Wow that was an incredible, thrilling game!
Wow, that was an embarrassing, stomach-turning game!
Will the real Florida-Kentucky game please stand up.
To tell the truth…there is no telling for a number of weeks.
To Comprehend the Incomprehensible
To borrow (and mangle) the words from Joe Buck, “I can’t understand what I just saw!” Not that I was miffed at the concepts that played out on the field, but rather the implications. Did we just witness a team struggling to subdue a terrible Kentucky team, foreboding a Gator season of doom as this year’s toughest SEC schedule (yet again!) gets into gear for real next week? Or did we just witness a heroic team effort in the face of everything going wrong to subdue a Kentucky team that is so much better than expected that they could win seven or eight, even nine games this year?
Don’t scoff at that last question. They have two wins in the bank. Vanderbilt and UL Monroe will net them four wins automatically. Tennessee and Mississippi State are very winnable, as is Louisville – which couldn’t even beat Virginia. If they play like they did Saturday night in Gainesville, there’s seven wins right there. Then they have Missouri, South Carolina, Georgia and LSU. No likely wins there, but one or two are certainly possible.
Unless of course, as Groucho Marx once never said, sometimes a Kentucky is just a Kentucky.
Were the players looking ahead to Alabama? Were the coaches? Was Kentucky preparing for Florida for two weeks and that’s why they struggled against Ohio last week?
And how about the huge recruiting weekend? Were the potential future Gators turned off by the offensive ineptness for two quarters and the defensive backfield ineptness for the next two quarters? Or were they caught up in the drama of the game, the resurgence of offense and defense in the overtime, and were they wooed by the energy of the players rising up again and again and despite having seemingly every break go against them, winning by the skin of their teeth, against all odds? Take a look at them now.
And back to the game: there is always the third option, whether Kentucky is good, bad or in between: was this just one of THOSE games? One of those games that the Gators experience at least once every year: the game where nothing goes right, the whole team is running in mud and victory manages to stay just out of reach from the good guys. We know THAT game. It was Ole Miss in 2008 and Auburn in 2006. It was Alabama in 1999 and Auburn again in 2001. It was Miami last year and Georgia in 2012. It was Syracuse in 1991 and Auburn again in 1994. Man I am glad we don’t play Auburn anymore. There were more; many more. We all remember them. Did we just have THAT game and actually find a way to overcome it and win?
I personally think that we won’t understand what this game was until looking back at it later in the context of the season. If the Gators actually did emerge from THAT game with a win, that would prove to be a monumental accomplishment.
This Is Perspective
Oh how context changes perception. Imagine if we saw the exact same game – play for play – as the UF-UK game this week. Only the Gators’ opponent was Alabama. There is a much different dialogue going on this week, isn’t there? But Kentucky is not a great team so this was just a big rotten egg laid in the Swamp. But how do we know? In 2012, the Texas A&M game was trumpeted as an embarrassment by a lot of fans. A second-rung Big 12 team that hadn’t been a decent program in so many years, starting a freshman quarterback. We should have smoked them. Not until later in the season did we realize that A&M was already an elite team and that freshman quarterback, well he rose to some vague notoriety I seem to recall.
It is so easy to pass judgment based on one game…but so difficult to get it right based on that one game. Most things need the benefit of time to understand its significance or lack thereof. From even before he got to campus, he was labeled a drama magnet and after spending some time in the Muschamp dog house, many fans had written off Demarcus Robinson as a head case who would never make an impact at Florida. Wups. He was already listed in the Gator obituary by some fans, never capable of overcoming injuries to be the back everyone had hoped he would become; heck, many even said he had already fallen to #2 or #3 on the depth chart and on the way out, but there was Matt Jones Saturday night, plowing the field like a monster. Some fans wanted him yanked after one bad half of play, but there was Jeff Driskel leading the team back to victory with a dazzling second half and an overtime dagger.
