CHARLESTON, S.C. - A.J. Toscano recalls making eye contact with tight end Clayton Coffman. Charleston Southern's redshirt junior quarterback was making his first career Division I start in front of 90,621 fans against a Florida defense returning all 11 starters from its 2008 national championship team.
"I don't know if it was a media timeout or what, but we were standing around, waiting for the whistle to blow and (the play we had called) Clayton had to block Carlos Dunlap," Toscano said of Coffman's matchup against the future two-time NFL Pro Bowler. "I remember just looking at him and I was like 'good luck' (laughing). I always tell people that story."
While the outcome of CSU's 2009 season opener was predictable – the top-ranked Gators won, 62-3 – the Bucs that played in the game look back on it fondly. The contest was CSU's first against an SEC program, and remains its only one against the nation's number one team. It also gave 41 Florida natives on the Bucs' roster a chance to compete against a legendary program in one of the sports' premiere venues.
"Aside from just the game itself, the big thing I remember was just the experience of the bus ride to the stadium," said Coffman, a St. Cloud, Florida, native and fifth-year senior on the 2009 team. "Driving through a college town like Gainesville and you've got all these people lining the streets doing the gator chomp. For Charleston Southern, you kind of knew you were in SEC country. It was cool to be a part of. You see that kind of stuff on TV and to get to live it out, as a little guy, for one night was pretty cool."
Toscano, Coffman and Ryan Ard, a Pensacola, Florida, native and fifth-year senior defensive end on that squad, recently looked back at the experience.
By the Numbers
41 – Florida natives on CSU's 2009 roster
26 – Eventual NFL players on Florida's 2009 roster. Fifteen of the Gators' 22 starters went on to the NFL, along with their starting punter and placekicker. Future stars like running back Chris Rainey and corner Janoris Jenkins were backups on that Florida team.
73 – Point spread, the largest in college football history at that time
323 – Yards gained by CSU's offense, the second-most allowed by Florida that season. Only Alabama, who handed Florida its only defeat in the SEC Championship Game, totaled more.
On what stands out most looking back
Coffman: Just the experience. Everybody grows up wanting to play big-time college football. It's a different level in the SEC and playing in The Swamp in front of 90,000 fans was something. That year, in particular, was big because they were coming off the national championship and you had (Tim) Tebow and Urban Meyer, Aaron Hernandez, all kinds of dudes. It's crazy when you look at that roster. I hate to say it as a Florida State fan but they were just loaded. The Pouncey brothers, Tebow, Riley Cooper, Demps, Rainey, Spikes, Joe Haden, etc.
Toscano: That's one of the most fun games I ever played in, even though the score was lopsided. Being in that SEC atmosphere as a California guy, it's completely different than what it is on the West Coast. Preparing to play against a defense like that all summer was a lot of fun, too.
Ard: Probably how big and fast everybody was. I just remember every single snap was so fast compared to playing in the Big South. Against Florida, everything just moved faster.
On the publicity CSU received leading up to the game
Coffman: Coach (Jay) Mills was on First Take, we saw people talking about Charleston Southern on ESPN and we got all kinds of publicity. Kind of that whole summer, it was pretty cool to be part of the conversation and try to prepare for them like we would anybody else. Coach Mills always took the approach of promoting the mission of CSU, too, so he was able to do that on a big platform.
Toscano: When we get together (former teammates), we talk about that and the experience. It was a special game and definitely unique as far as what we were used to on a weekly basis. Even though it was my first start, I really wasn't that nervous because of my preparation in the summer. I had some butterflies but knowing the way we had prepared for that game helped.
On CSU's ability to move the ball – the Bucs had 206 yards in the first half
Coffman: In the back of your mind, I think everybody knows what's gonna happen but we took the approach of we're gonna compete and do everything we can to try to win this game. We moved the ball against probably the best defense in the country, and it's cool to watch a game now and see someone like Joe Haden and think 'I played against that guy.' From an offensive standpoint, I thought we played pretty well and came away feeling pretty good.
Toscano: I thought we threw the ball pretty well, and mixed in the run at times too. We missed a couple opportunities to get in the end zone, which was disappointing, but we had some success moving it against a stacked defense.
On going against a Florida offense featuring 9 future NFL players, led by Tim Tebow
Ard: Knowing they were coming off a national championship, and then seeing all those guys move on to the NFL and be successful in the NFL is interesting. Looking back, it was crazy to see guys like the Pouncey twins, at 6-5, 320 pounds, running like a 4.7, 4.8 40, coming around the corner to hit you. It was cool to play against some household names at a famous stadium like Ben Hill Griffin.