PDs Postulations: Thoughts on the Vandy game for the Florida Gators
This was an “end of the day” game. This was a game where the phrase “at the end of the day” came up a lot. Mostly after the game was over. But sometimes during the game, too. During the game, it went a little something like this:
“At the end of the day, we have been playing with house money for weeks and this is all gravy.”
“This is a step back but at the end of the day, this team is about the big forward steps it has taken this year for the future.”
“Even if we lose this game, at the end of the day, we are still going to Atlanta because Vandy is not going to win out.”
After the game, the phrase took a different slant:
“It was ugly, but at the end of the day, we are 8-1 and East division champs for the first time in 6 years.”
“At the end of the day, it’s just another in a really long line of close calls against bad Vanderbilt teams.”
“At the end of the day, there are 11 other SEC teams that would trade places with us in a heartbeat and at the end of the night, there will be a 12th.”
We’ve Seen this Game Before
We all knew what was going on. It was “That Game” again. No matter what year you started following the Gators, you know what “That Game” is. It’s that game where no matter who the opponent, no matter how good the team or players are, no matter what the situation is in the game, the Gators can do absolutely. Nothing. Right. And everything goes against them. Things that have not happened all season – like a big pile of turnovers, play makers being wildly off their game, penalties at the worst possible time, horrific referee calls, you name it – all happen, and keep happening. Things are just off. They are just weird. Players who have been in these games for the Gators have said that when it happens, the whole team just feels off beam, the sidelines are eerily quiet and lifeless, everything that usually works like clockwork plays out like a wristwatch run over by a Mack truck. Something is just different. Off. Wrong.
This was one of those games.
There is a reason Florida has been playing football for over 100 years and has only reached their bowl game with an undefeated record ONCE. It’s because of That Game. It’s because of this game. The one against Vanderbilt.
Not every loss is That Game. Sometimes you just get beat by a better team (see: LSU this year). But at least once a year, the Gators have That Game, when nothing goes right – or despite doing some things right, the Gators can’t stop shooting themselves in the foot at the most critical junctures – and they lose to a team that has no business challenging them.
Last year that game was South Carolina. In 2013, it was Miami. In 2012, it was Georgia (oh was it ever – that was the poster boy for That Game). In 2011, it was Auburn. 2010? Missy State. 2009? Oh you all remember the SEC Championship Game that year don’t you? 2008 was Ole Miss, impetus for The Speech. Auburn again in 2007 & 2006. South Carolina again in 2005. We all remember when it happened under Spurrier as well. Some of the lowlights: 1991 Syracuse & Notre Dame (yes, the rare double-dip), 1998 Tennessee, 1999 Alabama, 1992 & 2000 MSU, 1993, 1994 & 2001 Auburn (the latter two when ranked #1 and probably the best team in the country), 1997 LSU, and of course the Fiasco Bowl.
But this edition of That Game was different. It distinguished itself from those in the past. Can any of you guess in what way it did so?
Correct: the Gators WON. That almost never happens in That Game. Of all the upgrades and huge leaps forward that Coach Mac has brought to the program to move Florida back to national elite status, perhaps the most critical change he has instituted has been the sea change in culture and mindset. It is evident in every phase of the program, and this is the biggest manifestation of it: winning That Game.
That Game is going to happen. Every year, most likely. If Mac can insulate the program against actually losing that game when it happens, the holy grail of Florida football may someday be within reach: an undefeated season.
You know when time was running short in the fourth quarter and D-Rob fumbled the ball in the Vandy red zone in the middle of his command performance of “Peter Pan Joins the Ballet”, I couldn’t resist the resignation that this was just That Game that we always lose once a year. Until the final winning drive, nothing suggested a different outcome was in the offing. And even after that drive that took a 2-point lead for the Gators, the game still hung in the balance for a long time, thanks to the corrupt officials bent on extending Vandy’s final desperation drive.
If only I had known. If only I had caught it. When Ralph Webb ripped off his 74-yard TD run while Vandy was trying to run out the first half clock (great block on Keanu Neal by the ref to spring the play, by the way), it happened. I must have already buried my eyes in my palms because I did not see it. But I saw it after the game while watching the shortest highlight reel in broadcast history.
Just after he crossed the goal line, Webb dropped the ball and did it. He mockingly CHOMPED at the Gator crowd.
