Stronger Gators pound opponents

Florida’s fourth-quarter struggles were pounded into the team’s head during the offseason. Now, it is the Gators that are doing the late-game pounding.

Behind two second-half touchdowns from Mike Gillislee, the Gators upset LSU 14-6 on Saturday in The Swamp.

Gillislee’s second touchdown, a 12-yard run through the right side of a suddenly porous LSU defensive line, came with 13:18 remaining in regulation.

After being outscored 72-22 in the fourth quarter of conference games last season, Florida has gone four games without giving up a point in the quarter. Meanwhile, the offense has scored 31 points in the fourth quarter of SEC games this season.

With high-powered offenses in South Carolina and Georgia still looming, the defense will have a more difficult time continuing to shutout conference opponents in the fourth quarter. However, the +31 margin is already a far cry from last season’s -50 debacle.

After the game, Gators coach Will Muschamp said the second-half success couldn’t be credited solely to adjustments made during halftime. He said his coaching staff works throughout the game to get better.

“Whether our offense or defense is on the field, we coach during every series and make adjustments,” he said. “We don’t wait until halftime.”

Still, there is something to be said for the way his team has won games this season.

In three of its four conference games, Florida has gone into halftime trailing. Each game has resulted in a victory.

Earlier this season, Muschamp said he wasn’t sure if his team from a year ago would have beaten Tennessee as it did on Sept. 15. Maybe it would have. Tennessee made mental mistakes in the second half and forgot how to play defense.

However, there is no question this team would not have won Saturday’s game a year ago.

The first half resembled a first half the 2011 Gators would have put together.

The defense played well, cleaning up several offensive miscues. It played similarly in 2011, though maybe not quite to the level it did Saturday. Still, the offense looked overmatched. Jeff Driskel was sacked five times and took repeatedly tok a beating. The result was zero points and a 6-0 halftime deficit.

The 2011 Gators would have crumbled. They would have been pushed around in the second half just as they were the first half.

However, something has changed this season, and credit can’t be given to just one person because it is the doing of quite a few.

In particular, Jeff Dillman, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, has made a difference. He has given the team the physical tools to play with the mindset that Muschamp has wanted since taking over as coach.

Early in his postgame press conference, Muschamp mentioned Dillman.

“It was very evident out there on the football field tonight we had a strong, physical football team who had good endurance against an outstanding, athletic bunch,” he said.

Jon Halapio is evidence of Dillman’s work.

A year ago, it was clear he was not strong enough to play against elite defenses. Saturday, not only did he hold his own, he exceled.

On Gillislee’s first touchdown run, Halapio pulled around the right side and crushed LSU linebacker Kevin Minter, the team’s leading tackler.

“I didn’t even expect him to run in my face,” he said. “I was actually not supposed to block him. He just ran into the gap, and I finished him.”

Halapio credited his transformation on the field, as well as the entire offensive line’s development, to additional work in the weight room. He said he recently squatted 495 pounds in the weight room and saw Sharrif Floyd squat 550 pounds.

A year ago, neither was putting up those types of numbers.

“I don’t think we squatted at all,” Halapio said. “I don’t think we trained as hard.”

Floyd, who finished with two tackles, summed it up best.

“We needed this one, and we got it,” he said.