There is a science behind why we get “ear worms” – those musical hooks that get stuck in your head and keep rolling involuntarily off your lips no matter how much you want them to go away – but you never really know why a specific ear worm gets into your head and won’t let you be. For some reason Saturday I picked up an ear worm in the morning that stuck with me all day. It was a line from a song by The Who. I hadn’t even heard it on the radio that day. It just popped into my head out of nowhere.
But I will come back to that later. It was a different medium that ruled Saturday evening: film. Movie film, to be more direct. And to be even more specific, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A line from that movie kept coming back to me throughout the Florida-Ole Miss game. If you saw the movie, you remember that the famous and infamous outlaw duo had finally crossed the wrong people and those folks sought their revenge by siccing a super posse on them. Script writer William Goldman is a big believer in withholding back story to maintain a mystery about the action of his films, so it was never explained where this posse came from, and more specifically what kind of men were in it. And the two fleeing outlaws certainly had no idea. In Goldman’s words, maintaining the mystery and letting the audience’s mind run wild is pretty cool.
So there were Butch and Sundance, so accustomed to outsmarting and embarrassing every posse and law man that came their way, unable to shake the tail of this super posse, unable to fool them, unable to understand what was going on. And every time they thought they had lost them, the posse appeared on the horizon once again, hot on their trail. And Butch or Sundance would utter that classic question:
Who ARE these guys?
And they never figured it out. And it was cool.
And that was the question that kept ringing in my head and falling out of my mouth starting a few minutes past 7:00 Saturday night: Who ARE these guys?
The Mouse that Roared
To read and listen to the pundits all week (and most Florida fans), the Gators had right around the neighborhood of zero chance to score many, if any points against the fearsome Ole Miss defense. What with our mousey offensive line that could not open holes or maintain a clean pocket against the likes of Kentucky, East Carolina and New Mexico State. And the first drive of the game did not give onlookers any reason to adjust their expectations, with a Florida 3-and-out featuring a run stuffed for no gain, a 1-yard pass and a drive-ending sack. But then the Gators rolled to touchdowns on their next two drives, and in fact found the end zone on four of the next six drives to conclude the first half. By the end of the game, the Gators had scored on seven of their twelve offensive drives (not including the victory formation possession that ended the game). And they were real drives. Their first half scoring drives covered 24, 61, 81 and 91 yards, respectively. This from a team that struggled mightily to move the ball at all against unranked teams like East Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
Who ARE these guys?
When discussing Florida’s chances on offense, all we heard about during the week was the dominant defensive line of Ole Miss leading the charge from a suffocating nationally elite defense that was going to be Florida’s biggest challenge of the year. Expectations among the national prognosticators were that Florida would struggle to score even one touchdown or even get in range for a field goal (and if they did, the shaky kicker would be considered lucky to hit on 50% of his attempts). Ironically, those predictions would have been perfect if they were applied to the opposite teams. Because there was the big, bad Rebs’ defensive front getting shredded – yes SHREDDED – by a freshman quarterback hitting 83% of his passes for 271 yards, over 11 yards per completion, and four touchdowns – with all of the scoring passes coming in the first half before Florida started to shorten the game. And if not for two pass interference infractions that were ignored by the refs, Will Grier would have completed 90% of his passes. This from a quarterback who came out of the previous game with his head coach affirming that he had not yet even won the starting job for the season, and who entered this game uncertain of whether he was recovered enough from the flu to even play. And he was throwing to receivers who had been struggling this year to get open, stay with their routes or even catch the ball when it was thrown to them.
Who ARE these guys?
And the thing you love about this coaching staff is that the Gator offense did not try to shorten the game in the second half just by handing off thirty times in a row. They stayed aggressive within a scheme shift to more time-consuming plays. Throwing shorter, safer passes, mixing in a few more runs and staying in-bounds. But offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier still called two deep bombs in the second half, going for the throat instead of just running into the pile every play, playing defense and waiting for the game to end.