He invoked the Curse of the Chomp, one of the most immutable curses in sports. Many before him have done it. Most famously perhaps was Sebastian Janikowski chomping at the Swamp crowd late in the 1997 game after nailing what he thought would be the winning field goal when FSU was ranked #1 and on its way to the national title game. But then Green got behind the defense and the rest was history, much like FSU’s national title hopes.
So many have done it. So many have had it thrown back in their faces before leaving the stadium.
So as D-Rob pirouetted into a cadre of Commodore defenders and the ball popped out of the top like an Orville Redenbacher commercial, I should have just laughed. I should’ve marveled in what wizardry lay ahead to get us out of the trouble. I should have known we were going to win.
Because the Curse of the Chomp was in effect. And nothing can beat it.
This is not a defense that is going to finish first in the nation or in the SEC in any categories, and it’s not going to throw any shutouts. But it is a defense that is as dominant as any other in the country when it is focused, and it was focused on Saturday. Vandy ran off 62 plays and the Florida defense really only defended three of them poorly. In an SEC game, I’ll take a 95% defensive success rate any day.
And although they allowed Vandy to escape the shadow of their own goal posts twice and had the one blip that allowed them to scamper 76 yards to the touchdown that almost won the game, at the end of the day Florida has played 7 SEC opponents…and held 4 of them to single digit scoring. Three of them only managed one scoring play against the Gator defense (two field goals and one touchdown). Want more? Florida held a fifth SEC opponent to single digits and only one scoring play (a field goal) until very late in the fourth quarter when the Gators lost a little focus with a little early celebrating in a blowout win over the then-#3 team in the country.
The only two SEC opponents who put together multiple scoring drives when the game was “live”? The first one was Tennessee, which needed a big trick play, a ton of quarterback scrambles on plays that the Gators had completely shut down, and a staggering 30 missed tackles by the Gators – most of those behind the line of scrimmage, and on almost every converted third down (which all would probably have qualified for team records if they officially kept and tracked those statistics). The second one was LSU, which needed a trick play where our DB fell down, a Hail Mary where our DB fell down again, and a fake field goal where three DBs forgot their assignments to get 3 of their 5 scoring plays.
Starting Quick & Getting Sick
One of the dynamics that have cropped up a lot this season that has contributed to Florida’s scoring troubles is this: The Gators have consistently scored first and grabbed critical early momentum, but have not been able to maintain that scoring momentum through the first half, let alone the whole game. They come out playing hot, but then that heat morphs into a high fever and the scoring machine goes down to the infirmary and hangs out with the school nurse while the opposition goes down the field and hangs points on the scoreboard. To wit, counting backwards:
* Against Vanderbilt of course Florida had the ball inside the Vandy 3 yard line on their first two possessions, and thanks to corrupt replay booth officials and a missed extra point, instead of having a 14-0 lead before most of the attending crowd had found their seats, they only led 6-0. Then they didn’t score again until there was 2:22 left in the game.
* Against Missouri on the road, the Gators shot out of the gate as fast as any game this year, driving the field for touchdowns on their first two possessions. These were dominating drives of 12 plays/75 yards and 8 plays/82 yards. It looked like a straight blowout in the making. Or at worst it looked like it was going to be a high scoring track meet, with Missouri logging a 7-play, 62-yard field goal scoring drive in between Florida’s first two drives. But the neither offense scored again that night.
* Against LSU, Florida jumped out to an early lead by covering a muffed punt and sticking it into the end zone for a 7-0 lead less than 5 minutes into the game, before the home crowd had finished buying their corndogs from the concession stands. But then they went into a shell, allowing LSU to ring up 21 unanswered points before scratching the scoreboard again with just 1:34 left in the half.
* Against Tennessee, they scored first with a Quarter 1 touchdown from Kelvin Taylor. They went 70 yards on their second offensive drive to grab the lead and huge momentum, but then went to sleep as Tennessee scored the next 20-straight points. Florida didn’t get back on the board until 5:42 left in the third quarter.
* Against Kentucky, Florida looked like they were going to enjoy a typical Mildcat stomping when they hung 7 on the board just over six minutes into the contest, but they then went silent, clinging to a 7-3 lead until finally getting back on the board with just 14 seconds left in the half. And they did not score again.
