Pop Saunders stepped in front of a bullet over the middle and got his hands on it.
As he hauled it in and raced for the open end zone 25 yards away, the 65,000 or so fans in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Florida had extended its lead to 47-32 over Furman, and the Gators were safely out of the woods against an FCS opponent that had given them a thorough scare.
“Obviously pleased with two interceptions for touchdowns,” coach Will Muschamp said. “That’s what we kind of expect. That’s not happened for us this year.”
The Gators had recorded only six interceptions in the first 10 games of the season, but Jelani Jenkins added a 75-yard interception return for a touchdown later in the game, giving Florida two against Furman.
Saunders has come up with an interception in the last two games, and he is playing better for Florida after struggling earlier in the season.
“Pop’s got really good instincts on the ball, he’s got a very good feel for the game,” Muschamp said. “He has improved his tackling, although he still has work to do on that.”
The true freshman from Deland has played in all but one game this season and has started in nine games for the Gators.
He has tallied 20 tackles on the season with one for a loss, and he has broken up two passes. He also now leads the team with two interceptions, tied with sophomore safety Matt Elam.
Like most true freshmen, there has been a learning curve for Saunders, and teammates say he’s coming along as the season progresses.
“He’s a freshman, it’s kind of hard stepping in as a true freshman and starting in the SEC,” junior linebacker Jon Bostic said. “Basically, he’s getting that time down, and he’s starting to feel a lot more comfortable. He’s starting to recognize the routes and everything.”
Muschamp said the one thing he still needs to work on his tackling, though he attributes some of his struggles to being a first-year player.
“He needs to get stronger, that’s part of the issue,” the first-year coach said. “Being a true freshman, and again at Deland he played every sport there was and part of it is in the weight room. That’s part of being a freshman.”
For a Florida defense that gave up 446 yards to Furman, Saunders was one of the few bright spots in Saturday’s game.
The Florida defense needs him to continue playing well and creating the turnovers the Gators desperately need.
That Saunders has been able to come in as a true freshman and contribute to the defense is a credit to his work ethic and versatility.
“He’s highly intelligent, very smart,” Muschamp said. “He picks things up very well. He can play corner, nickel, dime, safety. He can play every position we have. He’s got very good football instincts and that’s what makes him a really good player.”