NEW ORLEANS — If selecting a play of the year for Florida Gators football in 2012, strong arguments can be made for several moments heading into Wednesday’s Sugar Bowl game against Louisville.
Antonio Morrison’s fumble causing hit on Florida State’s EJ Manuel, Trey Burton’s 80-yard touchdown run at Tennessee, Jeff Driskel’s 70-yard touchdown run at Vanderbilt, Jon Bostic’s third-down, redzone stop of Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Mike Gillislee’s tight-rope-along-the-sideline touchdown run at Texas A&M and Louchiez Purifoy’s blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown by Jelani Jenkins in the closing seconds against Louisiana-Lafayette are just a few that stand out.
As far as game-changing — and perhaps season-changing — plays, perhaps none made as big of an as impact Matt Elam’s forced fumble against LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. that was recovered by De’Ante Saunders.
“I think that play defined our season,” cornerback Jaylen Watkins said.
Not only was it a touchdown-saving play in the third quarter of a 14-6 win, but Elam’s individual effort was amazing.
Beckham was racing down the UF sidelines after catching a long pass when Elam caught him from behind after a 56-yard gain. Beckham had the ball tucked away on his right side as Elam came in from his left. Elam grabbed Beckham’s jersey with his right hand before reaching around with his left. As Elam’s left hand found the ball, perhaps out of instinct, his fingers clawed over the nose of the football and he ripped it free for a fumble.
Watkins explained what he meant by saying the play defined their season.
“It just shows that we won’t quit in every game and in every game we showed it,” Watkins said. “That’s one player that’s coming out and showing it. It could have given up on the play or just made the tackle, but he went the extra mile and made the strip.”
After going 0-5 when trailing at halftime a year ago, the Gators didn’t quit in any game this season, coming from behind to win in seemingly all 11 victories this season.
Initially, not even the CBS commentators noticed the ball had been fumbled. It took an official booth review before it was ruled a turnover.
“Right after they showed that the ball did come out and they said it was our ball,” said linebacker Jon Bostic. “That might be the play (that was the defining moment in the season).”
Even Elam could admit his play served as a defining moment for the defense.
“That strip was a big pay,” Elam said. “That saved the game. That probably was the biggest play of the year.”
Elam not only made the defining play, he essentially was the defining player behind this season’s success. His tenacious attitude and relentless approach was something the entire team, especially the defense, fed off of each Saturday. He was so fired up against LSU that he evened knocked down teammate Loucheiz Purifoy while jumping on Purifoy’s back after he made a big play.
Afterward, Elam said he was wearing pink and played extra inspired for his sister, Britnee Walker, who had recently battled breast cancer and as in the stands that day against LSU.
“It’s really about taking charge of the secondary,” Bostic said of Elam’s impact. “His defense really gets everyone going and I try to do same thing with the front seven. He’s one of those guys that can play all over the field. He played free safety and strong safety.
“We mess with him and tell him he can play linebacker as well.”
He may not quite have the size (5-foot-10, 202 pounds) to play linebacker, but Elam’s versatility is what has him debating whether to return for his senior season or enter the 2013 NFL Draft. CBSSports.com projects hi as the No. 1 strong safety in this draft class, if he were to declare.
Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said he had “a little bit of a connection” with Elam before he was hired at Florida after coaching Elam’s brother, Abram Elam, in the NFL.
“When we first came in playing nickel and safety, here’s a guy who could play two spots,” Quinn said. “We thought that would be something, if a guy could do that as a young player, that would really add value to him and what he could do to our team.”
Along with his ability to play multiple spots, Quinn often talks about Elam’s “explosive power” as what makes him a special player.
“The biggest transformation to me that I’ve seen from my first year of coaching Matt to now is how physical he is,” Quinn said. “I think that really has to stem from the time and effort that he spent in the weight room changing. He’s getting stronger.
“We play him at the line of scrimmage a lot, whether it’s at safety or nickel. And I think he can blitz. He can cover. But to me the physical style he plays with is one of the things that really jumps out on your team.”
Quinn also said Elam and Dominqiue Easley’s aggressive approach has helped define the defense and the entire season. Easley has been in awe of playing with someone who can match his tenacity.
Easley said he doesn’t play angry, he just knows what he wants and “goes gets it.”
“He wants to be where the ball is at,” Easley said. “He wants hit. He wants to be the best.
“But it’s more his smarts. It’s his leadership. He knows what he (means) to this team.”