The biggest concern and criticism of the young quarterbacks and young offensive line all year was that whoever was slinging the rock, they were bailing out of the pocket after one read, mostly because the pocket was imploding on them by then. Against by far the best defensive line and best front seven they have faced all season (and probably the best they will see the rest of the regular season), that scenario all but disappeared Saturday night, providing a clean pocket for over 80% of Florida’s passing attempts. Florida called 31 pass plays in the game, Grier was sacked twice but was never forced to scramble on any of the remaining 29 passing downs. Considering the strength of the Ole Miss front, that is an absolutely shocking and marvelous statistic. This is probably the best coaching job that offensive line coach Mike Summers has done in his career and is among the best coaching jobs turned in by any OL coach in Florida history. We all knew there was a reason he was the only coach retained by Jim McElwain after the previous staff were fired, and we are seeing the fruits of that wise hiring decision every week.
The Florida Gators defensive line turned the Ole Miss offensive line into an “olé, miss” offensive line, because they missed nearly every Gator lineman who ran through their front the entire game. While the secondary and linebackers played great pass coverage all night, it was the front line that set the pace for this defensive domination, both in run defense and pass rush. The Gators logged four sacks against the Missy offensive line, divided between two linebackers and four defensive linemen, emphasizing the theme of the day: team effort, team excellence. Those four sacks were more than Ole Miss had surrendered to any team this year and more than they allowed in their first three games combined against Alabama, Fresno State and Tennessee-Martin. The Gators now have 18 sacks on the year, but have upped their effort considerably against SEC opponents, against which they have 13, averaging 4.3 sacks per game. That’s a huge number against this conference. This is essentially the same defense as last year’s squad except for losing the best defensive tackle to graduation and the best defensive end to the #3 pick in the NFL draft, yet the 2014 defensive line only averaged 2 sacks per game, with the entire defense only averaging 2.5 per game. This year’s defense is almost doubling that production without those two stalwarts that included the best pass rusher on last year’s team.
Who ARE these guys?
Then there is the run defense. Saturday was the third time in five games that the Gator defense has held an opponent to fewer than 70 yards total rushing. But they are even better when you factor out quarterback scrambles. When you negate Chad Kelly’s flights from the pocket, the Gators limited Ole Miss backs to just 29 yards rushing. On the season Florida has given up an average of just 98 yards rushing per game, but they have limited opposing running backs to a mere 63 yards per game. That is good news when you look forward to the best running teams on the Florida schedule (LSU, Georgia, FSU), none of which have effective running quarterbacks. And the greatest thing about the production of the defensive line is that they are generating SICK pressure every week all. By. Themselves. Florida generated most of its pressure under the former regime from blitzing defensive backs and linebackers. Not only have the Gators not had to employ many blitzes this season, they often don’t use line stunts. The defensive linemen actually asked the staff if they could skip stunts because they were so confident that they could beat their man one-on-one. And they have and they keep doing it. By getting such effective pressure from the defensive line, the defensive backs are free to play their positions and maximize their coverage schemes.
Hence you saw Saturday night the athletic, highly skilled and utterly explosive Ole Miss receivers completely shut down all game long. Coming into the game, Chad Kelly led the nation by a significant margin in completions over 20 yards. Against Florida, he only connected on two: one for 22, one for 23. All-world Laquon Treadwell was held to just five receptions for an average of just eight yards per catch. That’s coming off an 8-catch, 135-yard performance against Vandy. In his first four games, he averaged 83 yards per game with catches of over 20 yards in the last three. But Ole Miss has a large stable of great receivers. Trough four games, passes of 20 yards or more were caught by three players once, by four player twice, and against Alabama, five receivers caught at least one pass over 20 yards. In two games, they had at least two receivers with catches of over 50 yards. Against Florida, only two passes were completed over 20 yards, to two receivers, and just 259 yards total yards. Now that last number may not seem terribly impressive for the Gator defense, however Ole Miss is averaging 345 yards per game, had over 300 yards in each of their first four games, and torched the vaunted Alabama defense for 341.
