Knockin’ on national championship door

Florida finished about two yards and a two-point conversion shy of a chance to play for a national championship.

Second-year Gators coach Will Muschamp guided his team to an 11–1 regular season and a spot in a BCS bowl game. It’s the fifth time a team has won 11 games in school history.

A 17–9 setback against Georgia serves as the spoiler of a perfect season. The game was played Oct. 27 at Jacksonville’s EverBank Field and the Gators made countless, careless errors.

The last one didn’t cost them the game, but it is the one many will look back on the most because it came in the closing seconds.

Down eight points, quarterback Jeff Driskel engineered a drive with his team needing a touchdown and a two-point conversion to send the “War for the Oar” into overtime.

Driskel completed a short pass to Jordan Reed, who bolted toward the end zone. A pair of Bulldogs, including Jarvis Jones, closed in as Reed approached the end zone. The 6-foot-3 tight end jumped from the five-yard line to try to hurdle the defenders, but Jones knocked the ball loose from behind, resulting in a UGA fumble recovery.

Muschamp credited Reed’s effort for trying to make a play for his team, and chastised critics for questioning the effort two days after the game.

“It’s easy to sit and criticize when you’re sitting in the stands. Get in the arena and play.” Muschamp said.

Still, Florida put together a remarkable season loaded with thrilling come-from-behind victories that showed the mettle of a team few gave much of a chance heading into the season. Even if the Gators had beaten Georgia, they still would have had to get by Alabama in the SEC Championship to earn a trip to play Notre Dame for the crystal ball in Miami.

“We knew the rules of engagement at the beginning of the season. I’m not one that’s going to sit there and complain about it. It is what it is. We had our opportunity in Jacksonville and we didn’t get it done. That’s our fault and nobody else’s.

“We should have won the game.”

Muschamp said during his preseason press conference how the Gators needed to start fast and they did, peaking at No. 2 in the BCS Standings with a 7–0 record heading into the Georgia game. He talked about needing to improve in turnover margin after finishing 113th in the country in 2011. He talked about how his team had led the SEC in penalties and going 15–11 over the previous two seasons. He talked about needing to “finish better” after being outscored 72–22 in the second half of games in 2011.

“I told our players, (and) we just got done with a team meeting – 1511 at the University of Florida, we need to quit talking and start playing,” Muschamp said on Aug. 2. “At the end of the day, just get on the field and play.”

Each of those talking points resulted in a dramatic turnaround in 2012, with the exception of penalties. The Gators averaged eight penalties per game and finished dead last in the SEC again (and tied for 108th nationally) with an average of 66.4 penalty yards per game.

The Gators won the turnover battle, finishing the regular season tied for fifth in the country with a +17 turnover margin.

Moreover, they finished strong in games by outscoring opponents 115–29 in the fourth quarter. They capped it off with a 24-point fourth quarter to rally from behind for a 37–26 victory against Florida State and its No. 1 defense in the nation in the regular season finale.

In its second season under Dan Quinn, the defense thrived, finishing in the top-10 in total defense for the second straight year. The Gators played with the mindset that there was no one star on defense, but that the star was the entire defense. Some of the standouts were defensive linemen Shariff Floyd, Dominque Easley, Omar Hunter and Lerentee McCray, linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins and defensive backs Marcus Roberson, Josh Evans, Loucheiz Purifoy and Matt Elam.

In keeping with that mindset, that’s pretty much the entire starting defense. They benefitted greatly from the play of true freshman Dante Fowler Jr., Jonothan Bullard and Antonio Morrison.

“I’ll put them up against anybody,” Muschamp said of the defense, which was fifth nationally in total defense heading into the bowl game. “They are a group that really plays well together. They understand the team concept and how to compliment each other.”

Offensively, Driskel played well behind an improved offensive line led by Jonnothan Harrison and Jon Halapio. They opened holes for senior running back Mike Gillslee, who had cleared 1,100-yards rushing heading into the bowl game. He became the first Gators’ player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a single season since Ciatrick Fason in 2004. Partial credit for Gillislee’s season also goes to fullback Hunter Joyer, whose bruising blocks often were the ones to spring Gilly free.

The receiving corps received had its critics, but the steady play of pass catchers such as Reed, Frankie Hammond Jr., Quinton Dunbar and Omarius Hines cannot be overlooked. The group also was unsung heroes with their strong downfield blocking, which also helped Gillislee gained so many extra yards. There also was Trey Burton provide a change of pace while taking direct snaps out of the Wildcat formation.

Special teams were as strong as any in UF history as the team came up with four blocked kicks. Reliable kicker Caleb Sturgis passed Jeff Chandler in career field goals made while Kyle Christy’ booming punts allowed for gunners Purifoy and Chris Johnson plenty of time to pin opponents’ offensive deep in their own territory.

Muschamp regularly said he wouldn’t trade Sturgis and Christy for anyone in the country, and the duo lived up to that hype as both were among three finalists for national postseason awards at their respective positions.

All in all, 2012 was the season that put the Gators back on the national map. The fact the Gators came “Oh, so close!” to a perfect regular season and will return tons of talent certainly is a sign of a bright future ahead for Florida football.

“We’ve got a good, young football team and we’re going to be good for a long time,” Muschamp said.

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Mike Capshaw brings a wealth of experience to the Gator Country team. He’s been overseeing all editorial aspects of and Gator Country magazine by managing our team of staffers, interns and freelancers. He is now moving into a bigger role as a reporter by covering the football and basketball beats as well as providing coverage of all sports on campus. Mike’s 15 years in the business has included more than six years of covering SEC sports and recruiting at a daily newspaper in Arkansas. He has also helped launch a newspaper, magazines, websites and even a sports talk radio show. Because Mike puts family ahead of his career, he left the place where he was established when his wife received an opportunity to further her career at UF. He took a leap of faith that he could find a job in the Gainesville area and worked for a year at a newspaper group before joining the Gator Country family in November, 2011. Mike has won Florida Press Association awards for Best Sports Game Story and Best Sports Feature Story in the past two years as well as a company-wide award at his former newspaper group that includes some 60 publications, for Excellence in Sports Reporting. You can follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeCapshawGC.