If the phrase “roller coaster of emotions” was literal, then most Florida Gators football fans would be woozy and sick this week. Although if truth be told, most probably are after the duo of duels the Gators have turned in on the field so far.
Through the first two games, fans have expressed jubilation, joy, fear, distress and a smidgen of disappointment. Heading into the third week and the first SEC game, there’s now a sense of anxiousness that hangs over fans like a cloud. Was the first game a fluke? Was the second game a derailment? What do they both mean for the trip to Lexington? As someone who sat through both games, riding every dip and turn of that roller coaster with you all, I can say with certainty that if you put all of those emotions together, you get hope.
~ The Flashy Opening Act ~
I saw more fireworks in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 5 than I have since the Fourth of July.
See, the Florida Gators football team has fireworks shot off after touchdowns; during the season opener and Jim McElwain’s debut the pyrotechnics were liable to run out.
Every possession but the first saw the Gators put up points in some form and the fans in the stands were getting high off excitement, and probably the lingering smoke cloud after each set of dissipating fireworks.
The excitement was evident from the beginning and filled the Swamp more than the humidity, which is quite a feat. Gator players were barely contained while waiting to run out of the tunnel and almost knocked down a handler when trying to push forward. It’s common to see emotion and some theatrics during this moment, and it can be more for show than anything, but even on the opposite end of the stadium I could still feel their anticipation and excitement and so many other words that just seem mundane when trying to apply them to the moment.
Martin Salamone, the Florida Assistant Athletics Director for Marketing and Promotions, is tasked with the somewhat dangerous job of being the man who “holds” back the team until time to run out. On that Saturday night, with a crowd of 90, 227 encouraging an over the top entrance, Martin noticed a shift in the team as well.
“This [game] there was definitely some juice in the tunnel; it is pretty common that the team is fired up for the opener but after the team felt the energy at Gator walk and saw the crowd on Saturday night, that really got the team fired up – they were ready to go!”
Sitting in the top tier of the stadium where we get a big light headed from the altitude, I was watching all of this play out below, and couldn’t help but chuckle when a fan next to me got choked up and said, “wow, I’ve never seen them come out of the tunnel like that!”
The emotions continued to run high for the duration with another fan on my right giving running commentary on what I can only assume were the thoughts and feelings owned by much of the Gator Nation.
There was exuberance after each successful pass (Will Grier and Treon Harris combined to go 31-38 for 384 yards in the air) and the exclamation of “I like this kid! I don’t know who he is but I like him!”
There was pure elation at a running game that was more than two yards and a cloud of dust as the Gators pounded out 222 yards on the ground.
There was joy in seeing that the defense hadn’t lost its touch, holding New Mexico State University to -1 yards in the second half.
And by the end of the 61-13 win, seeing what they viewed as a glimpse into the future, it was like a bunch of Chandlers walking to their car.
It would have been easy to be cautious. It was only the one game. It was only New Mexico State. Florida won 65-0 in the quasi opener from 2014.
But take heart Florida fans for you had reason to be excited about that game. Sometimes there’s more to winning than actual, well, winning and that’s what we saw in the Florida Gators season opener as opposed to the past four years. Because for the past four years, fans have been subject to some ugly winning…and losing. The phrase “ugly win” has become commonplace. The quote “it wasn’t pretty but it was a win” has been uttered more often than not and while true, no matter how much makeup you put on it, no matter how short the skirt you dress it up in or nice the perfume you spritz it with, a pig is still a pig and unless it comes as bacon, fans want something more than a pig. More points, more creativity with plays, more efficiency, just more.
As the Gators hung 60 on the Aggies, Florida fans finally got more.
What we saw in that season opener can best be defined as a complete team. Offense, defense, special teams; it was all there and it wasn’t necessarily a by-product of a “cupcake” opponent no matter what some people want to tell you. Those people probably don’t actually eat cupcakes either because of the calories and what a miserable life. Enjoy the cupcake and all the happiness it brings.
At one point, three tight ends and Vernon Hargreaves III were all lined up on an offensive play and I thought to myself, “Is this football heaven, because I’m pretty sure this is how God intended the game to be played.”
Nineteen different guys made an offensive play with the ball versus New Mexico State including seven plays to tight ends. McElwain along with Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier called 79 plays while controlling 37:56 of the game clock. The only games from 2014 that outpaced that was the matchup versus Eastern Michigan which saw 86 and the game against Kentucky which racked up 94 offensive plays. Then again that one against the Wildcats had three overtimes to credit for a chunk of that number and gave most of us indigestion.
