This was one for the ages. It was a thriller. It was maddening. It was a uniquely bizarre situation where a team dominates another but still has to make a big comeback to win. It was ecstatic. But it was not a surprise. On game day I posted on Gator Country that my feeling was that when the game was over, the outcome will seem in retrospect to have been obvious, something we should have known all along. And it was. The only wild card was the injury situation, which was clearly in our favor for the first time in over a month. And with that, the results were as good as predetermined.
Oddly enough, the game was a microcosm of our season. The Gators purely dominated the first half, but the lead was modest — much like the way Florida dominated the first half of their schedule in the respect that they controlled the games, dominated the second halves but won by mostly modest margins. Then came the third quarter: the Georgia game of our season. Everything fell apart through self-inflicted destruction, turning a 10-point lead into a 7-point deficit. Then the Gators slowly composed themselves and edged back into the game with a modest scoring drive for a field goal, just as they slowly got their bearings straight in the three-game stretch following Jacksonville, with modest wins. Then, the FSU game arrived with a boom — like the boom of Antonio “Tank” Morrison slamming the ball out of EJ Manuel’s hands and slamming him out of the game. The rout was back on, just as the Gators’ season was back to fever pitch.
And as such, the Florida Gators team that we all saw for most of the season was back. And it was not by accident. I have been writing in this space and on the forums since the Vanderbilt game that our problems on offense the last several weeks were due to the offensive line’s significant and lingering injury woes. Many fans were willing to believe this for a game or two — certainly in the Georgia game it was clearly evident — but were reluctant to concede that these injuries could last this long. Reports started to leak this week that the offensive line had regained a lot of its flagging health and the game results certainly backed that up. Putting a final validation on the issue was Florida coach Will Muschamp, who said after the game that this was the first time since the Vandy game that James Wilson and Xavier Nixon were healthy at all. And we all know that the rest of the starting line have all missed time and were playing badly banged up as well.
After watching the results in Tallahassee, it’s difficult to dismiss the notion now: the offense was hamstrung in the running and passing games by an offensive line that was badly injured across the unit and had little or no depth at any position to pull an adequate “man down, man up” transaction. It wasn’t laziness or simple lack of focus or effort on the players’ part and it certainly was not a case of UF offensive coordinator Brent Pease suddenly forgetting how to call a game. Once they had a line with which to work again, the offense was quite dazzling in Tallahassee. There was Jeff Driskel standing in the pocket with time, cutting up the FSU secondary to the tune of 65 percent completion percentage (with at least two completions called back on corrupt officiating calls), a nice touchdown and only one bad pass all day that was even remotely close to being picked off. There were many plays by the quarterback that stood out, but the one on the second field goal drive where he stayed home and shifted in the pocket again and again until finally beating the “sack count” by a half-second by flipping the outlet to Jordan Reed in heavy traffic for a first down … and then a play later when he again evaded a heavy rush and hit Reed on the sideline with a bullet on the dead sprint (that was corruptly reversed to an incompletion by the replay booth) … these were great examples of the kind of seasoned, complete quarterback that he is becoming, and in fact has become. And there was Mike Gillislee running wild again like he had every week before the Vanderbilt game when he had holes to run through. And there were receivers getting open to catch passes because the line was providing time for them to get open before Driskel had to run from the pocket. And they weren’t just holding their blocks. They weren’t just firing off the ball. They owned the line of scrimmage against what is considered by many to be the best defensive line in the country. But I’ll cover the toughness factor down the page.
Checking the Keys and Prognostications
As I’ve said before, Gator Country tries to distinguish itself by being accountable for its news, opinions and projections. Checking last week’s column, I set out four keys or major factors that would lead to a Gator victory:
1. The Projection: FSU’s defensive vulnerability up the middle, both on the ground and in the air, would provide opportunities for Florida.
The Result: Florida gutted FSU up the middle, accounting for most it its 244 yards rushing and many of its most impacting pass completions, particularly to Reed.
2. The Projection: FSU’s offensive weaknesses were many. The Seminoles’ line is pedestrian and UF will be able to apply good pressure, their receivers are poor route runners and they lost their ground game weapon when they lost their starting running back. The Gators’ defense will be able to confuse Manuel with complicated coverages and disguised fronts.
The Result: The defense harassed Manuel all day without having to blitz much, sacking him twice while rushing and flushing him often and holding him to barely over 50 percent completion percentage. The Gators adequately confused him as well, forcing three interceptions. The receiving corps made no big plays on the day, with only one pass completion for over 13 yards (16 yards). Finally, their running backs were as expected completely ineffectual, with Devonta Freeman gaining 37 yards and James Wilder Jr. just 13.
3. The Projection: Florida’s toughness would overwhelm FSU.
The Result: While the result speaks for itself, I will expound in the next section.
