There was a great movie quietly released last year titled, Saving Mr. Banks. It was an enthralling story about how Walt Disney was able to coax author P. L. Travers into consenting to give Disney the story rights to make what became the giant hit Mary Poppins. I thought of this movie in the pregame haze of Saturday’s looming battle between Florida and Georgia. Because it was cold outside. No, I mean COLD outside. I had escorted my kids around the neighborhood for the previous night’s trick or treating, and though nippy, there was nothing to indicate that the next day’s football action would be played in near arctic conditions.
And as the freezing wind whipped around the sky on this otherwise perfect fall afternoon, I thought about the opening scene in Mary Poppins when the wind changed and turned the weathervane the opposite direction, signaling the arrival of a magical transformation. I then thought to another Disney classic: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. In an eternal life or eternal death situation, Mr. Gibbs retorts to Captain Jack Sparrow, “’Leverage,’ says you. ‘I think I feel a change in the wind,’ says I.” And everything in their world pulled a 180-degree turn.
My favorite Disney movie and my favorite Disney ride as a kid. Worlds colliding. Symbolism melding as one. My face frozen so badly that I couldn’t feel my nose. My mind wondering why the heck I was still standing outside, gazing stupidly into the pounding gusts of Snow Miser’s breath? This couldn’t be a coincidence. Something magical was afoot.
When it Happened
Sure, Georgia jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead and was prepared to boot their way to a 10-0 edge – a lead that Gator fans likely would have seen as insurmountable, even in the first quarter. But then the kick went from slicing straight down the middle of the uprights to taking a hard left-hand turn and blowing wide of the goal posts. Kick no good. ‘Buffalo Wild Wings intervention’ says you. ‘I think I feel a change in the wind,’ says I.
Then it began to unfold. Driving the ball for a possible tie, the center snap flies a mile over Treon Harris’s head and lands somewhere near the Tropic of Cancer. But Treon picks up the ball while in the grasp of a Dawg defender and as if being swept away by a magical floating umbrella, slides out of his grasp and takes off downfield to save much of the lost yards. A few plays later, it happened. Fake field goal. The tying touchdown is scored by a kid who isn’t even the starting courtesy clerk at Publix. And it all clicked.
Once Florida got that touchdown on a fake field goal, it occurred to the team at last. “Oh yeah, things can actually go RIGHT for us…that’s actually allowed.” That trick play was the spoonful of sugar making the medicine of this season’s struggles go down. The players went from thinking they could win to knowing they could. The only thing missing then was that Spikes-on-Moreno slobber-knocker hit to send the shivers and the message to the spine of every Bulldog in the stadium that the Gators were here to beat them into the ground. Well, that hit came on the very next play after the extra point. When Marcell Harris met Isaiah McKenzie at the 20 yard line on the ensuing kickoff, and McKenzie was sent backwards into the ground like a rocket shot, everyone in the Gator Bowl felt the hit in their bones.
And yes I still and will always call it the Gator Bowl. Because regardless of sponsorship manipulations or teetotaling busy-bodies, this game is called The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party and the venue is called the Gator Bowl.
Message delivered. And it was clearly received. Because from that point on, it was pure Florida domination in all phases of the game.
Over the last year and a half, there have been a number of not-so-nice instances in the program of “when is the last time that has happened,” that most Florida fans would just as soon forget. But the rest of this game was filled with ones that will be savored forever. When was the last time we saw that many Gator defenders living in the opponent’s backfield? When was the last time we saw the Gator running attack obliterate a Top 10 team? When was the last time we saw that many Gator offensive linemen running free, picking up blocks in the second level? Or seen perimeter blocking this great from wide receivers (D-Rob has been added to the watch list for the Jacob’s Trophy for the best blocker in the SEC)? Or seen THAT many open-field solo tackles, and so many of them on third down just a yard or two short of the first down marker? Or that many broken tackles – or carrying one, two and three defenders on their backs for five-plus yards – by the Gator running backs? Or defenders simply refusing to give up on a play? Like on that critical game-preserving play when Nick Chubb was stripped of the ball? That was 35 yards down the field from the line of scrimmage, mind you. Among the first players to immediately have a shot at recovering the ball before a sea of red jerseys engulfed it: Dante Fowler Jr. and Bear Cummings (who got the recovery). Both defensive linemen who had hounded Chubb’s heels for over 40 yards down and across the field.
