Can’t reel in big one
Fish’s fumble lowlights botched SEC title shot
FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas Razorbacks played in the SEC Championship Game for the third time when they faced Florida on Dec. 2, 2006, in the Georgia Dome, but this was different than their previous two appearances.
This time the Razorbacks were confident they would win.
That doesn’t mean the 1995 and 2002 University of Arkansas, Fayetteville teams didn’t give it their best shot, but they were big underdogs and got pounded 34-3 by No. 2 Florida and 31-3 by No. 4 Georgia, respectively.
Arkansas went into its 2006 matchup with Florida on equal footing.
The Gators were ranked No. 4 and just a three-point favorite. The Razorbacks were ranked No. 8 after losing 31-26 to No. 9 LSU in Little Rock during the last game of the regular season. The Hogs were ranked No. 5 before that game.
Both teams won their divisions by going 7-1 in SEC play.
“We knew we could compete with Florida and win the game,” said Jonathan Luigs, Arkansas’ starting center from 2006-2008 and an All-American and Rimington Award winner. “They hit us in the mouth early, but we fought back and got the lead.
“What could have been really weighs on your mind.”
Florida rallied to win 38-28 after a botched punt return helped the Gators overcome a 21-17 deficit.
“There’s no doubt we should have won the title,” said Houston Nutt, the Razorbacks coach from 1998-2007. “We had Florida beat.”
Two fourth-down calls by Gators Coach Urban Meyer on the same drive were critical.
Arkansas had scored 21 consecutive points on touchdown passes by Casey Dick to Marcus Monk and Darren McFadden to Felix Jones, and defensive lineman Antwain
Robinson’s 40-yard interception return to take a 21-17 lead with 8:33 left in the third quarter.
The Razorbacks then had the Gators backed up and facing fourth-and-10 at their own 15. Arkansas figured to get the ball back around midfield after a punt and be in good position to add to its lead. Only Florida didn’t punt. Meyer called for a fake, and Jamalle Cornelius ran 17 yards for a first down at the Gators’ 32.
“It was a total desperation move,” Nutt said. “He knew we were outplaying them and he was in serious trouble.
“We had them on the ropes.”
Florida then faced fourthand-1 at its 41.
Meyer called his third and final timeout of the second half and said after the game he wanted to go for the first down again, but co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison talked him into punting.
Arkansas freshman Reggie Fish — returning punts for the injured Peyton Hillis — waited at the Razorbacks’ 20 for punter Eric Wilbur’s kick.
Wilbur sailed a 55-yard punt. As Fish drifted back to catch the ball, he lost track of where he was on the field.
Fish tried the catch the ball over his shoulder at the 4, but he couldn’t hang onto it.
As Fish was swarmed by tacklers, the ball bounced into the end zone where Wondy Pierre-Louis recovered it for a touchdown that put the Gators ahead 24-21 with 3:47 left in the third quarter.
“If I’ve ever seen momentum swing in a football game, that was it,” Luigs said. “We’d worked so hard to get the lead and quiet the Florida fans.”
To Fish’s credit, he made himself available for postgame interviews in the locker room and answered every question.
“Just one of those bonehead plays,” Fish told reporters. “We were doing so well. We had such a high, and momentum was totally on our side. For me to drop that punt and let them score, I felt like I let the team down.”
Fish was down in the end zone for several seconds before teammates helped him to his feet.
“Truly, I’ve never been in a situation where I feel like I made the team lose,” he said. “It’s hard even talking about it, but life goes on.
“I’m going to wake up tomorrow and hopefully still be breathing.”
Luigs said Fish shouldn’t be blamed for the loss.
“That play was a turning point, but we still had time to come back and win,” Luigs said. “You can’t put the loss on Reggie.
“It was just a very tough play for all of us.”
Fish’s botched return was one of two touchdowns in which the Gators special teams played a huge role, along with Jarred Fayson blocking a Jacob Skinner punt in the second
quarter that gave Florida possession at the Arkansas 8.
Nutt offered encouraging words to Fish on the sideline after his fumble, and more than 10 years later said he still feels bad for his former player.
“We all hurt with Reggie,” Nutt said. “I know no one hated what happened more than he did. It was just a tough freshman mistake, but I have a lot of respect for Reggie.”
After Florida receiver Percy Harvin scored on a 67-yard touchdown run to push the Gators’ lead to 31-21, Arkansas pulled within 31-28 on receiver Cedric Washington’s 29-yard touchdown pass to Jones with 12:29 left in the fourth quarter.
Florida responded with a receiver touchdown pass of its own, with Andre Caldwell hitting tight end Tate Casey on a 5-yard score at the 9:04 mark to make it 38-28.
The Razorbacks finally were done when Dick’s pass from the Florida 29 was intercepted by cornerback Ryan Smith in the end zone with 3:15 left.
“I am beat to death right now,” Meyer said after the game. “I can’t move.
“I think you saw us shoot everything we had.”
Harvin, who also caught a 37-yard touchdown pass, had a combined 167 yards rushing and receiving and was voted by media as the game’s MVP.
McFadden, the Razorbacks’ All-American sophomore running back, was slowed by an ankle injury in the first half, but he finished with 21 carries for 73 yards and 2 catches for 27 yards in addition to his touchdown pass.
“Darren wasn’t the same from the first quarter on,” Nutt said after the game. “He got his ankle rolled up, and he wasn’t full speed, wasn’t himself.”
Florida, thanks to UCLA beating No. 2 Southern California and Ohio State beating No. 3 Michigan, moved up to the second spot in the Bowl Championship Series rankings and beat the Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl to win the national championship.
Arkansas played in the Capital One Bowl, where the Razorbacks lost to Wisconsin — and current Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema — 17-14.
“That Florida game is a tough one to look back on for sure,” Luigs said. “Not to make excuses, but we’d like to have been able to get that game back and play them again.”
Arkansas’ Reggie Fish dropped a punt inside the 5-yard line, which Florida recovered for a touchdown in the second half of the 2006 SEC Championship Game. “I’m going to wake up tomorrow and hopefully still be breathing,” Fish told reporters after the game.
Arkansas running back Darren McFadden (right) walks off the field at the Georgia Dome after the loss. “We had Florida beat,” then Razorbacks Coach Houston Nutt said.
Arkansas’ Antwain Robinson returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown to give the Razorbacks a 21-17 lead in the third quarter of the 2006 SEC Championship Game.