Nineteen playmakers, 79 plays, 60 points all add up to 331.
Don’t pull out your calculator to check, I have a point here.
It is 331 miles from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to the Georgia Dome where the SEC Championship Game is played and after the season opener, with the future looking bright under McElwain, fans were thinking positive and checking hotel rates.
Then came week two which, in the words of the wise philosopher Eminem, meant back to reality without gravity…or discipline, it would seem. Because the most telling stat from the Florida Gators season opener was that they were only charged with one penalty. That’s the least amount of penalties the Gators have committed in a game since December 3, 1977 against FSU. And if their second matchup versus East Carolina was any indication, the new record could stand for a while as well.
~ Rackin’ ‘Em Up ~
As GatorCountry.com’s very own Nick de la Torre stated not long after Florida beat East Carolina 31-24, there were enough flags thrown during the game to stitch a new uniform.
Twelve penalties total do not a happy Jim McElwain make.
Unsportsmanlike conduct, false start, pass interference (on offense and defense), delay of game, roughing the kicker, illegal shift, illegal block and holding.
If this had been Penalty Bingo, the Gators would have won, so to speak.
After the win, Jim McElwain went on a tirade in his post game press conference and post game radio appearance, calling the performance embarrassing.
Granted it can be a tough line to toe, balancing passion with restraint, as offensive lineman Trip Thurman said.
“It’s tough on any program especially in a venue like The Swamp. Excitement, you get chills down your bones, things just come out. I think Mac gave a good point with Kelvin and although it may not have been the right way to go about it, he definitely got his point across to us and how he wants to run the team and how we need to present ourselves to the fan base and the rest of the country.”
The instance he’s referring to, if you’ve been under a rock, is when McElwain ripped into running back Kelvin Taylor on the sidelines after the junior received an unsportsmanlike conduct call following a throat slash gesture.
And since it seems we’re all expected to give an opinion on this…if you think that was a horrible display of temper, you are naïve as to what goes on during practice. It was needed, Kelvin understood, it’s over. Let’s move past it.
The unsportsmanlike calls are a sore point for McElwain, with the head coach even throwing a player out of a fall scrimmage for drawing the penalty.
He thought he had made his point then, but if the East Carolina game is an indication, it’s obviously still sinking in.
Defensive back Marcus Maye says that the team is still learning the lesson, but understands they better learn it quick, for their own sake.
“Everybody’s out there playing with passion and energy. Just a heat of the moment thing but you also have to know anything that you do, excessive celebration, taunting and all that kind of stuff, you know it’s not acceptable and it’s a 15 yard penalty and Coach, he doesn’t allow it. You have to know when [you can’t] and when can you do stuff.”
As Trip Thurman said, they want to work on how they’re presenting themselves to the rest of the country, and the persona that currently hangs over them is somewhat damning.
Most of us probably had our mother tell us at 13, “your reputation will precede you” and as she is about most things, she was right about that.
The Florida Gators have a reputation based upon stats; like stats that place Florida as one of the most penalized teams in the country for the past couple of decades.
Now, even though fans will argue that it’s a well known, albeit unwritten rule the more edginess to a team, the greater the chance of a championship (look at how many from the ’06 & ’08 teams have found trouble with the law) there can still be a stigma that comes with it and comes out on the field. This can lead to officiating crews being a little more free flying with their flags. Jim McElwain even pointed out on his post game radio appearance that the crew, which officiated Saturday’s game, had peppered the Gators last year as well. The only game that this crew worked in 2014 was the contest versus LSU in which they threw a flag eight times against the Gators (four of which were declined).
And he may have had a point. There was the roughing the kicker call on Alex McCalister that fans fought with all their might. There was the lack of call when Demarcus Robinson had a Pirates safety draped on his shoulders like a cape. Then there was the pass interference call on Jake McGee, which brought back a touchdown and seemed about as real as Santa Claus (spoiler alert if you still believe in Santa Claus).
However unfair it might seem though that this team must fight “the sins of the father”, the fact remains that it’s a persona they plan to shed, and quickly if there’s any hope of advancing in McElwain’s program.
That is the fact that makes the future exciting. Yes, this game against East Carolina, which brought such a sense of shame upon the team, is still reason for excitement.
This is where that statement back at the top that most likely made you mockingly laugh at your computer starts to make sense.
If we’re being completely honest with ourselves, at this time a year ago, a game won by a touchdown and PAT, a whole seven points, and containing double-digit penalties, would not have been cause for much concern. This was evident when walking out of the stadium after the East Carolina game, I was jostled by hordes of fans that were jumping up and down in excitement. No one cared how the game was won, just that it was won.