Putting It To Words
Like any good screenplay, the concept of a magical nanny coming to save the day and reverse the fortunes of a struggling family is all well and good, but it does not take to life until the story is put to words. Some concepts and emotions are nearly impossible to convey in the spoken language and can best be summed up with a montage of highlights from the Florida section of the Gator Bowl. Saturday’s story was one of those that were not easily translated into text. As if on cue, a Gator friend of mine with whom I usually text a lot after games, sent me only one communiqué this week. It read, “I can’t find the words”. Many other Gator fans could not, either. Because this wasn’t just a typical November Surprise. This wasn’t a jolt, a jaw-dropper or even a stone-cold stunner. This was a Mick Jagger-Michael Jackson state of shock. You got me catatonic, baby! Gator fans couldn’t find the words. Well I could. If you are searching for the perfect word for this game, it is this: Proud!
“Proud” is the perfect word. It would have been easy for the players – heck even the coaches – to just assume that it was all over, pack it in and mail in the rest of the season. But they had to have absolutely busted every single microfiber of their beings for two straight weeks to make this happen. Every. Single. One of them.
When you think of how close-knit this team and this staff must be to whip the tar out of a top-10 team that was geared up for its biggest rival of the year, after all the Gator program has been through since the end of the Tennessee game; when you see Max Garcia nearly brought to tears just talking about how he is so proud of Michael McNeely and how much he loves him; when you see Muschamp photo-bombing Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor and getting mugged by all the players and coaches on the sidelines; when you see Treon Harris post a picture on social media of he and Muschamp embracing, with the caption, “Love this guy!”…you know this is a special group. This is a group who just needs to catch a break and get their train on the right track and extraordinary things can happen. After this Georgia game, it is all there for them to make it happen.
One of the most important archetypal characters in any story is the Herald. Heralds are the agents of change. Think of every movie you’ve ever seen, every book you’ve ever read, every tale you’ve ever heard told over the camp fire. The story begins heading in one direction, sometimes good, sometimes off a cliff, and all is set in stone. Then along comes a person or a force that changes the course of the hero, the villain, the whole bag of doughnuts. The Herald is not change itself, but the catalyst for change in the rest of the characters. The story of the 2014 Florida Gators, in fact the entire scope of the Muschamp Gators, were speeding headlong to an assured conclusion until the Herald showed up.
Meet Treon Harris, Herald extraordinaire.
Many Gator fans set on Muschamp’s dismissal have accurately noted that one game does not change everything (some say it doesn’t change anything). And there is truth to that in many measures. However, something did change Saturday. It was a tectonic change. Not in terms of the talent or potential and not in terms of what Muschamp and the team must do to save his job. But rather a change occurred in the fans’ perspective of whether or not he can do it. And much more importantly, in the players’ beliefs that they can do it.
This team has been rudderless for some time now, and everyone began to build the belief that the one unifying thing the team was missing was Treon. Off the field and then on-field circumstances conspired to delay his coming out party for two games following the tipping point that was reached when he led the comeback win against Tennessee. However, that coming out party came Saturday against Georgia. It was not because of his stellar passing exploits, but because of his mere presence on the field and the direct impact his presence has on the performance level of the rest of the team.
Because quarterback play has not been the only thing missing this year. What we’ve needed all along on offense was competent quarterback play but also consistent performance out of the offensive line and wide receivers who do not drop the ball, and who block the edge on runs and bubble screens. What we’ve needed on defense is linebackers and safeties to step it up, stop blowing coverages and stop missing tackles. Improved quarterback play will only solve one of those problems. But that’s not all you get when Treon takes the field. You get the most important unifying dynamic in sports.
The players believe in Treon and they play their hearts out for him. I and some others have said for a few weeks that when Treon starts, look for the entire team to raise their level of play significantly. The prudent, dubious and downright negative among us warned that this would be expecting far too much; that the Treon Factor cannot possibly fix all of Florida’s ills. While that may be true, there could be no bigger endorsement of Treon’s transcendental impact on the whole team than Saturday’s game against the Dawgs.
Not only was it the second-most rushing yards ever given up by Georgia in their history, Gator backs also notched the longest run against them this year, four times over. Coming into the game, UGA’s longest run surrendered from scrimmage was 24 yards. Saturday, the Gators ripped off runs of 25, 44, 44 again and 65 yards. And they all followed the 21-yard scamper by the world’s most beloved bag boy. They more than quadrupled UGA’s average rushing yards allowed and nearly doubled the Gator’s all-time total against the Dawgs. Florida had a pair of runners top 120 yards in the same game for the first time in program history. After one busted play, the defense shut down the explosive running attack of the Dawgs and never let the passing game take off until the game was effectively over.
And all of this with Treon throwing just six passes and completing just three. Jones and Taylor – as did many linemen – said afterwards that they were playing extra hard to take pressure off their new starting signal caller. And to win one for their coach.
