Florida vs. Florida State, Rapid Recap: Unbreakable Gators show spine, thump 'Noles

Mike Ehrmann

Florida win against Florida State was its biggest of the season, the biggest of Will Muschamp's career, and the biggest by the Gators since 2009. How wonderful was it? Let us count the ways.

Florida beat Florida State, 37-26, on Saturday. You can relive the glory through our Game Thread. We'll look back at the game in at multiple parts: The Rapid Recap, our first look before a second viewing, comes first.

I tried "The time is 25:23. You know, 37 to 26" on the walk back from Doak last night. It didn't work. But it's not like I needed to say anything to anyone wearing garnet and gold for the rest of the night: Florida said everything it needed to on the field.

How Florida Won

Florida roared back in the fourth quarter. In one five-minute stretch, Florida shaved FSU's lead to 20-16 with a field goal, forced an EJ Manuel fumble, and used a one-play drive to go back up 23-20 after coughing up 20 straight points to lose a 13-0 lead. And that is how you suck the marrow out of a crowd on the road.

Outstanding

Florida Never Breaks. It would have been very, very easy for Florida to break on Saturday. After scoring the game's first 13 points and dominating a first half that should have ended with the Gators up by 13 or more, Florida leaked a bad half-ending field goal drive to cede some momentum to Florida State. Après that, le deluge: FSU scored 17 straight points in the third quarter, aided by a bad fumble caused by Jeff Driskel and atypically poor special teams play, and looked a lot like the team that eviscerated Clemson with a near-perfect second half.

And then a funny thing happened on the way to three straight wins for the 'Noles in this rivalry, which is more back than FSU may ever get: the fourth quarter.

It had belonged to Florida all year, until Georgia finished off the Gators in Jacksonville, and then slipped into opponents' hands for much of the last month, but Florida claimed it like a boy does his favorite toy on Saturday. The Gators began by punching back with smart, powerful offense, swung momentum by rocking EJ Manuel for a critical fumble and running their best play for a haymaker touchdown on the next play, and icing the biggest win Florida has earned since 2009 with a freshman running back and an unsung offensive line grinding a veteran defense to dust.

Florida's 24-6 advantage in the fourth was far more impressive than that score indicates: Manuel led a touchdown drive with little impact on anything but the margin of victory as the clock ticked down, one that made just one thing clear: Florida would not beat Florida State on the road by the exact same margin and in an eerily similar manner as it did an awful Tennessee team.

But let's be honest: Florida made a very good Florida State team that had laid waste to much of its schedule on both offense and defense look, at times, a lot more like the team that wears that sickly orange than one that will likely head to the Orange Bowl.

Florida Never Breaks — a perfect encapsulation of the fail-proofing Jeremy Foley has tried to do while building the finest athletic department in the country, and of the similar foundation-laying done by Will Muschamp — is by some margin my favorite rallying cry for a Florida team ever. (Second is "The Gator Boys are hot tonight!") And there's a chance, because I'm an idiot and because I do things like this, that I'm gonna buy the shirt with Florida Never Breaks on the front in a variety of sizes for myself and my future wife and my future kids. It's worth remembering, worth wearing.

Mostly, it's worth believing. And I believe in it deeply. Florida has heart, persistence, diligence, drive, intestinal fortitude, will: It has whatever noun you want to put in there to describe its resilience. In 2012, Florida never quits.

And under Will Muschamp? Florida. Never. Breaks.

Fuck Non-Believers. This is the flip side of #FNB, which is at the core of Florida football, and it's the one I am less fully on board with as a long-term motto — not because it offends some sensibilities, which is why Florida Never Breaks rose as the external version of the internal mantra, but because it suggests an infallibility and a resistance to dissent. Echo chambers produce things like the grounding of Florida's cheer team, a bad idea in practically every way that is a misstep that should be corrected. Non-believers are helpful for pointing things like that out.

More immediately, though, non-believers are fantastic for motivating young men who play football — a savage ballet that still, in its best and worst moments, can boil down to which person wants to occupy a space on Earth most desperately — and Florida has a TON of them.