The biggest plays of the game for the defense came after the game was probably over for all practical purposes. However, without this sequence of plays, the game very well might have turned around and become very uncomfortable for Gator Nation. There were six minutes left in the third quarter and Florida held a 25-0 lead. Ole Miss was threatening to punch it in on the Florida goal line, but even if the managed to score a touchdown, the Rebs would not be getting the ball back until the fourth quarter and would have to score three more times (two touchdowns minimum, three touchdowns if they failed on a 2-point conversion) and hold Florida scoreless over the final 15 minutes. At that point in the game, a comeback was unlikely but we have all seen bigger comebacks succeed before. But the Gator defense would simply not allow the issue to go to a vote. They stuffed Ole Miss twice from the 1-yard line, and then dropped them for a 2-yard loss on third down, making it almost impossible to take the risk of going for it on fourth down. The goal line stand broke the Ole Miss will so badly that even down 25-0 and taking nearly 20 plays and the whole third quarter to drive the field, they went for the moral victory field goal attempt rather than dare to face our defense one more time from inside the five yard line. It was right then I knew that our team was not going to let them back in the game. It would take a series of fluke accidents and Les Miles-type miracles to get Mississippi back in it. Then when Florida matched the field and answered their field goal with a tres of their own, hanging another “Lincoln” on them (making it a *four score* game again), I knew the game was over. And so did everyone on the field.
Big Plays Make Big Days
I want to focus for a little on the Gators’ big plays Saturday. And I don’t just mean the big plays in the sense that they are categorized as plays covering 20 yards or more, or even just plays like Antonio Calloway’s game-winning 4th down touchdown catch and run last week. I mean plays that came up big in the most crucial situations that in the moment were absolutely critical to the game tone, momentum and progress and ultimately winning the game.
The big plays started on the first defensive possession of the night. Florida went 3-and-out to open the game, which went perfectly to script for the national pundits, and if Ole Miss put together a decent drive – even if it was not a scoring drive – the tone would have been set much differently the rest of the evening. But right out of the gate, Antonio “Tank” Morrison began building his game resume that earned him the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week honors by shooting his gap and stuffing and Ole Miss draw play on first down. Then on second down, Chad Kelly rolled out looking to throw deep down the sideline and put an early dagger into the heart of Florida’s upset effort, but the trio of Jonathan Bullard, Alex McCallister and Jarrad Davis blew through the right side of the Missy line like they weren’t even there, sacking Kelly for a 9-yard loss. Then on 3rd-and-Archer Road, Caleb Brantley and Bryan Cox Jr sprinted into the backfield almost as fast as the shotgun snap and forced Kelly into the jaws of the waiting linebackers. That 3-play backwards push set the tone for the entire game and sent the message: This is the Swamp again!
And that tone carried over to the next offensive drive. The first play was a play-action quarterback roll for a 14-yard strike to Demarcus Robinson for a first down. One play, statement made: Ole Miss, you’re not going to feast on 3-and-outs against us, we have a plan to get around your pass rush, and we are not going to settle for three yards a play all day. Three plays later, D-Rob made a statement of his own. After much of the year (and his career) being slowed down by his own inconsistency of effort, he took a third down pass that was six yards short of the sticks with Ole Miss holding the numbers advantage on the perimeter and having him dead to rights for a big loss. But he broke a tackle and plowed through a second defender to convert the first down. Another message sent: Ole Miss, we are not just going to out-scheme you; we’re going to out-tough you and out-effort you. And they did all three all day. That conversion set up the first Gator touchdown of the day on the ensuing play – also a stellar effort on a 36-yard grab by D-Rob in tight double coverage off a back-foot throw with Robert Nkemdiche plowing into Will Grier’s chest (one of the few times Nkemdiche had any impact on the game).
After that, the Gators were rolling and big plays just kept on coming. Huge, impactful plays they have been struggling mightily to produce over the past five years were suddenly flowing like the St. Johns River.
Who ARE these guys?
