How Florida Won
The Gators got it going
Saturday's game could've had a score of 10-0 or 14-0 (or worse) in Georgia's favor pretty easily early on. Florida stopped the Dawgs on a third and two at the Florida 49 to force a punt, on a third and two at the Georgia 47 to force a punt, and on a third and four at the Florida 23 — thanks to Neiron Ball being in the absolute right place to make a play, and making it — to set up the field goal that Marshall Morgan sent left (I guess?) of the left upright from the right hash.
Add a field goal or two to the 7-0 score early, and I don't know how Florida responds; add a touchdown, and the Gators might quite possibly have wilted.
But those scores didn't come, and Florida began a 14-play, 78-yard drive on the play after Morgan's miss, one that featured a single pass play, a loss of 12 on a horrific snap by Max Garcia, and a draw on third and 20 that seemingly set up a keep-it-close field goal.
Those flaws didn't matter even one second after Michael McNeely scampered into the end zone from 21 yards out on that glorious fake to help tie the game; certainly, no one was thinking about that botched snap when Florida forced a three-and-out despite an offsides penalty and a third and one on the next series, or when the Gators got a 44-yard run from Kelvin Taylor and a 15-yard catch from Latroy Pittman to set up a short Taylor touchdown run on the next series.
When a football team does things right, mistakes fade and confidence grows. Florida finally did things right in the second quarter against Georgia, and things snowballed from there — by the time Georgia next scored, the Gators had clicked off 31 straight points, and stoppered five Georgia drives before they ever got to their fifth play.
By then, it was over.
A running game with broad shoulders
I'd given up on Florida's primary running backs entering this week. Matt Jones was dinged up, pretty obviously, against both LSU and Missouri, rushing 16 times for 52 yards between the two games, and Taylor was still struggling to make his wiggling style work. I wrote about Brandon Powell in the Q&A I did with Dawg Sports, and hoped he'd get a bigger role in the offense; when he was part of Florida's first offensive snap, in a backfield that also featured Jones, my heart leapt.
Yeah, uh: I was so very wrong.
Both Jones and Taylor were fantastic on this day, combining for 389 yards and destroying the previous record for combined rushing yardage by two Gators in a game — it was 295 yards, accrued in 1982 by John L. Williams and Lorenzo Hampton (against West Texas State). No two Gators had rushed for even 120 yards in the same game before Saturday; now, Florida has a game — against a hated rival, with a purportedly fantastic run defense, in a must-win game — in which two players ran for 190 yards in its record books.
And they ran behind a line — and tight ends, and wide receivers — who blocked beautifully all afternoon. Florida's offensive line has improved so much under Mike Summers, but it had mostly seemed to improve as a pass-blocking unit, at least until a meltdown two weeks ago against Missouri; the run-blocking seemed to me to be pretty standard fare. Yesterday, it was road-grading work, with Georgia defenders getting their first shots at Jones and Taylor only after the two backs made it five, eight, 10 yards down the field, and into open space.
And in that space, there were still Florida players who live for pass-catching doing the unglamorous work of blocking — most notably Demarcus Robinson, who had a day about as good as his record-setting performance against Kentucky without catching a pass. Blocking has never looked fun, and that's especially true of blocking with the spindly frame of a wide receiver, but it has to be done — and yesterday, Florida did it for 60 minutes.
Taylor and Jones ran and ran for just as long. They're different runners — Taylor's a Lexus, maybe, more likely to make a man miss on a cutback, and quick but not quite fast; Jones is an F150, with startling top speed for his size and a proclivity for running things over — and great complements to each other, and feeding both of them the exact same serving of 25 carries produced virtually the same result.
Treon Harris, too, was good as a runner in this game, getting 31 yards on six carries — really, 37 yards on five carries, with the six yards he lost after Garcia's bad snap deducted from his balance. But this game rested on the shoulders of Jones and Taylor, and their blockers, and those men brought Florida across the goal line — five times, mind you, in Florida's first five-touchdown game against a team other than 2014 Eastern Michigan since more than two years ago against South Carolina.
Three years ago, Florida's running game took a spot in the Outstanding section of the Rapid Recap after rolling up 406 yards against Kentucky. This was a better performance — if slightly less explosive, with 418 rushing yards, fifth-best in Florida history, on 60 carries, rather than 405 on 45 — against a better team when Florida most desperately needed it, and it came out of nowhere, even though the Gators literally told media their exact game plan over and over again in their run-up to this game.
On Saturday, Florida's running game was, simply, awesome. And so it is the first entry in the Awesome stratum in the history of these columns, a new one that I promise to populate very, very rarely.
