Saturday, October 8, 2011 at around 7 p.m. was the most depressed the Florida Gators felt all last season, which should come as no shock considering the then-No. 17-ranked team in the country looked anything but while getting run out of the building by the then-No. 1 LSU Tigers by a 30-point margin in Baton Rouge, LA.
Florida’s offense, without starting quarterback John Brantley, may have had an excuse for its lackluster performance, but the Gators defense was equally as pitiful, coughing up 14 points in the first quarter, 24 points in the first half and 41 (the most they allowed all season) by the time the final whistle sounded.
Yet while that game seemed like the worst thing that could happen to Florida in 2011, one year later it may have been exactly what the Gators needed to realize what it takes to beat a big-time Southeastern Conference opponent.
“We took every game that we lost, every game that we lost that wasn’t close. We take all that personal because we’re letting each other down. It’s more than a football team,” said junior defensive end Dominique Easley after Florida’s big 14-6 win over LSU.
“That game was serious to us, just for the fact that we got our ass kicked [last year].”
Easley and the rest of the defense understood what the Gators had to do against a Tigers team that featured a run-heavy offense but shaky and injury-riddled offensive line. Florida had to attack, which is exactly what the defense did from start to finish.
“Honestly, we wanted to come in this game and win, but more we wanted to come and hurt them. We wanted them to feel the pain that we felt last year because we had hurt in our heart, so we wanted them to feel the pain we had,” he said.
“Third quarter, them boys were huffing and puffing. I was looking at people’s eyes and they were scared. We wanted to take somebody’s will. We like to take people’s will, not just win the game. Take their will and make them remember this night.”
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Junior safety Matt Elam, who was all over the field on Saturday while tallying seven solo tackles and the defensive play of the game – a forced fumble on a potentially game-changing 56-yard reception, concurred with his partner in crime.
“We felt like we had to come and hit them in the mouth early,” he said. “They beat us down last year. We felt like we had to come back and we had a point to prove. We had a plan to hit them in the mouth. That was the plan. We had a great game plan and we executed it and were victorious.”
That determination gave the Gators a chance to win, but Elam’s game-saving play made being victorious in The Swamp a legitimate chance of becoming a reality.
“It was a hustle play, all instincts. I ain’t going to say I tried to do it. It was all on instincts, me hustling and giving great effort. And it paid off,” he said. “My plan was to stop him from getting in the end zone and more came out of it, so thank God for that.”
Draped in pink to support breast cancer and honor his sister Britnee Walker, who was in attendance and had battled through the disease just a few months earlier, Elam concurred that the team’s ability to play a full 60 minutes is what made the major difference on Saturday.
“In the offseason, that was our thing – finish. That was our problem last year – we couldn’t finish,” he said. “You got to finish in the SEC. You got to play 60 minutes, and we did.”
Saturday was not only about Elam’s defensive prowess, however. Florida racked up two more turnovers – an interception by junior cornerback Jaylen Watkins and game-ending fumble recovery by redshirt sophomore linebacker Neiron Ball – as well as a season-high seven tackles for loss, which included four big sacks.
In five games this season, the Gators’ defense has allowed just 13 points combined in the second half, all of which have come in the third quarter. Florida is outscoring opponents 41-0 in the fourth quarter alone as the defense has not allowed a touchdown to be scored in nine-straight quarters.
That is a rare kind of dominance, even for a unit that was expected in the preseason to finish in the top 10 nationally. It is just one reason why UF can stick its chest out after another big come-from-behind win on Saturday.
“It’s great to beat a top-five team, beat LSU who everybody talk about and to be the underdog and win,” Elam said. “Coming into this game, nobody think we was going to win. To be the underdog and get a win is a great feeling. I feel like this is another step to [the SEC Championship in] Atlanta and that’s our goal. I feel like the sky’s the limit.”
With players like Elam making huge stops and changing the team’s fortune, the Gators may very well be able to go further than most experts previously predicted this season.
Special thanks to Bryan Holt of InsideTheGators.com for a portion of Easley’s quotes.