The Car Chase
It wasn’t so in the era of Mary Poppins, but these days no movie can be made without a car chase or five. And in college football, that’s the downfield passing game. Despite the big win, fret and fever have been spilled over our reluctance to pass against UGA. While I understand the sentiment, it is merely nothing to worry about. Right now, at least.
There was simply no need to risk an interception or a pick-6 or an empty series because of a misread coverage. And let’s not forget what a momentum changer a big sack can create. And what if – like last week – a big sack of Treon had led to a fumble and UGA recovery deep in Florida territory? These are the only kinds of things that could have gotten Jawja back into the game. And the coaches were unwilling to take that risk. And it was very wise to make that decision. How many times do we see a team doing something that can’t be stopped, and then arbitrarily go away from it for the sake of balance, and lose the momentum and then even lose the ability to do what was working before…and then lose the game? Frequently enough to sober up any ideas of tinkering with what was working great already.
Coaching a game in any sport – especially football – is done as much by feel as it is by prepared strategy. Going with the hot hand, the hot reads, the hot plays and personnel groupings, reading the pulse and momentum of the game, etc. Sometimes you come in planning one set of strategies, but the other team presents a different lineup or front and you have to change to take advantage of it. When you are running all over a team and you see and feel that they just are never going to stop you, there is no reason to pull out the rest of your game plan and risk mucking up the success you are having.
The UF offensive line and running game had not been in this kind of a groove since the 2012 FSU game. I think it was important to let them stay in that groove, wear that groove raw and get very, very comfortable in that groove for as long as they could. Because that’s the groove where they want to be; where they want to stay. Not only for this game but for the next game and the next game, far into the sunset and closing credits.
We all know that Treon can pass. Very well. He has done it every time it has been called for him to do so – in easy mop-up duty against EMU and in the highest pressure situation on the road in Neyland Stadium, late in the fourth quarter playing from behind with the game and the season in his hands. His only question is reading the more complex defenses, which we will find out. You can’t judge our passing game on Saturday’s stats. Because we were gashing them on the ground and dominating them on D, and the winds were blowing so hard that they literally blew a field goal from straight down the middle to wide left.
The UGA fans were screaming all day because of the Dawgs’ refusal to throw the ball deep against Florida. Maybe it was a conscious decision and maybe it was because the quarterback was reluctant to throw it into the Florida coverage, but I can guarantee you this: Florida’s coaches and defensive players were BEGGING Georgia to throw deep all day. Putting the ball afloat into that tempest with our ball-hawking defensive backs waiting for the rock to blow into their hands would have been the difference between 38 points for Florida and 58 points.
Turning A Corner?
That’s the big question isn’t it? We’re at intermission and we don’t know how the end of the film is going to turn out. Did we just witness the big plot twist? Or a false lead? One game is not a trend and we cannot automatically treat it as a turned corner.
But for the first time since the injuries started to mount last year, Florida had a game that has the looks and smell of turning the corner. It fits the profile. Finally. But there is still a lot of work to build on this to prove that they really did turn it. We’ll get to watch it play out over the next three games before FSU. It should be fun to see it play out (and hopefully come to fruition).
To that end, here is something that really gets your attention given all the noise in the system following the Missouri game: this was the Gators’ best game performance of the year, on every level, in every way. The last three years this has not been the case for our biggest rivalry game. In fact, in the great season of 2012, the UGA game was by far the worst game the team played all season, on every level, in every way. And it cost UF the SEC East, and a legitimate shot at the SEC and national titles. But this year, in their biggest game they did what good teams do: played their best game.
And going into Nashville, another possible crossroads presents itself. But that is nothing new to this season that has had so many crossroads that they may as well film next week’s episode of “Supernatural” in Gainesville. UF could very well have a big comedown from this huge rivalry win, this enormous us-against-the-universe performance, and take lowly Vanderbilt lightly. Or take them seriously but just not have enough reserves in the tank after leaving it all on the field in Jacksonville.
However, I think that this potential emotional letdown will be simply plowed over by the cresting wave of positive momentum. They have been waiting all year to play like this on both sides of the ball, and the confidence and swagger that this will infuse into the players cannot be underestimated. I believe that in addition to the coaches’ supreme efforts to keep the energy going, this level of play will continue because of one guy: Treon Harris. The whole team has been waiting all year to follow Treon on the field, and it finally happened – and it could not have had a more impressive result. They are not going to just come down off that high, because it is not an artificial high. It is the new base level. And frankly, it can go even higher, if Treon is able to get the passing game going against the ‘Dores. With the dual threat of passing & running, those 5-10 yard quarterback runs Treon ripped off against Georgia will often turn into 10-20 yard runs the rest of the way. And everything else will open up more as well.