Watching Tevin Westrbook stand in the southeast endzone and drop an easy lob to lose to LSU in 2014 will give you that sort of “win at any cost” outlook on the game. (Yes I’m still upset. No I won’t get over it any time soon.)
Players were hyped while dancing in front of the band and there wasn’t a trace of disappointment or disgust on their face. Midtown was a cluster of people trying to get hit by cars it seems while celebrating their jubilation.
“We’re 2-0! We did it without Vernon Hargreaves! We’ve still got two quarterbacks to choose from!”
Ok some adult beverages may have induced that last one because everyone knows if you’ve got two quarterbacks, you don’t have one.
Then McElwain got to going…
Now, the focus is not that the Gators won, but they way they did it.
“We want to get [rid of] that persona of ‘the Gators are bad, they get unsportsmanlike penalties. The most penalized team in the country.’” explained Trip Thurman.
“That’s not what we want to be about. That’s not how coach Mac wants to run the team and honestly that’s not how I want to be perceived as either.”
Marcus Maye expounds, saying that McElwain has made this point from the offset.
“Yea that was one of the first things [discussed], when [McElwain] came in, was the things that we did to beat ourselves. He told us right away that he wasn’t going to allow us to beat ourselves because we could be that good if we don’t beat ourselves. And I feel like he harps on it a lot in practice, when we’re down in the locker room and stuff like that. Just the small details that can affect us on the field and for the most part, the less penalties that we get, it’s just a bigger chance for us winning.”
So essentially, fewer penalties, more winning. That’s a trade off fans and the team will take every day of the week and twice on Sunday’s.
The fact that this is such a big deal though, and the main talking point as mentioned above, can be encouraging. The faces I saw on Saturday night and the faces I saw on Sunday morning showed two completely different sets of feelings.
Simply winning is no longer good enough. It probably never was for this fan base, but the past few years have allowed for some complacency. Now though, you have a coach and a team who won’t accept good enough, knowing that they can be better.
This game, and in a sense, the penalties served as a litmus test and we saw that hot water is not ok for Jim McElwain and thus the Florida Gators. The team got the message loud and clear as well, and luckily before SEC play begins.
From that, there’s another encouraging point taken from the Gators week 2 performance…the fact that it was week 2.
When Florida beat Eastern Michigan 65-0 in 2014, it was their first game, played on week 2 after their opener against Idaho had been rained out. After that high falootin scoring display, Florida was feeling good, thinking they ran the SEC East before running straight into the brick wall that is in fact the SEC.
It could’ve happened again as McElwain and players admitted that the team came into practice following New Mexico State very lackadaisical. Players were showing up late, not getting ankles taped and practicing like East Carolina wasn’t a team worth practicing for.
“We got comfortable. We were really lazy on Monday, as a team,’’ said linebacker Jarrad Davis describing the week following New Mexico State. “Guys weren’t getting taped. Guys were late to the meeting. [Coach] ripped us. It showed in the game. We started slow. We should have come out and really lit up the scoreboard on [East Carolina]. But we started slow and they hung around with us.”
With what we now recognize as the bilious performance against the Pirates, the Gators got the opportunity to figure things out a bit and wide receiver Valdez Showers can’t stress the importance of that enough.
“I think every team needs that first game just to even get the rust off so guys can get comfortable so we definitely needed that first game last year. With Eastern Michigan, our next opponent was much tougher and we still didn’t get everybody in the game and get rotated. So I feel like it’s the momentum and the confidence that we have after going through the summer and this playbook and the package is so big and versatile that we can adjust to any defense.”
Florida still has a quarterback battle on their hands, and one that needs to be resolved quickly. As in, flip a coin and just go with fate quickly. There have already been significant injuries such as linebacker Alex Anzalone. But there has also been two games worth of wide receivers getting comfortable with routes, running backs finding feet and tight end play seeing about a 1000% increase.
I don’t see these first two games as a Jekyll and Hyde team. I see a team who, in search for their new identity, floundered and resorted to a former one; one that was known and therefore comfortable. All it took was one week; one game to realize that isn’t who they want to be anymore. It’s a lot easier to figure out what you want to be when you know for certain what you don’t.
Week one, the Gators got a glimpse of what they’d like to be. Week two, even in a win, the Gators got the full picture of what they don’t want to be. Now they have answers and thus a plan and THAT is what is exciting. The Florida Gators have a chance to build off of this and create something special.
That’s cause for hope, and a lot more fireworks.