Heck, I am sure everyone remembers Steve Addazio – a great coach and a great human being – being demonized and blamed for every foible of the Gator program after Urban Meyer decided to go stick his head in the sand for a year. He was blamed for the team not matching up the whole 2009 season before then, too. He was ridiculed and hung with the derisive moniker of “The Dazzler.” Well, Vitamin A just showed the world that he is going to be a coaching force at Boston College. His team dominated the mighty Trojans, racking up 862 yards rushing against a stunning negative-43 yards by USC. Those numbers are not genuine of course – just going by the balance as it must have been viewed through the eyes of Trojan fans. It’s all a matter of perspectives.
Things Can and Usually Do Change
Anyone who saw how South Carolina’s level of play elevated between the combined efforts of their first two games and the head-shaking performance in their third game against Georgia knows that one bad game – even two – does not dictate the whole season.
And we as Florida fans should know this already. Look no further than the opponent across the field Saturday night and the Gators’ history with those Wildcats. You know I am thinking about 1993. Danny Wuerffel and Terry Dean combined for seven interceptions against the ‘Cats and were down by three points, on the cusp of field goal range with eight seconds left in the game. This was still three years before the advent of overtime in D1 football, so even a long field goal would spell a doom-like tie. Then of course, Mick Hubert’s voice rang out across the land, “DOERING’S GOT A TOUCHDOWN!” If the 1993 Gator fan base was as cynical, spoiled and detached as the 2014 Gator fan base, the players, coaches and the team’s chances would have been run into the ground for weeks. But as we know, they rebounded to beat then-elite Tennessee handily the very next week and won the SEC title. And woeful Kentucky turned out to be pretty darn good, by far Bill Curry’s best squad ever and only that loss to the Gator prevented the Wildcats from taking the East crown and punching their only to Atlanta. Hopefully this Kentucky team has been equally as underrated by the fans, and the negative implications of this near-loss significantly overrated. For what it’s worth, this is a much better Kentucky team than that 1993 group and the Gators looked FAR worse all night long in that 1993 game than they ever did Saturday night in the Swamp.
Perhaps the team turned a corner and crossed a critical line as a program when that fateful fourth down touchdown pass was completed in overtime. Jeff Driskel let that bird fly before Demarcus Robinson made his cut or turned around – and when he did, he located the ball, drove to separate and floated underneath it for the game-tying, game-saving touchdown. We saw a quarterback-receiver connection and a trust come of age in that play. When the ball left Jeff’s hand, we had nothing but blind hope; somewhere in the air when Demarcus turned and locked on the ball it happened: our fortunes awoke. The worm turned. When the ball cradled into his extended hands, you had to know the game was Florida’s. The entire night through, the Gators, refs and random breaks just wouldn’t let the Gators win. You could see it growing and consuming Muschamp’s face throughout the night: what did they have to do to get this game in the bag? And on that single turn of fortunes, the game wouldn’t let the Gators lose. The evil Wild Wings remote control jockey that blew Kentucky’s missed field goal into a made field goal and turned on a sprinkler to make Austin Hardin shank a would-be winning kick, suddenly turned around and stretched the fourth down play clock out one more nanosecond and blew Kentucky’s next field goal attempt juuuust a bit outside.
I am still not sure what I just saw. I know that the game plan was solid, the play calling was strong, but for whatever reason, the offense and defense, player after player kept taking turns making fatal errors in execution to stymie what should have with proper execution been a very easy victory. But I know that after the smoke cleared and after re-watching the game the next day – after Saturday’s emotional roller coaster was broken down and stowed by the toothless carny workers of my mind – the overriding impression of the game was positive.
Saturday night was certainly one of the more exhausting football evenings I have ever endured. Body and vocal chords nearly spent, I am one tired pup. But the game was not the only thing that has made me weary. Many things have conspired to sap my energy level lately.
Take Jeff Driskel….please. As some would say. You don’t have to spend much time on a Gator message board or in a Gator discussion by the water cooler to know that I am afflicted with a compulsion to defend Gator players and coaches that I believe are being unfairly judged, and moreover assailed for imperfections. There seems to always be one player du jour in terms of a whipping boy, and right now that kid is Driskel. In the past, the torch has been passed from Terry Dean to Anthone Lott to Doug Johnson to Kestahn Moore to Chris Leak to John Brantley and now to Jeff Driskel. Not a Heisman winner or Hall of Famer in the bunch, but certainly not a single player blameworthy for all the ills of Gator Nation. But that’s the random burden they bear.
