He also connected from 20 and 46 yards.
"That's the best way to go out--with a kick in my backyard," Edinger said. "You can't beat it."
Edinger pounded the final stake in the Gators, but Burress buried them. He swore it was nothing personal. But the eyes of 6-foot-6 Burress had to light up when he saw 5-8 cornerback Robert Cromartie line up against him. Burress outjumped Cromartie twice for touchdowns, but his biggest catch was a 30-yard strike down the middle from Bill Burke with 10 minutes 46 seconds to play. A two-point pass to Gari Scott tied it at 34.
"The sky's the limit for Plaxico," Williams said, and he might have meant it literally.
Burress, a junior, said he was leaning toward turning professional this spring. If this was his last college game, he went out in high style.
"I have no regrets about going to Michigan State," Burress said. "It all played out for me. We beat my dream school."
Asked what it was like to watch Burress run up and down the field, Florida Coach Steve Spurrier said: "That's a good question. Our university is in charge of admissions, not me. I guess I answered that, didn't I?"
While the Gators look for answers, the Spartans will finish in the top 10 for the first time since 1987. They're strutting into 2000 behind a coach whose popularity already might exceed that enjoyed by Saban when he whipped Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Penn State this autumn.
"Nick Who?" asked a placard in the Spartans rooting section. How soon they forget. Saban, after all, transformed Michigan State from an underachieving mediocrity to a top 10 power.
Now, it's up to Williams to keep the Spartans among the elite.
"We're going to try to win a national championship next year under Coach Williams," Michigan State defensive end Julian Peterson said. "That's the next step."
Michigan State's Paul Edinger kicked a 39-yard field goal as time expired to cap the No. 9 Spartans' most successful season in 35 years, the first 10-victory season since 1965. A series of runs by Lloyd Clemons set up the winning field goal.