You remember. You remember the lightning-fast coaching search that brought us Jim McElwain. Just moments after the coaching vacancy was announced, Gator Nation submitted their wish list. It basically had two people on it: Bob Stoops, whose name is printed on the template just out of tradition and habit, and Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze. Florida fans wanted the big name, the huge recruiting pull and the demonstrated success that Freeze has shown thus far at lowly Mississippi. When it was announced shortly thereafter that Freeze had turned down the Florida head coaching job to stay at Ole Miss (never mind that he was never offered anything by Florida and it is a matter of dispute whether his people were even sent feelers from Florida envoys at any point during the 2014 season), many fans were distraught. When word leaked almost immediately that Jim McElwain was the only target on Jeremy Foley’s short list, after doing a lot of Internet research, most of Gator Nation fell somewhere on the spectrum between crestfallen and putting full – and somewhat blind – faith in Foley’s wherewithal in finding the next great head coach in nearly every sport.
No matter where anyone fell on that spectrum, at no time between that moment and kickoff Saturday night did any of us ever entertain the fantasy notion that after the ragtag rebuilding Gators completed their game with the high-flying #3-ranked Rebs that it would be McElwain who had his team rolling and dominating like a playoff team and it would be Freeze standing slack-jawed, looking like a deer in the headlights. Ole Miss is in the fourth year of the Freeze regime, he has recruited elite or highly ranked classes every year and has the depth, high-end talent and coaching stability you would expect to make a run at the national title by Year 4…that is, if he were really the coach Gator fans thought they wanted so badly about ten months ago. By staggering contrast, with Florida’s patchwork, depth-starved offensive line, dueling young and dangerously inexperienced quarterbacks, sparse and vastly under-achieving receiver ranks, brand new tight ends unit and potential-only-based backfield, the Gators were expected in games like this to resemble a newly-hatched flamingo, knock-kneed, quivering and staggering about trying to find footing with new legs that have been forever folded up in an egg. But those roles were completely reversed Saturday night.
I actually did not want Freeze. Not because I didn’t think he was an ace coach but because of the inescapable mounting evidence of his shady recruiting practices – the likes of which we never want back in Gainesville again. Many like me wanted Texas Christian Gary Patterson. Did you see that he went and dropped a bomb of Small-Man Syndrome on the media (again!) after his game against Texas, proving once more that he is an excellent coach but a first-rate jack wagon. I am so glad we did not even make a run at this silly, silly man.
I will not harp on the terrible officiating after such a great victory, but I do want to address what I hope is a gradual shift in the perception of the Gators by the refs – and ultimately a decrease in their egregious mistreatment of the Gators with their choice of laundry dispersal. The big take away for me on this issue Saturday is that there were several atrocious flags or non-flags during the game that could have changed the trajectory of the game, and could have shifted the momentum and the scoreboard. But these Gators overcame them. They kept playing and raising their level of play so that the refs could not influence the outcome. A great example was the first Ole Miss drive in the second half. They were in a must-score situation, and the Florida defense came out and had them shut down. When Jonathan Bullard blew up another play in the backfield, setting up a 3rd-and-15 that Florida was poised to stuff yet again, the refs called Bullard for a personal foul for simply finishing a play in textbook fashion. This not only extended the drive, it put Ole Miss into Florida territory and within striking distance of a score. But as noted earlier, the Gator defense stoned them with a goal line stand and did not let that horrible call hurt them or shift momentum. Even though Ole Miss finally got on the scoreboard, the fact that they were 1st-and-goal at the UF one-yard line and had three shots at a touchdown from inside the three yard line, and were relegated to a worthless field goal – that gave Florida more momentum than erasing the goose egg gave Ole Miss.
Other terrible calls that could have turned the game for the bad guys included two blatant pass interference muggings on beautiful deep throws that were not called against Ole Miss, an ignored personal foul when D-Rob was slammed to the ground after the whistle (all of these were right in front of the nearest ref), and of course the absolute garbage call on the halo rule when Chris Thompson nailed the Ole Miss punt returner with PERFECT timing, exactly 1-yard away when the ball was caught, text book by the rule. While these were huge misses by the refs, and they were potentially crushing pivot points in the game, these Gators refused to let them impact the outcome or even bump their momentum off track a bit. That is the biggest priority here, but continuing to reduce the number of terrible calls against us the not far behind. And Coach Mac is working on it on the sidelines with his interaction with the officials, every single game.