When you consider that Jeff Driskel has been around for nearly four years, impatience might seem appropriate. But when you further consider that he has played exactly two games after receiving dedicated position coaching in his UF career, that before those two games he had not played a healthy down since the end of the 2012 season, he has had three offensive coordinators at UF, he did not benefit from a complex passing game or face complex defenses in high school and that he has only started 17 games in his career – that’s not even one and a half seasons’ worth – he really has not been around for four years in any real or traditional sense.
But this is the year that he is supposed to put up or shut up. Well in the opener he played by far the best game of his entire college career. In the second game, he had a terrible start, with many balls sailing on him and tossing an interception (something that used to be unheard of from him), however he was set back by two perfect throws that were dropped. Some fans were calling for him to be benched. But boy did he respond. I don’t think even his fans realized just how well he played after halftime. In throwing a nickel shy of 300 for the game, he passed for 179 yards on 18-23 passing (78% completion percentage) and three touchdowns after halftime. He completed 81% of his passes in the second half just to get the Gators to overtime.
But it wasn’t just completions and touchdowns. In addition to thrice throwing for pay dirt, he drove the team to four other scores – or at least he would have if the kickers had not been off their games. The ninth and final possession after halftime – ending in the winning touchdown – was strictly Matt Jones runs, but in the eight other possessions after halftime, Driskel drove the Gators to three touchdowns, two field goals and two field goal attempts well within the range of both kickers who shanked the kicks. The only drive after halftime that did not end with a score or a missed field goal came up one yard shy of a conversion, but still on a completed Driskel pass. That was some serious clutch play while the game hung in the balance, the urgency was jacked and the defensive pressure was turned up to 11. It doesn’t get any more pressurized than the do-or-die 4th down touchdown pass in overtime. And despite all the pre-snap confusion with no timeout available as a backup plan, and yet another unblocked rusher racing into his face, he executed the pass perfectly, even throwing him open in the end zone, something we have been waiting to see him do.
Those feats were in fact a nice endorsement of the whole offense, which is another thing about which I grow weary of hearing negative comments. Despite struggling to get on track in the first half, the Gators put 36 on the board Saturday. Along with the 65 scored last week, both totals are more than the Gators scored in any game all of last year. Not many noticed, but the Gators had a 200-yard receiver and a 100-yard rusher in the same game for only the fourth time in school history – and only the second time against an SEC opponent, joining Terry Jackson and Travis McGriff’s exploits against South Carolina in 1998, some 16 years ago. Not only did Florida have a receiver break the 200-yard mark for the first time in a dozen years, but Robinson tied the all-time school record of 15 catches in a game, which has stood alone for 45 years since Carlos Alvarez set the pace in 1969. Last week Driskel threw for his career high in completions, this week he set a new career best for passing yards. This offense has delivered and there is no reason to believe it will not continue to improve in numbers, points and ability to win games.
I have also grown tired of hearing about how bad the offensive recruiting has been at UF, specifically at the quarterback position. The Gators had three different quarterbacks leading their teams to victory Saturday, and all are having very solid seasons so far. It’s just that two of them did not want to ride the pine at UF behind Driskel – and it looks like they had good reason not to – and having those three on the roster for a couple years made it difficult to sign another top notch signal caller. That’s the way that goes often times.
Finally, I am always tired of hearing and reading the Gator coaches get reamed for terrible coaching. If you want to see terrible coaching, look no further than Mark Richt’s decision Saturday to use the most dominant running back of the young season as a decoy when they had a first-and-goal from the Carolina five yard line when a touchdown would have iced the game. That came on the heels of an interception and would have taken the heart and will out of the Gamecocks. How about that great coaching at USC, VPI and Texas on Saturday? You want bad coaching? How about the pathetic coaching by Spurrier & crew against Texas A&M and then ECU? Good ol’ Urbs against the Hokies last week? Turns out he they didn’t just forget how to coach….coaches have bad games like everyone else. They all do.
