It took 16 games, dozens of questions and hundreds of hours of work but on Saturday evening in Knoxville, TN the Florida Gators finally played the brand of football that head coach Will Muschamp has been emphasizing since he was hired.
Despite winning seven-straight games in the series, No. 17/18 Florida was the underdog on Saturday when they faced the No. 23 Tennessee Volunteers in Neyland Stadium. That did not matter, however, as the Gators triumphed 37-20 by following the three tenets that Muschamp laid out for the team back in Dec. 2010.
Florida ran the football.
The Gators outgained the Vols 336-83 on the ground. UF ran the ball 43 times, averaged 7.8 yards per carry and scored two rushing touchdowns.
“I think obviously our rushing yardage with [330+ yards], when you do that you’re going to win games. And we were able to do that in the ballgame,” Muschamp said.
Florida controlled the line of scrimmage.
Offensively, sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel was not sacked once on Saturday. Huge holes were opened for running backs senior Mike Gillislee and junior Trey Burton. Defensively, the Gators only registered a single sack but also notched five tackles for lost yardage and hit QB Tyler Bray seven times. UF also held UT to 83 rushing yards, most of which was gained in the first half.
“As the game wore on, I felt like we were winning the line of scrimmage,” Muschamp said. “Got a lot of pressure with four guys rushing. When we went up two scores I just told Dan [Quinn], ‘We need to make them bleed right now,’ as far as moving the football. We needed to just hang in there, don’t give them anything cheap. We needed to play coverage and rush four. [...] When you’re able to rush four and drop seven, it gets cloudy in there for the quarterback.”
Florida won the turnover battle.
The Gators were an aggressive, ball-hawking unit on Saturday. In addition to the interceptions nabbed by redshirt senior Buck linebacker Lerentee McCray and junior safety Matt Elam, UF had two other opportunities to take away the ball and were extremely aggressive in trying to strip opposing receivers and ball carriers.
“No turnovers offensively was critical and then defensively two turnovers for 14 points. So we’ve kind of flipped ourselves in the first three games a little bit on turnover margin; still need more on defense,” Muschamp said.
Florida is 3-0 for the second-straight season under Muschamp though he refused to equate the two accomplishments in any way, shape or form on Saturday.
“This is a different 3-0. Better teams. Tennessee is a much, much, much improved football team defensively. They’re a good-looking team standing across the field,” he said. “[Texas] A&M, going on the road in two road environments, we are a much better football team than we were at this time last year. Does that mean anything? No. It just means that we’re 3-0. The great thing about being 3-0 is you’ve got a chance to be 4-0.”
What has gotten the Gators to this point has been an emphasis on coming up big late in games. Florida has outscored their opponents 50-13 in the second half (27-0 in the fourth quarter) this season, coming from behind in each of their last two contests.
“We have put a tremendous emphasis on winning the fourth quarter and winning the second half and wearing down our opponent. That’s something that we’ve been able to do in the first three ballgames. That’s something that our kids have bought in to doing.” Muschamp said.
“We were in the locker room just now and a bunch of our guys just now were talking about the fourth quarter. We’re going to win the fourth quarter. And they believe that; they have a strong belief in that’s what they’re going to do.
“We grew up a lot last year. You sit in that locker room at Auburn and South Carolina and Jacksonville [against Georgia] – it’s tough, it’s hard. These guys got a lot of pride. We’re the University of Florida. These guys didn’t come here to go 7-6. These guys have responded the right way, and we’ve responded with the right people, guys that have bought into what we’re doing.”
He continued moments later: “When you have a buy-in like that it makes it easy to be honest with you. Our guys have seen the results now so now they’ve seen the success of it. Even after the first week when everybody was so upset about Bowling Green – we got what we wanted. The formula was going to be fine. And then we needed to give Jeff a little bit more, and we did. And then we were able to do a little bit more of the offense. We were able to spread it out a little bit more and create some other run situations for him because of the issues he creates for a defense.”
There is no question that the Gators are better than they were this time last season but the coaching staff will ensure that their 3-0 start is placed in the rearview mirror come Sunday. Florida is not yet back at the top of the pack, and Muschamp knows his team has plenty of work to do before it can be satisfied.
“I’m not ready to waive the flags, that’s for sure,” he said.
“Are we where we want to be? Heck no. So let’s don’t start celebrating here,” Muschamp added. “Let’s be realistic with where we are. We got a long way to go but we got guys that have bought into what we’re trying to do and that’s what we need to have.”
Photo Credit: Associated Press