Florida, which earned a fifth of the national titles award in the last 15 seasons entering 2012, should NEVER be in position to use "Nobody believes in us!" logic. And yet, it has been all year: First, Florida started its season near the bottom of the preseason polls or outside them entirely, thanks to doubts about Muschamp as a coach, Brent Pease as the steward of an unproven offense, and the talent Urban Meyer left behind; then, Florida started its season by winning unimpressively, and pundits kept picking against the Gators; then, Florida stacked up an impressive pile of wins, but if you let ESPN or certain other people who dominate the college football landscape tell it, it was all luck, and the loss to Georgia and subsequent struggles with lesser teams in November proved as much.

And even now, there's plenty of reason for the Gators to be mad at the college football media machine in general: For not showing Florida highlights because the things Florida does are rarely highlight-worthy, for letting the idea that Texas A&M is the best team in the country percolate in some circles despite the Gators' fine defense against Johnny Manziel, for never questioning the idea that Alabama was only higher-ranked than Florida because it began the season higher-ranked, for not taking up for the team with the best set of wins in the sport.

That's annoying in a lot of ways, as nettlesome to Florida fans as the excessive coverage that Tim Tebow's Florida got was to most of the rest of the country. And I get it, I really do, because these Florida highlights aren't traditionally sexy. But winning is sexy, as Muschamp has proven.

If you don't believe that, well ... the Gators have a saying for you.

Mike Gillislee. Was Mike Gillislee great yesterday, or does he deserve phenomenal?

Gillislee blew past the 34 yards he needed to become the first Florida runner to top 1,000 yards in a season in the first half, then ran down Florida State in the second to finish with 140 yards on the day, more than any other team had racked up on the 'Noles this year. Gillislee's two touchdowns were each beauties in their own way: He tiptoed his way down the sideline for the first score in the first half, then slid through a couple of holes and blazed a trail right up the gut for the game-winning touchdown in the second half.

But Gilly's aesthetic appeal isn't just in the breakaway runs, or the touchdowns. It's the steady churning of legs that powers a steady churning of yards by ensuring that he always falls forward. It's his ability to avoid letting any first man to the ball cleanly tackle him, which produces yards out of nothing repeatedly. It's his superb acceleration, which sometimes seems even better than that of Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, that allows him to zip through microscopic holes for seven yards on plays where lesser backs would struggle to get two.

He's the workhorse, rarely injured (so far, Gilly's left two games, at Texas A&M and Florida State, after getting into triple figures in yardage and scoring two touchdows) and always potent. He's been good behind healthy and harried offensive lines. He's the core of the offense, and the star of the show; he's forced the spotlight that avoided him the last three years to follow him as he darts around in a spectacular senior season.

I'm gonna miss Mike Gillislee dearly, but I'll cherish him being freed and running free forever. #FreeGilly.

Offensive line. Florida's offensive line was healthy enough to go man-to-man with two NFL-caliber defensive ends for most of the day on Saturday in pass protection, and to road-grade a defense that had been the nation's stingiest on a per-play basis. It gave Brent Pease the comfort to run "God's play" repeated, and it was nimble enough to make a bunch of pulling blocks effective. It's going to be even more impressive on replay, because lines always are, but this much-maligned line dominated this game against a very good, very motivated defense, and it did so on the road. That line dressed up as wrestlers this summer, and, on Saturday, they were very close to the Nation of Domination.

Defense. Florida's defense was bad on three separate instances on Saturday: On the first two plays of Florida State's first offensive drive, when Devonta Freeman made a toss play work well and a coverage bust got FSU into UF territory; on the first quick-change drive that began in Florida territory in the the third quarter; and on the second quick-change drive that began in Florida territory in the third quarter.

And, hell, I'm not even mad at giving up two touchdowns in the short field, and not just because Florida won: Defenses that bail themselves out of holes like that consistently are so rare as to essentially not exist, and these Gators made up for those lapses with five turnovers (three, I think, forced by great pressure and hard hits on defense, and one on a catch of a bone-headed EJ Manuel throw), and repeatedly put Florida State in bad situations when they weren't themselves put in bad situations.