Now I am tired of listing things that have made me tired.
I would be remiss if I did not shower the defense with some compliments over the way they rebounded from a very difficult second half of miscues and blown coverages to put the clamps back down on the Wildcats in overtime. Other than the fluke first play in the extra period, they were back to shutting them down, but good. They really stepped up in the face of adversity, and not only the long term adversity of breaking many times in the second half. They were especially impressive in pulling themselves off the deck and closing Kentucky down after the facemask penalty not only extended the Wildcat drive in the second overtime, it put them close enough to the end zone to smell it – and a touchdown there would have won the game on the spot. But from the 15 yard line, they only surrendered two yards to force the tying field goal. Wish all of our fans responded to adversity as well as the players do.
Which reminds me…
The way We Were
Amidst bubbling feelings of frustration over having to sweat out such a nail-biter against a program of the historical level of Kentucky, it occurred to me: isn’t this exactly what I watch sports to do? To make my heart race and tie my stomach in knots, sweating out a scintillating game? The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat…isn’t that what it’s all about? What it’s all for in the first place?
This led me to wonder when it happened, and more importantly: why. What happened to Florida Gator fans? When did it become about smack talk and domination-or-nothing instead of the thrill of the competition and the community of Gator Nation?
“In my day”….yes, I am stealing that, too. In my day, when the Gators would lose, the fan reaction was that of embracing the program’s prospects of recovery and winning the next one. Not just in the ‘80s when we lost a lot, but in the Spurrier era as well. At least the earlier years of that era. I shudder to think of the abuse Spurrier and Wuerffel would have taken after that 1993 Kentucky near-loss if the 2014 fans had been the 1993 Gator fans. Today, whenever the Gators suffer a close win, I hear lines repeated and echoed like, “Oh how the mighty have fallen”….
Oh how the mighty have fallen? Well gosh, they all do. Alabama is the king? For how long? Quite frankly, it has been a pretty short reign: four years seems pretty short compared to the seven years that the Gators supremely ruled the SEC, and the 12 years they were the de facto king of the league during the Spurrier years. And it may end any day. In its special national title commemorative issue after the Gators won the 2008 crown, the biggest sports periodical in the nation declared that the Meyer dynasty was here to stay because it was built to last a long, long time. As we know, that dynasty disintegrated completely less than a year later.
Fact is, even with the recent absence from the national spotlight and dominance, the Gators are still at the top of the roost over the long term. And we should count our blessings. We were one pivotal SEC title game away from being the anchor of the SEC national title run, instead of a close second place. Just think of our most hated rivals who have not had a sniff of this national title run: Georgia and Tennessee. The Vols have been shut out of the big party since the ‘90s and Georgia has not won a national title since 1980 – the first year the NCAA sanctioned women’s sports. Even newly crowned FSU was out of the national title picture for 15 years. Miami has been out of it for 13. When football season is over, Florida has basketball, baseball and almost every other sport on campus vying for the SEC and national titles. Who else can say that? Nobody.
We are spoiled as fans. I myself am guilty of it, too. Big time. But we can be better than this. We should be better than this. We should aspire to be the kind of fan that mirrors the kind of player we demand our players to be. Don’t be the guy who only accepts the smack-talking permanent domination as a reason to enjoy a team. This year is going to be a very fun and highly dramatic ride, I think. It will be worth the emotional investment. And regardless of whether you think Muschamp is the answer, or Driskel or Foley or anyone else, the staff and players are giving it their all every day. Nobody is Cadillacing it out there. Nobody is stealing a salary or scholarship. When overtime began Saturday, no Gator players were hanging their heads or shouting obscenities because they were embarrassed to be taken to overtime by a scrub program. They were figuratively joining arms and fighting with every ounce of “go” that they had. What were you as a fan doing? I know I was wanting. We shouldn’t be. We should be like the players and coaches. We should never punk out and give up on our team and program. And we might all just remember how it used to be, and reject the idiocy of the Jim Rome generation. That would be.