4. The Projection: Florida State’s tightness, playing under pressure, would hurt them.
The Result: FSU came out flat, committed five turnovers, including three interceptions, a fumble on offense and a fumble on special teams. Even coach Jimbo Fisher called a very tight and overly conservative game, going to the well of running plays on third-and-short again and again, despite having a dangerous quarterback on the run that Fisher could roll out with multiple options, like Florida did with Driskel to convert the touchdown pass to Quinton Dunbar.
I also projected that the team would come out with the highest intensity of the year (even the offensive line, regardless of injury status), that special teams would be a weapon (3-for-3 on field goals, pivotal 50-yard punt return to set up a two-score lead in the fourth quarter), and that the coaching staff would devise the correct plan to win (see: scoreboard). I did err in dismissing Manuel’s scrambling ability as a weapon, as it was nearly their only source of offense the entire day, and I thought they could not score more than 20, our season high in points allowed — although the last play touchdown that put them over the top, in fact the entire last drive, was only defended as a symbol of sarcasm by the Gators defense, right down to the mock touchdown signal by Jaylen Watkins. And I did miss the margin of the Gators’ victory by 2 points, although that was in the Picks & Pans column, which is for “entertainment purposes only.” All in all, here on Gator Country a pretty accurate preview of what we saw Saturday. Compare to the rest of the Florida media’s projections for this game and your mileage will certainly vary.
The Toughness Factor Again
It was not just the offensive line that was putting the hurt on FSU defenders, although they certainly made some impressions. Watch the game again and key on the linemen through each play. Nixon, Wilson, Jonotthan Harrison and Jon Halapio — these guys were throwing FSU defenders around like rag dolls all day, at the point of attack and downfield. On Gillislee’s first touchdown, Nixon provided pure comedy when he slapped the last defender backwards and his arms flew up like a vaudevillian taking a pratfall. On Gilly’s second touchdown, Halapio blocked through three defenders in a row like he was knocking over bowling pins. On the final Matt Jones touchdown run, Reed simply slapped the last defender to the ground with one hand like a child. He also crashed through several defenders for big extra yards every time he caught the ball. On the critical first drive, when Florida established not only that it was going to move the ball and score on FSU, but also established that it was going to own the time of possession, on the first third down, Reed would not go down short of the sticks with an arm tackle. A couple of plays later, Omarius Hines would not go down short of the sticks with an arm tackle. On the second third down of the drive, Driskel blew through the center of that mighty FSU defense to convert the first down. A play later, Gillislee was stopped by two defenders a yard short of the first down and he carried both of them three more yards — all sending the clear message right out of the starting gates: these are not the weak-spirited and weak-bodied ACC players on which FSU had fattened up again all year. On the hit that caused the game-turning fumble, Morrison hit Manuel so hard that he forgot things that never even happened. Play after play, the Gators pounded the FSU players in all phases of the game. And it wasn’t just power, but speed where Florida sent the Seminoles’ heads spinning and ears ringing.
In the first half and in the fourth quarter, you could see it on the faces of the FSU players and coaches: they had no idea what was happening to them. What was this force of nature being experienced on the field that resembled nothing they had seen from any of their ACC opponents — or from the Florida Gators for that matter — for the last three years? Ironically it was Florida State running back Devonta Freeman who said during game week that when they face FSU, “Florida won’t know what hit them.” Now we know why — because whatever it was that FSU hit them with, it hit them far too lightly for the Gators to tell what it was. Was it a zephyr? Did a butterfly flap its wings in China? Did the Florida State players tap them with a thought bubble? The talent gap on the field was dwarfed by the toughness gap. And this with a Gator offensive line still not at 100 percent and an offense in general that was still playing with several limitations. Once they have full instrumentation, and just as importantly the same kind of depth the Gators currently enjoy on defense, the punishment they will be dishing out will be even more severe.
The Future of the Series
If you enjoyed the Gator romp on Ron Zook Field Saturday, I have good news for you: there is a lot more where that came from. Consider this series back in Florida’s hands, and I believe deep in its pocket. First, let’s look at the short-term future of the rivalry.
We’ve all heard that both Matt Elam and Dominique Easley have said they are returning next year for their senior seasons, which means the only personnel the Gators will lose from the best defense in the nation is Omar Hunter, Lerentee McCray, Jon Bostic, Josh Evans and probably Sharrif Floyd. No small losses there for sure, but they are evenly dispersed across the units and there is a stacked depth chart behind these players developed and ready to step up, including the return of Ronald Powell who went down to injury just as the light was coming on and he was coming into his own as a star player. On offense, the line loses just Nixon and James Wilson, the receiving corps loses just Hines and Frankie Hammond and the backfield of course loses Gillislee. To fill in these holes, there are two big high-quality BCS conference transfers on the offensive line, Jessamen Dunker coming off a redshirt season and Matt Patchan (hopefully) returning from his season-long injury. The receivers will be bolstered by nearly a half dozen excellent incoming freshmen and the return of the very dangerous Solomon Patton who is a receiving weapon as well as a key decoy on the end-around fakes in taking a defender out of the run defense scheme of the opposition. And despite losing the best running back in the SEC, arguably the nation, the Gators will be in great shape in the backfield with Matt Jones – and the fourth quarter Saturday was his true coming out party, not only in tough running but in precious maturity and presence of mind when he cut back to stay in bounds on the last scoring drive – Mack Brown and incoming thunder and lightning studs Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane. It speaks volumes about the rebuilding and reloading transition when the biggest challenge will be replacing the kicker.