There's no single player to highlight above the others, really, because every Gator did his job: Matt Elam had a pick, Marcus Roberson had a great pick, Antonio Morrison had a stupendous hit on Manuel at just the right spot, Loucheiz Purifoy was physical and relentless and forced a fumble Florida really should have recovered, Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd were dominant up front, Omar Hunter had his best game for Florida ... and the list goes on, and I'll know more when I watch the full replay. But this defense allowed 26 points on Saturday, its most of the season, because Florida State drove down the field in garbage time and added that meaningless touchdown as time expired. It was one hell of an effort.

The Gator Nation's future is bright. I have had student tickets to almost every game I've gone to this year, and that's been a great, great thing: I've been with mostly passionate people who have no qualms about me yelling loudly near them and high-fiving hard enough to make it sting. But those students are not the entirety of Gator Nation, and the father who brought his two young daughters to Doak yesterday and sat directly to my left gave me the best fan experience of this season.

Dad told me that Lauren, his older daughter, who appeared to be about 12, had been to a few Gators games, and Lauren seemed to get football pretty well, but he said that this game was the first for Sydney, maybe 10. And he made sure to explain things to Sydney well and calmly, and answer all of her questions. He moved over to shield them from my yelling (I cuss and I'm loud, it happens), and we chatted amiably throughout the game, and he impressed me as the kind of fan I am, except older and a bit more mellow, and the kind of father I want to be, supportive and loving.

But in the second half, his daughters really got into the game, too. Lauren was Gator Chomping along with me and the band, and we swapped a couple of soft high-fives. Sydney, who wasn't clear on how a touchdown was scored at the game's outset, saying she wanted another one when Florida had just taken its 30-20 lead, and I just about melted at that.

I never did get their dad's name, or shake his hand, or thank him for being a great dad; I only told him I was happy he was "raising them right," and only in the context of them being Florida fans. I'm gonna regret that for a while, but I'm gonna remember what he did and how he did it for a much longer time. And if he ends up reading this at some point, I hope it makes him smile as much as his family made me smile yesterday.

Thank you, sir. You are, in no small measure, why Gator Nation is the greatest.

And to Lauren and Sydney: Thank you for falling in love with football, and with the Gators. You're gonna like that marriage, I promise.

Encouraging

Jeff Driskel. Driskel came into the game off an ankle injury that forced him out of a game that Florida trailed in, and dogged by questions about his ability to do more than manage a game. His greatest mistakes on Saturday were failing to fully pull the ball out of Gillislee's paws on a zone read, failing to get rid of the ball on a reverse pass, and throwing away across his body to the far side of the field to get a grounding penalty that led to an FSU touchdown. The rest of the day was mostly an exhibition of the skills and mentality that will make him Florida's next great quarterback.

Driskel throws a ball with good zip, and he did that repeatedly on Saturday to fit the ball into small holes created by decent receiver play. Driskel doesn't give up on plays where he sees a chance to make something positive happen, and though he could improve on his discernment to better figure whether a play still has positive potential, his excellent acceleration and speed make him dangerous on the run, which makes leaving his receivers both necessary and potentially fatal. Driskel does bold, stupid things like throw across his body and 20 yards downfield, but he's got the arm strength to get away with a throw like that occasionally, and did so on Saturday.

He wasn't perfect, and threw a couple of passes that could have been picks. (Not should, just could.) He isn't great at sensing pressure in the pocket. He'll pay for trying to extend a play with a meandering run again at some point. But Driskel can make virtually every throw a QB needs to make as a true sophomore, has physical tools that maybe five percent of quarterbacks have, is tough enough to take tremendous licks and not cough up the ball, and has improved in 2012.

I cannot honestly ask for more than that, and that alone has me absolutely convinced we're watching a quarterback who will go down as a Gators great.

