Just when you were ready to write the obituary and pronounce the 2013 season dead, the Florida Gators rose off the coroner’s slab and for 22 minutes showed us what they’re capable of doing. Yes, Florida lost to Georgia, 23-20, Saturday afternoon and you can indeed point to one of any number of mistakes and say that was the one that did the Gators in, but for the first 22 minutes of the second half, at least, this team yanked out all the embalming tubes and looked healthy and alive once again. How can a team look this good and this dominating, yet for the entire first half and the final eight minutes look like a team ready to be read last rites?
You have to go all the way back to the LSU game in 2011 to find a more lifeless Florida team than the one that played the first half Saturday afternoon in Jacksonville. The Gators had an excuse back in 2011. They were down to a true freshman third string quarterback going against a team that made it to the national championship game in Tiger Stadium.
There are no excuses for the way Florida played in the first half Saturday. This was the eighth game of the season, not the first so there is no way to sugar coat Florida’s inability to offer much more than token resistance in the first 30 minutes. When you get to this point in a season, you’re playing your biggest Southeastern Conference rival and you still have a shot at making the conference championship game in Atlanta, you can’t play like you’re simply going through the motions and you darn sure can’t play like you’re attempting to break the Guiness World Record for most missed blocks and tackles in a half of football.
But that’s what Florida did Saturday. In the first half the Gators looked like the team that took its football lessons by mail order and the mail was late.
No matter the scheme or the era, football was, is and will always be a game of blocking and tackling. The teams that block and tackle the best win. The teams that don’t lose. It’s not exactly a novel concept although the way the Gators played those first 30 minutes you would think that it is straight from the pages of a graduate level course at MIT.
Football is also a game of emotion and in rivalry games like this one, emotion often trumps talent. You could argue that the Gators have every bit as much talent as Georgia and you would be right. There is no argument whatsoever about which team began Saturday’s game with the right amount of emotion and focus.
It certainly wasn’t Florida.
But all that changed in the second half. At least it did for the entire third quarter when Georgia only managed five total yards after racking up 259 in the first quarter alone. It changed in the first few minutes of the fourth quarter when the Gators stuffed Todd Gurley on both third and fourth downs for what should have been a change of possession at the UGa 37.
Just one slight problem.
Neiron Ball took his helmet off when he jumped up off the pile of humanity that found Gurley at the bottom. That might sound silly but it’s a rule that has been in place long enough that a disciplined team should never get flagged for it
The penalty on Ball didn’t suck all the air out of the Florida rally balloon but it was like a slow leak. A few minutes later, the Gators were totally deflated and nothing like the team that kicked Georgia all over the field in the third quarter. Something similar happened in the first quarter when Solomon Patton retaliated to a verbal taunt by a Georgia player with a shove to the face. Right in front of the zebra. So much for salvaging something in the red zone after the offense reverted to predictability following a shocker of a deep ball thrown by Tyler Murphy to Quinton Dunbar that covered 83 yards.
When your scholarship kicker has been replaced by a walk-on and your kicking game isn’t exactly rock solid, you can’t turn what amounts to a long extra point into a 40-yard field goal, but that’s what the Patton penalty did. Frankie Velez went wide right. You could feel the air sucked out of the Gator balloon on that play, too. Instead of trailing Georgia, 7-3, it was 7-0 and Georgia was just getting cranked up. It was 17-0 when the first quarter ended, 23-3 at the half. Georgia played like it wanted to win. The Gators played like they wanted to go home.
That changed at the half.
In the first 22 minutes after halftime in which the Gators actually showed up to play, the defense got after people. Leon Orr alertly picked up a ball that Arthur Lynch dropped behind the line of scrimmage and ran it back to the Georgia 14. It was a lateral and replays confirmed it. Two plays later, the Gators scored a touchdown. Loucheiz Purifoy freight trained Aaron Murray on a corner blitz in the end zone for a safety.
The defensive effort must have been contagious because whoever was calling the offensive plays had this wild notion to let Tyler Murphy run with the football. It’s a very cool way to negate a blitz, something that Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was dialing up on every play. When Georgia blitzed up the middle, Murphy took off for 25 yards around the right end to the Georgia 14 and then ran the exact same play on the next snap, this time taking it to the house for a touchdown that cut the Georgia lead to 23-20.
Then came the last eight minutes when the Gators did their best impersonation of the team that played the first half. Suddenly Georgia could run the ball again. Suddenly Florida’s corners couldn’t cover anybody. Georgia ran 8:17 off the clock and probably could have scored except Mark Richt benevolently took a knee twice to end a game that could have been a blowout loss for UF, but somehow wasn’t, or could have been a magnificent come from behind win over a hated rival.
The team that played the first half and the last eight minutes is capable of getting blown out in three of the final four games on Florida’s schedule. The team that dominated Georgia for that 22-minute stretch could go no worse than 3-1 and that begs us to ask this question: Will the real Florida Gators please stand up?
Are the Gators the team that got their butts handed to them by Georgia in the first half and in the last eight minutes or are they the team that can dominate on both sides of the ball like they did for a quarter and a half?
This is no time to make excuses nor is it time to sugar coat things. It is all too easy to say if Dominique Easley had played Saturday that the Gators would have won the game. Well, the team that played without Dominique Easley should have won the game. Florida wasn’t out-talented by Georgia nor did the Gators lose because Easley wasn’t there. The Gators lost because Georgia had the longest stretch of sustained effort and played with the greater emotion for the longest period of time. Had Florida played with greater effort and more emotion for a full 60 minutes, there is no question that the Gators would have won this game.
Understand this. It’s not a lack of talent and it’s not Urban Meyer’s fault and that 22-minutes of domination in the second half is no guarantee that everything is peachy and the SS Gator has stopped taking on water.
It isn’t peachy. The ship is still leaking. Can that change in these next four weeks? We’ll have to see if this coaching staff can get the Gators to give a full 60-minute effort complete with focus and emotion starting with next Saturday’s game with Vanderbilt. If they can’t then this will be a November to remember but for all the wrong reasons