At Florida State, however, where the whole program is being sustained by their defense – and as we saw Saturday, their depth there is weak — the Seminoles are going to be decimated by graduation and early NFL departures. They are likely going to lose all four of their stellar defensive line starters, with three seniors and junior Bjeorn Werner, who certainly should leave and cash in on his opportunity to be a high round draft pick next year. Two of their three starting linebackers are seniors along with a junior Christian Jones who could also leave early. On offense, they lose their starting quarterback, running back and fullback, as well as their best receiver with two juniors behind him who will take the NFL’s temperature (though they will likely stay). The only units that will return intact are the offensive line and the secondary, the emphatic weaknesses of the offense and defense, respectively.
Looking farther ahead, it was very clear on the field Saturday that Florida has, even in its very difficult transition year from Muschamp’s inherited dumpster fire, has developed its depth much better than FSU has developed its depth chart. The Gators out-recruited FSU last year and are out-recruiting them decisively this year. This was FSU’s last best chance for a number of years to not only challenge for the national title, but just to beat Florida. And the ‘Noles fell flat on their faces. And it was not because of injuries or playing too tight like Florida’s loss to Georgia. It was because Florida is stronger, faster, tougher and more talented up and down the roster. And those gaps are going to widen next year and keep widening because Muschamp is a better recruiter than Fisher, because he is a much better coach, and because Florida has a much better coaching staff. It is also very clear that the SEC is a selling point with which the ACC’s FSU simply cannot compete. Not only is the SEC going to win its seventh-straight national title this year, and be the odds-on favorite to win its eight-straight next year, but the SEC thoroughly waxed the ACC to close the 2012 season. In the four big SEC-ACC matchups Saturday, the SEC swept all four, and won three of them in blowouts. Included in the sweep were the only two ranked teams in the ACC. The best recruits want to play on the biggest stage and play for the national title. They want to play for the SEC title. No high school blue chippers are sitting around the training table talking about their dreams of playing in the ACC title game against a 6-loss opposing division winner, as FSU will do this year. Combine the upper hand in this series with the Grand Canyon gap between the draw of the SEC versus the ACC — to say nothing of the fact that the Florida staff is just a better group of recruiters — and you can bet that Florida will not lose many head-to-head recruiting battles to FSU in the coming years. Florida State better have enjoyed its brief two-year winning streak in this series during the Meyer-Muschamp transition years while the Gator program wandered the desert, because the competitiveness of this series is over again. It belongs to Florida now and it will continue to be the Gators’ game for the foreseeable future.
Before closing, I wanted to detail some of the amazing accomplishments this team and program drove home Saturday. You surely have seen some of these statistics elsewhere, but they bear repeating. This was only the sixth team in Gator history to start a season 11-1 or better, and only the fifth to win 11 games in the regular season. Florida State came into the game leading the nation in rush defense, surrendering just 71 yards per game; Florida shredded them for 244 yards on the ground. Florida State came into the game leading the nation in third down defense, allowing a conversion on just 24.9 percent of the time and just 20.5 percent of the time in out of conference games; the Gators converted over half of their third downs Saturday, 53.3 percent. In fact, in three other non-conference games in 2012, FSU had given up just 9 third down conversions; on Saturday, Florida converted eight. EJ Manuel came into the game with six interceptions on the season; the Gators picked him off half that many times Saturday with three. Manuel came into the game completing 69 percent of his passes; Florida held him to under 55 percent. FSU came into the game rushing for 212 yards per game; Florida held them to 112. FSU entered Saturday in the national top 10 in scoring defense, surrendering just 13 points per game; Florida scored 37, while mistakes (Frankie Hammond and Clay Burton both had walk-in touchdowns on misfired passes) and bogus officiating calls left many more points on the field.
Saturday’s game was the Gators’ eighth comeback win of the season, including an amazing third fourth quarter comeback against teams ranked in the BCS top 10 in the last two weeks. With FSU’s longest run of the game being Manuel’s 23-yard mad scramble at the end of the first half, the Gators end the season with 24 yards being the longest run given up from scrimmage — the best in the nation.
With the impressive number of incredible backs that have come through Gainesville, it is unfathomable that Gillislee is only the eighth ball carrier in Gator history to top 1,000 yards in a season. And no Gators player has ever kicked as many field goals as Caleb Sturgis, who broke the great Jeff Chandler’s school record with his second field goal of the game. Next year Muschamp will begin his search for the next 1,000-yard rusher, and the next great field goal kicker for the Gators, and considering the talent already in Gainesville and this coaching staff’s ability to identify and sign the best players at every position, there is no doubt those future stars will be found and found quickly. Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.