For two weeks in a row, the Florida Gators have needed to make a stand in the fourth quarter to win the game. And for two weeks in a row, they have done just that.
It’s not a coincidence.
This team strained in the offseason just so it could bring a blitz on fourth down to stop Mississippi State on the road or score on a late drive and grab two picks in a row to finish off LSU. Every team in the country did that, but the Gators have reason to believe that they put in just a little bit more under the expertise of strength and conditioning coach Nick Savage.
One unique thing Florida did to prepare for the season was running stadiums for every 2017 home loss.
During one of those runs, Mullen and Savage had players split into teams, and each team had a rope it had to hold onto for the entirety of the run. Groups were not determined by position, so there were offensive linemen on the same teams as skill players and so on.
That meant a lot of teamwork would be required to get it done right.
“Just don’t let go of the rope,” Mullen said. “Sometimes it’s, ‘I want to go faster, I want to go slower.’ But you’re as good as your teammates are, and we are as good as we are as a team. Not, ‘Hey, you see how fast I can run the stadium?’ That’s great, but you left your teammates behind, so that does us no good. It’s we are as good as our team is.”
When it’s been a long, hard-fought game and the minutes are winding down, Mullen wants his players to look back on that day and all the other struggles they endured together in the offseason.
“When you get into those games, you need something to look back on,” he said. “And the fact you can look back on and say, ‘Hey, I trained so hard and put myself through so much in that offseason training with so much intensity, I did it for this moment—not when you’re up big—I did it for when we are down in the fourth quarter and we have to find a way to make a play to win the game. I have that to look back upon, and I can take that with me moving forward.’ And that, really, our offseason program is all about that. A lot of it is about getting bigger, faster, stronger and getting in great condition, but a lot of it is also about mental toughness and how to overcome any type of adversity and take on any challenge that is put in front of you.”
Florida players may not have enjoyed those moments at the time, but now, they are understanding the purpose behind the blood, sweat and tears.
The Gators have been lacking a certain mental toughness needed to win big games for years now, and that may have been due in part to missing a proper strength and conditioning program. Now that it is in place, Florida believes it has what it takes to hang with the best in the country in any situation.
“It’s a lot of mistakes that can be made in the fourth quarter,” said junior wide receiver Josh Hammond. “When those games get tight and it is back-and-forth, back-and-forth, we know that we have each other’s back and we are still ready to play football. Even if it goes into overtime, we are ready for it. Just the preparation we put in all summer and on campus has prepared us for these moments.”