In that 7-game stretch, 5 times the Gators scored early, took quick leads and seized big momentum that could have blown games open before Florida fans had any chance to get nervous, but then they immediately lost the momentum and handed it to the opponent. More often than not to the point of falling behind before recovering to take the victory (or in the case of LSU, not recovering). There were only two games that broke that pattern. Against Georgia, Florida had a very slow start, without a scoring opportunity before covering a botched punt in the end zone as time expired in the first quarter. Unlike all the games where they got off to fast starts and then fizzled, they were able to capitalize on that momentum once it started, scoring two more unanswered touchdowns in the second quarter to basically put the game away before halftime. Against Ole Miss, the Gators scored first with a touchdown just over 5 minutes into the game, and added 3 more touchdowns before the break, outscoring Ole Miss 31-3 before the Bears snuck in a garbage time touchdown.
The Gators have done this – jump out to early leads and threaten to blow games open – with both Will Grier and Treon Harris. And they have gone back into scoring shells under both quarterbacks, too. So it is not a function of the change at signal caller. For that matter, both quarterbacks have experienced a game where they scored first and just kept on rolling to a blowout against a quality opponent. So it can be done with the current personnel, no question.
For the Gators to have a strong chance to beat SC and FSU, and to have any chance of beating Alabama, the presumptive opponent in the SEC title game, they have to figure out a way to create early momentum, score fast and then maintain that rhythm and momentum the way they did against Ole Miss and Georgia. Losing that early edge (and losing the lead) is not fatal, as the Gators showed against Tennessee, LSU and Vanderbilt – against all of which they forged comebacks to either win or tie the game late. But it sure would be a lot easier on the nerves and blood pressure of Gators fans to go the other route.
*This was the first game since 1968 that the Gators had scored fewer than 10 points…and won.
*Vanderbilt ran 19 called pass plays. Florida sacked them on 5 of those plays. That is a 26% sack rate on pass plays.
*With 10 tackles for loss for the fifth time this year, these Gators join the 1993 and 1997 Florida squads as the most of any Gator team in program history.
*Treon’s interception was the first thrown by a Gator since the second quarter of the Tennessee game.
*This was the first time since Urban Meyer’s maiden squad in 2005 that a Gator team ran back a kickoff return of 70-plus yards and a punt return of 25-plus yards in the same game.
*Everyone has heard that McElwain is the third coach to reach the SEC Championship Game in his first year, but in addition he is the first to do it in the Eastern division and he is only the second to earn the title game berth with a win (Gus Malzahn got in by beating Missouri in 2013, but Les Miles backed in after losing to Georgia in 2005).
*With a win against South Carolina this week, McElwain would become the first Florida coach to ever win 7 SEC games in his first year as head coach (Spurrier and Zook both won 6)
Escaping the Freak Show
While watching the freakiness unfold, I thought our game with Vandy was as weird and unexplainable a game as I could imagine. Then I saw the end of the Ole Miss-Arkansas game. And I thought:
…….maybe our game was a lot more normal than I thought.
Closing Argument: Homecoming Hindsight
As bad as it was, as difficult as it was to sit through Homecoming on the edge of your seat like that…this may have been the best Gator Homecoming in 7 years.
Here are Florida’s previous Homecoming games:
2008: Won 63-5 over Kentucky. The last time Florida enjoyed a comfortable Homecoming.
2009: Won 23-20 over Arkansas. For the #1-ranked defending national champs, this game against Arkansas was 60 minutes of hell.
2010: Lost 10-7 to MSU. A loss to lowly Missy State and to our old offensive coordinator in a year when the program fell apart before our eyes.
2011: Won 26-21 over Vandy. A slightly wider margin of victory than this year, but with the backset of a defensive coordinator playing head coach for UF amidst a second crappy season in a row (which hadn’t happened since 1989), there was far less hope in Gator Nation as they watched this Homecoming rotten egg.
2012: Won 27-20 over Louisiana. This win required a last-second blocked punt return for a touchdown to beat Sun Belt team. At the time, most of the more vocal negative Florida fans dubbed this the most embarrassing game in Florida history. They reassessed after the Georgia State game the following year.
2013: Lost 34-17 to Vandy. A blowout and the first loss in the Swamp to Vandy since well before any of the players were born.
2014: Lost 42-13 to MO. Another Homecoming blowout, this one signaling months of fear and loathing over the unknown future of the program before and after the then-assured in-season firing of the head coach.
I am looking at that list and am pretty sure I would prefer Saturday’s game to all of them dating back to the Kentucky game in 2008. Given the knowledge that Florida has no logical business being a 1-loss East division champ given the job McElwain and the new staff inherited, and given the booming hope for the immediate and distant future, and given that we did this with our backup quarterback and a patchwork offensive line that was extremely limited to begin with…yeah, this was a pretty good Homecoming game for the G