With less than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 27-14 win, Florida Gators’ Jeff Driskel handed the ball to Mike Gillislee at the Bowling Green four-yard line.
Gillislee cut to his right and was immediately met by multiple defenders.
The defense was ultimately successful, as Gillislee was kept out of the end zone, but it wasn’t without a fight. He lowered his shoulders and dragged the four defenders with him before eventually relenting.
It was that strength, stubbornness and menacing attitude that led Gillislee to a career day in his first real opportunity as a Florida Gators running back.
His first three seasons at Florida were mired in frustration.
Gillislee proved to be an effective runner but was only given a chance in a limited role behind a collection of runners that included Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey.
In 36 career games, he had just 145 attempts. Still, he managed to gain 920 yards, a 6.3 yards per rush clip.
His biggest game in terms of attempts was in 2011 against Kentucky, when he was given the ball 11 times and picked up 84 yards.
Saturday, Gillislee was a whole new player.
The Gators fell behind in the first quarter as Bowling Green featured an offensive attack that kept Florida’s defense on its heels early.
However, led by Gillislee and the rushing game, the Gators were quick to counter.
His first touchdown of the day, a 15-yarder up the gut, completed a 13-play, 85-yard Florida drive that featured 10 consecutive runs.
Gillislee rushed for 44 yards on the drive, bursting through holes sprung by his offensive line.
“He got the ball north and south,” Gators coach Will Muschamp said after the game. “He made some really nice runs, made some big runs, ran through some tackles and broke some tackles. That was refreshing to see.”
Gillislee, a humble player despite the success, pointed to the offensive line doing its job, ensuring he could do his.
“I just went out there and ran behind my offensive line,” he said. “They did a good job.”
In hindsight, his first run just scratched on the surface.
After the initial onslaught by the Bowling Green offense, the Florida defense was able to stabilize and revert back to its usual form. To begin the second quarter, the Gators forced back-to-back three-and-outs.
The latter three-and-out, coupled with a 16-yard punt off the foot of Brian Schmiedebusch, gave the Florida offense possession on Bowling Green’s 38-yard line.
That’s when Gillislee’s day got even more special.
On the first play of the drive, he busted through a seam in the defense and was off to the races.
With only a safety to beat, Gillislee stuck his foot in the ground, catching the defender off-balance and coasted into the end zone for his career-tying second touchdown of the game.
Runs of that caliber make his pre-season goal of 1,500 yards seem a bit more attainable.
The last cut to shed Bowling Green safety Jude Adjei-Barimah showed the improved vision and footwork he has worked on tirelessly this off-season.
“He made some really nice cuts tonight off the counter play, coming back to the weak side, which he scored on,” Muschamp said. “I thought he did a nice job.”
Gillislee spoke about his vision after the game.
“I seen the safety, that he was coming down,” he said. “I kind of gave him a little head fake and cut up.”
On the day, Gillislee finished with 24 carries for 148 yards and two touchdowns, the biggest rushing output in a Florida season opener since Earnest Graham’s 182-yard effort in 2002.
Moving forward, the biggest question is sustainability. It remains to be seen whether Gillislee can handle the wear and tear of getting more than 20 attempts per game.
“I hope [he can],” Muschamp said. ““I told Brent [Pease] we are going to run the football. We need to establish what we are. You can’t talk about it. You’ve got to do it.
“You can preach a sermon over and over and over again, but until you are willing to go do it out there in front of the Gator Nation and the fans, that’s not what you are actually about.”
It is clear the Florida coaching staff wants to create a physical program — with Gillislee being the centerpiece.
The rest of the offense was collectively underwhelming, but for one game, Gillislee showed promise, something the Gators hope turns into production the rest of the season.
“It feels great,” he said. “The opportunity that I have always dreamed about.”