- With another passing play of over 30 yards Saturday night, the Gators now have six such completions on the season. Think about the Gator offense over the past five years, as well as the limits on the deep passing game imposed by the offensive line issues, and let that sink in.
- If there is one thing to bet on in the Missouri game, it is that Florida will score on its second possession. They have done so in all five games this year, four of them for touchdowns.
- Florida logged an impressive 11 tackles for loss against Ole Miss. They have now recorded at least seven tackles for loss in four-straight games, accounting for the longest streak since they did it for six-straight in 2001, Steve Spurrier’s final season coaching the Gators. Florida has notched a large number of program firsts or first-in-a-long-time accomplishments over the previous five seasons; it is really nice to finally start logging those sorts of stats on the POSITIVE side of the ledger.
- The 1,270 yards passing this season is the most for the Gators through five games since Tim Tebow’s Heisman Trophy season of 2007.
- Florida has never lost a game as the 25th-ranked team in the nation (3-0).
- This is Florida’s fifth 5-0 start since the turn of the century. In all four previous seasons with a 5-0 start, the Gators played in a BCS bowl.
We just saw 60 minutes of complete domination of the #3-ranked team in the nation, the almost certain projected #1 team in the first playoff committee ranking (before we thrashed them, of course). We can stop watching 4th & 14 for awhile.
When was the last time UF had back-to-back gigantic games in the Swamp that were such big wins? And just how huge was that comeback against Tennessee now? We thought it was just an incredible building block for the future. Now it is seen as an essential scratch in the win column toward a possible East championship and who knows after that?
As for the “who knows” part, there were several national and SEC pundits who proffered on air late Saturday night that the Florida Gators might just be the best team in the SEC. It is an absurd thought at this juncture of the Gators’ rebuilding progress, but what the heck. “Absurd” is my middle name.
I agree with those talking heads that Florida is POSSIBLY the best team in the SEC…not deepest or most experienced by any stretch, so we may not win the SEC or even the East…but in a one week to prep, one game to play situation, our team and coaching staff may be the best bet to win on any given Saturday.
LSU is the clear presumptive nominee for the best team in the SEC this year, so let’s consider the looming matchup with the Gators in two weeks. I am not assuming a win against Missouri, but win or lose I don’t think there is any question Florida is the better team of the two. Now Leonard Fournette may be too much of a load in Death Valley for the young Gators to overcome, but Fournette and a decent defense is all they’ve got. And I do not downgrade them to a “decent” defense lightly, but the truth is their defense is nowhere near the elite strength it usually is in Baton Rouge. Even with Fournette putting up slam dunk Heisman numbers, LSU has struggled lately getting out to leads against terrible teams. They allowed 24 points to an awful Syracuse team two weeks ago and actually beat Eastern Michigan Saturday (44-22) with their worst-in-the-nation run defense less impressively than they beat Auburn in mid-September (45-21).
You also have to take into account the Gators’ progress curve. It is increasing at greater than a 45-degree slope the last 2-3 games. LSU’s progress is actually trending downward over that time, though they obviously started much higher on the graph than UF did. So when we play LSU in two weeks, barring significant injuries, even granting the missteps of youth and inexperience, we may very well be much better than the team that just slaughtered the #3 program in the country, and LSU will likely be about the same, maybe slightly better or slightly less good than they are now. And if Fournette is lost to or even slowed by injury going into that game, LSU will very likely be as hard pressed to score as Ole Miss was Saturday.
The other two teams regarded as potentially great SEC teams this year are Georgia and Alabama. Well we all saw Saturday afternoon that UGA is a fraud (again). If Florida can dominate the Dawg’s running game like it did against Ole Miss, or can even generally contain Nick Chubb, the Bulldogs will be absolutely dead in the water. They do not have a quarterback. At. All. Their starter is utterly useless and their backup completed more passes to the Alabama defense than he did to the Georgia receivers.
So then there is Alabama left to consider. As much as things have changed in the SEC over the last 5 years, here we are again comparing Alabama and Florida as the best in the league. As it always has been in modern times, as it always should be. Despite losing close last week and Ole Miss winning by virtue of a huge edge in the turnover battle and a long fluke pinball machine touchdown pass, it did look for most of the game that Ole Miss was the better of the two squads. But they were pretty closely matched. Florida appeared not just better but utterly dominant over Ole Miss in every facet of football Saturday. Which leaves Bama’s crushing of Georgia to consider in the balance. Crushing a high-flying Georgia team is nothing to brag about, really. Even TOG did that last year and by a much more impressive margin. The Tide’s blowout win came because of great defense (read: inept UGA offense?) and multiple non-standard scoring plays (a blocked punt and a pick-six) and a 53-yard touchdown drive of which over half the yards (30) were given to them by Georgia via personal fouls. Florida’s margin of victory over Ole Miss was certainly aided by turnovers, but Florida scored on several very long sustained drives, not just fluke plays, and dominated the contest with or without the turnovers.
But the great thing about all this is, no matter how close to reality any of our predictions or projections are, no matter how close we are to being the best or even one of the best teams in the SEC after just five games in the McElwain regime, is that we are actually able to talk about these topics in complete seriousness and not as pure fantasy. That’s an amazing distance to have already advanced for a first-year coach taking over such a mess of a program. And whenever you hear or watch that first-year coach talk about his team or his players or his process, you see why he is so successful. He is just a different breed. Now, Dabo Swinney is a big hit with Clemson fans, but he is not my cup o’ tea. His inappropriate emotional outburst after the Notre Dame was something you would expect a first-year coach to do, a first-year coach trying to rebuild a struggling program and push a lot of emotional buttons as a stop gap until the substantive plan is in place. It’s not something you would expect from a guy who has been rebuilding a program for eight whole years and should already be at his peak performance level a number of years ago. And this came after a matchup of highly ranked teams that was basically a tossup. Same thing for Mark Richt, who made a fool of himself in the seventh year of his tenure at Georgia when he pre-planned that full-team end zone mob scene when they scored against Florida in 2007. But now he is in his 15th year as the Dawgs’ head man and he is STILL pulling those ridiculous beginning coach stunts, like when he sent his whole team to intercept the Alabama team when they came out of their tunnel for pregame warm-ups to nearly start a brawl. Richt is understandably not nearly as popular with Georgia fans as Swinniey is with his fans, but either way I will never understand long-established coaches who pull these sorts of juvenile amateur hour stunts to get their team motivated, instead of just going out and doing the job as a coach.
Which is why it is such a stark contrast and such a reassuring comfort when Florida shocks the college football nation and dominates the #3 team in the polls after being unranked for the better part of five years…and his response to the sideline reporter after the game? “This is pretty cool, isn’t it?”
And this brings me back to that Saturday earworm. The reason the song stuck in my ear all day was finally realized as I watched the Florida Gators celebrate in the Swamp after the game. The tune was The Who’s “Another Tricky Day”, and the one line that kept ringing in my ear was, “Just gotta get used to it!” And that is exactly what the SEC has to do now: get used to it. The Gators are on their way back to being elite and already knocking off top-5 ranked teams standing in their way. And I was reminded of something that Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist and Georgia Bulldogs beat writer Mark Bradley muttered to himself while watching Steve Spurrier address the media following the 1993 SEC Championship Game on a rainy night in Birmingham. It was Florida’s first win in the SEC title game that they would go on to own for most of the following 20+ years. Mister Bradley mumbled to himself, “Better get used to it.” And they did. They had to. Florida made them.
The rest of the football world sees any Gator resurgence the same as they viewed that first rise to prominence a quarter century ago: as a major upheaval of their world. The Who would say to them: “This is no social crisis! This is US having FUN!”
And now the song is in *your* head. Much as it will be in the heads of fan bases across the entire SEC. Soon they will stop wondering, “Who are these guys?” Because the Florida Gators are back to stay. The other programs and their fans all know it and it is making their minds run wild.
And yes. It is pretty cool.