Matt Jones. I'm only putting Jones here and not in Outstanding because Jones was running against a tired Florida State defense and behind a line that had fully whipped FSU's at that point; Jones had holes to run through that Gillislee didn't. But Jones also ran hard through those holes, pushed a couple of piles, and averaged more than 10 yards per carry against a defense that didn't give up rushing yards easily all year. He's good and getting better, and he's going to go into the spring with the upper hand on being Florida's featured back in 2013. I'm really excited about that.

And if you students don't keep serenading Jones with "WHO!? MATT JONES!" after big plays, I'm gonna be mad.

Caleb Sturgis. Encouraging, because I think he won the Lou Groza Award on Saturday, and not Outstanding, because he doesn't make kicks that would make me sure he did. Sturgis hit from 32, 39, and 45 yards, and didn't seem even marginally troubled by any of those kicks. I keep writing this, but he will be missed immensely next year, because there's nothing more underappreciated than a kicker who makes every kick routine.

And, hey, Ted Thompson? Please draft Caleb Sturgis and have him replace Mason Crosby. Thanks.

Both Good and Bad

I got nothing here. The good thing about a rivalry game like this, and a win in it, is that it makes everything look good or bad. I can't ride the fence!

Needs Improvement

Tackle play in pass protection. I thought that the referees called a very loose game, and I wasn't upset with them except on a play that looked like clear offensive pass interference on Florida State and got a flag for defensive pass interference on Florida. But I think they missed (or let slide) a lot of holding calls on both sides, and thought that their lack of those calls helped save Florida's offensive tackles a few times.

I mentioned above that there were a lot of wins in one-on-one battles between the tackles (by which I mean Xavier Nixon and Chaz Green, really) and the Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine duo, and there were, but the losses were bad losses, and got Driskel nailed a couple of times. Florida's not going to shut down great defensive ends entirely, because no one can, but it needs to reliably come very close to be in the national championship mix, given that Florida has to play in the SEC. It nearly did this year, despite a meltdown against Georgia that took Florida's destiny out of its own hands.

But here's the great thing: Florida's probably never going to have tackle play worse than this again under Muschamp, and this year was a massive, massive improvement over 2011. The future's bright.

People who catch passes. I think Frankie Hammond would have had a touchdown catch if he ran a slightly cleaner, harder route on Driskel's first deep throw. Clay Burton should have had his first touchdown catch, but ... did some sort of flailing interpretive dance instead? Quinton Dunbar was very good early, disappeared for much of the game, got called for a Dallas Baker Special personal foul, and then caught a touchdown pass. Jordan Reed was great, but he's great. He's so great, in fact, that he ought to at least get his draft stock evaluated.

But there's just no one else for Florida at this point. It'll get better, because it practically can't get worse, but we have one more game of this current complement of pass-catchers, and, by gum, we're gonna suffer through it.

Embarrassing

The crowd. I'm all about fans being able to do pretty much whatever they want within reason; that's a privilege you earn when you buy a ticket. But that goes for everyone: If I'm allowed to talk smack to you, you're allowed to talk smack to me; if you're allowed to yell, so am I; if you're allowed to stand up, so am I. Some 'Noles gave me and my traveling party guff for, essentially, standing during the pregame (when most Florida State fans DIDN'T stand to recognize FSU's seniors on Senior Day, which ... people notice that, you know?) and being loud throughout the game. I'm loud, and I can be obnoxious and talkative, but Nicole, who got most of that ire, is louder and more obnoxious ... and yet the worst she did yesterday was yell "I FUCKING HATE FLORIDA STATE!" a few times.

If you're going to be offended by that, or wear headphones in the stands, or not root your heart out on a Saturday at a game, why spend money on a ticket? Enjoy the game to the best of your abilities by doing the best you can. The rest isn't something you can control.

Putting makeup on in the mirror and not realizing what a mirror does. I mean, we make fun of Florida State fans for being stupid, but this is the funniest thing an FSU fan has ever done ... and it was not intentional.

That's what I saw. What'd you see? I'll be in the comments all day.

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