If you are one of the many that gave up on the Florida Gators after they lost to Vanderbilt last week, then shame on you. Sure, that loss hurt and you probably wouldn’t get any disagreement from Will Muschamp if you called it embarrassing for the S.S. Gator to sink to the bottom for a fourth straight game, but when Muschamp needed a progress gut check for the almost three years he’s been in charge, he got it Saturday night at Williams-Brice Stadium. A win would have certainly been nice but that didn’t happen and while Muschamp will say that there is no such thing as a moral victory, the way the Gators fought South Carolina to the bitter end speaks plenty.
The fact is, the Gators could have tanked Saturday night but they didn’t. They took 10th-ranked South Carolina deep into the fourth quarter before they succumbed to the Gamecocks, 19-14. This is a Florida team that hasn’t won in more than a month and seems to have a black cloud hanging over its head. If not for bad luck, there is no luck at all and it shows in an injury list that is as long as your leg. It’s so long that Saturday night’s starting quarterback was redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg, whose stat line read 0-0, 0 yards, 0 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. He’s been in Gainesville nearly two years and this was the first time he’s sniffed the field in something other than warmups.
When your starting quarterback hasn’t played a single down, you fear for his safety, particularly when you know that on every snap he’s going to be looking across the line at the snarling, drooling, sweating faces of future first rounders Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles. There are experienced quarterbacks whose mouths get dry and sphincters threaten to lose control at the mere thought of dealing with those two.
A redshirt freshman who hasn’t ever taken a snap? Surely you jest. That is a recipe for the football equivalent of a category five tornado.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the impending disaster. Someone convinced the Gators that disaster couldn’t happen if they didn’t cooperate. So, somewhere between Gainesville and the locker room at Williams-Brice Stadium, the Gators came up with this silly notion that they were just as good as the Gamecocks and certainly capable of spoiling the Saturday night party in Columbia.
There was no fear in their faces and certainly there was no fear in their game. You have to wonder what might have happened in the last month if the Gators had come out of the locker room in the previous four games as focused and ready to play as this team was against South Carolina.
But that’s neither here nor there. Those games were in the past and this was all about making a statement on a Saturday night at Williams-Brice with Steve Spurrier over on the other sideline.
The Gators did it with a fairly conservative game plan that offered up a few wrinkles such as direct snaps to Kelvin Taylor to go along with an occasional short, but easy to complete pass from Mornhinweg. It wasn’t pure vanilla but it certainly wasn’t straight from the pages of the Baylor playbook either. But the Gators didn’t need Baylor. They needed as close to mistake-free as they could get. They needed to block somebody. They needed to move the chains.
In retrospect, it would have been nice if the Gators could have thrown an occasional downfield pass, just enough to remind the Gamecocks that they could get burned by all those men in the box, but the conservative approach gave Florida a chance to win the game. That’s all Will Muschamp asked from his troops: focus, execute and give us a chance to win.
Really, that’s all any coach can ask from his team.
The difference Saturday night had nothing to do with scheme but everything to do with the Gators so focused on their assignments that mistakes were minimized and the chance to win was maximized. On that much-maligned offensive line, it was hat on hat and Florida moved people enough to create the creases needed to produce touchdown runs of 20 and 29 yards by Kelvin Taylor on the first two drives of the game. Mornhinweg wasn’t sacked and the only real mistake he made was a late-game interception when he was on the run and simply trying to make something happen. If there was any fear in the redshirt freshman, it had long since disappeared.
On a defense that had problems with Vanderbilt in the red zone last week, the focus and intensity was so great that South Carolina, which has many more offensive weapons than Vandy, managed only one touchdown and had to settle for four field goals. When South Carolina got the ball at the Florida two after a near impossible catch by Rory Anderson of a Connor Shaw pass that was good for 34 yards, the Gamecocks met with a stone wall and had to settle for a 22-yard go-ahead field goal.
Now, the end result of all this effort, focus and execution was indeed a 19-14 loss but there are losses where you don’t give yourself a remote chance to win and there are losses when you know for sure that you were one or two plays away from pulling off the impossible.
This was one or two plays away from pulling off the impossible. In playing so hard and making a game out of a potential blowout, the Gators not only showed a pulse but a heart that is beating loud and strong. Had this team quit on Will Muschamp in the previous four weeks, which was one of the chief topics of discussion on talk radio and message boards, then the Gators would have suffered a blowout loss in Columbia and the cries for Muschamp’s firing would have reached a deafening decibel level.
There was no blowout. There was no quit in the Gators. It is still Will Muschamp’s team and no one is running for the lifeboats.
The injuries have been a serious problem. The lack of imagination with the offense has also been a problem and there are probably a dozen other issues that Muschamp is going to have to address that we can’t or won’t know about at least in the very near future. But problems can be solved and issues can be addressed if the head coach has his team behind him and a plan to put the football program on the right track. Muschamp knows that things can’t stay the same. There has to be change but change can’t be made without the loyalty of the troops.
Saturday night we discovered that despite all the problems and bad luck that have stuck to the Gators like a three-day stink, this team hasn’t quit on the head coach. Will Muschamp has a team that still believes in him. He needed to know that. The Gator Nation needed to know that.