It may sound silly given how weak the Commodores are compared to the rest of the SEC, but this week’s game is a crucial tilt. It is so important that the Gators continue their roll and bury Vanderbilt. Because their next game is facing the Gator legend Spurrier in the Swamp, and the last time the Gators were in the Swamp it was an ugly, ugly sight. Not only on the field, but more specifically to this point: in the stands. Fans booed loudly throughout the night and one section infamously chanted, “Fire Muschamp” in the second half. After whipping the Dawgs like a rented mule in Jacksonville, if the Gators go to Nashville and torch the Commodores on the ground and through the air, the Swamp crowd will be back behind their team and maybe even back behind their head coach. It will be a rocking Swamp once again, the way it is supposed to be.
And in case anyone is still having nightmares of last year’s blowout home loss to Vandy, forget that this is a totally new Vandy team with a completely different coaching staff. All you need to know is that Vandy’s only wins this season have been a 14-point win over Old Dominion, a 3-point victory over UMass and a 1-point squeaker over Charleston Southern. They lost 10-point games to okay Kentucky and Missouri teams, and were blown out by Georgia, South Carolina, Ole Miss and yes…lost by 30 points at home to Temple. The opportunity to improve on offense and bury the opponent will certainly be there in Nashville this Saturday. Florida just has to want it again like they wanted it in Jacksonville.
A Rootable Protagonist?
That’s the question, isn’t it? The protagonist – the hero – in this story is the whole team. And whether they have belief or momentum or the leadership “IT factor” at quarterback, the bottom line is the big question of whether or not this is a good enough team at the end of the day to win games when it plays well.
One of the oldest adages in sports is that good teams find ways to win close games. Well Florida found a way to win close games against Kentucky and Tennessee. But they did not play like a particularly good team on either day. Against LSU, they found a way to lose a close game – three different times. No doubt they matched the talent and athleticism of a very talented and very athletic LSU team that night, but there is also no doubt that when you make that many crucial mistakes to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory three different times in the fourth quarter, that you are not playing together as a good team.
However, there is an even older adage on the books that has even deeper truth. And it is the one that I believe above all others (except for the axiom of “He who shows up to play the Super Bowl and forgets to bring his helmet is probably going to lose”). That is that the good teams are the ones who usually win, and the teams that usually win are the ones who tackle the best and don’t make mistakes. I don’t care what kind of talent or athleticism any two opponents have – the team that tackles the best and makes the fewest mistakes is almost always the team that wins. This truism is often obscured because the team with the most talent is usually also the team that tackles the best and makes the fewest mistakes. Saturday, the Gators finally played a game where they not only tackled the best, but also made the fewest mistakes. And the results were huge and telling.
And as I watched that game unfold and pondered its significance going forward, I was reminded of a scene from another movie. In Better Off Dead, when the beautiful Monique Junot told ne’er-do-well Lane Meyer: “I think all you need is a small taste of success, and you will find it suits you.” We saw the Gators breathe in and drink down a huge 7-course meal of confidence Saturday, and it definitely did suit them. From the K-12, champ!
The Hollywood Ending
This game was as magical and inspiring as the best movie plots the Disney studios ever developed. There are many sequels left to play, but the program is back on the right track and finally has concrete reasons to believe in itself again. In Saving Mr. Banks, the main plot was the long and arduous process by which they made the perfect movie, Mary Poppins. But there was also a touching sub-plot that followed the poignant back story of author P.L. Travers, the life of her father and his untimely death when she was just six years old. A father whose wit, energy and sadness shaped her life and drove her passions. Larry Muschamp was Will’s father and mentor, as well as his headmaster and an assistant football coach when he grew up in Gainesville and fell in love with the University of Florida. The two of them rarely missed a Gator home game and the senior Muschamp helped shape Will’s life and drive his passion for football, the Gators and above all becoming the best man and dad he could be. Coach Muschamp lost his father in May of this year and like P.L. Travers did, Muschamp carries the memories and words of his father into every day and every decision of his life. Still, to Gator fans on Saturday this was the poignant sub-plot context to the main story line of Will Muschamp’s career arc and the Gator program’s fortunes on the field. Like the making of Mary Poppins, the rebuilding of the Florida football program has been a long and arduous process, at times a painful and frustrating one, and it has surely taken longer than anyone had hoped. But if the momentum and success of the Georgia game can carry over and be sustained through the rest of the year; if this improvement can be built upon and expanded each week; if this game was truly the definitive turning point of the Gator program, the name of this movie might just be Saving Mr. Muschamp.