The defense recovered, and rolled
Florida could've buckled after Nick Chubb's 39-yard rumble to paydirt on the Bulldogs' second possession in the first quarter. That was a terrible play all around for the Gators, who missed three tackles thanks partly to awful angles, and lost Keanu Neal to an injury, perhaps a high ankle sprain, because Neal took a terrible angle on Chubb as the last line of defense, getting his arm tackle rejected with violent force while his plant feet were wrenched beneath him.
It wasn't until the fourth quarter that Georgia had another drive as long as that play.
This defense both pleases and perplexes me, with its substantial talent virtually everywhere — except, I think, a linebacking corps full of B-level players who occasionally do B+ or A- work — often paying off only in subtle ways. The value of Dante Fowler, Jr. and Vernon Hargreaves III, in some 1A/1B order the best two players Florida has, is still mostly in what they offenses to account for, with Fowler usually dictating offensive line calls and Hargreaves's coverage often erasing one receiver, or one side of the field.
Florida doesn't make "splash" plays — tackles for loss — in the running game as often as it did when unblockable rhino Dominique Easley was around, because Fowler is easier to chip and further from the ball. And it doesn't make quite so many plays in the passing game, either, both because D.J. Durkin and Will Muschamp would much rather play solid assignment football and limit explosive plays than chase big ones with blitzes and pressure, and because, I think, Florida's simplification of its secondary coverage has led to fewer chances for picks.
And Florida still gives up big plays, like Chubb's 39-yarder, or his 54-yarder in the third quarter, or the seven plays of 15 yards or more the Bulldogs tallied in the fourth quarter, which stick in the minds of observers more than a nondescript, blink-and-you-missed-it three-and-out does.
But while Georgia put up 460 yards yesterday, it's worth remembering that 211 of those yards came in the fourth quarter, and after Florida went up 31-7. That's about when the Gators shifted to a more conservative defensive approach, trying to prevent single-play touchdown drives that could have gotten Georgia back in the game — and the approach worked, with Georgia closing to within 18 points with 11:06 to go, and then again with three seconds to go, on a Brendan Douglas touchdown so very reminiscent of EJ Manuel's equally pointless touchdown against the Gators in 2012, but never getting to within two possessions of the Gators.
This defense acquitted itself very nicely against a superb offense on Saturday, and it did so even after that superb offense had a lot of early success. Don't be fooled by yard totals alone.
This was Will Muschamp's best game
Muschamp, it should be reiterated, doesn't call individual offensive plays, and I really do think his input on an offensive game plan on most Saturdays is almost moot, with his line-item decision-making limited to fourth down decisions and "What do we do in this situation?" calls before drives start. But the best decision of Florida's day was going for the fake field goal that tied the game, and that's ultimately Muschamp's call.
And no single play of Florida's day on offense was as valuable as the rigid devotion to a running game that didn't really start to pay dividends until the second quarter, or the counterintuitively bold decision to just keep running the ball even when no one in their right mind was expecting anything else. Florida was unstoppable on the ground, so Florida never stopped running. Muschamp, who is responsible for the approaches and philosophy of his offense, and who does have significant input on the game plan prior to Saturday, definitely had something to do with that.
Florida gained more yards on the ground in this game than it has had yards of total offense in all but seven other games of the Muschamp era, and that was with a passing game helmed by a freshman who looked skittish early, and might have been more dangerous with a squirt gun than his arm on this day. Florida didn't dupe anyone: It just dominated Georgia's defense, taking the constant dare to run presented by eight-man boxes and eyes on the backfield and making the Dawgs look silly for not being able to stop the most simple of plays by running about four of them 10 times each.
This was Big Dumb Will Muschamp Football. But if you think Big and Dumb are purely negatives after watching that game, you may be a big dummy.
Ain't it fun?
What Florida earned yesterday was a victory in a football game.
But this was an exorcism of demons, for Muschamp and for a senior class of players that had come achingly close to beating Georgia over the last three years. This was a silencing of critics who thought the Gators would roll over, with Muschamp's lame-duck coaching leaving his team to quack under a hobnailed boot. This was a swaggering stride into sunlight after two dark nights in Gainesville. This was beauty reflected in a brutal truth: No one could stop the Gators on Saturday.
And it was fun.
Florida's had a lot of really, really exciting games over the last three years. But those games, even the wins, have largely been nail-biting affairs at one point or another. Florida State led Florida in the third quarter in 2012, and Texas A&M led the Gators in College Station earlier that year, and LSU led Florida at halftime. Florida didn't pull away against Tennessee and Arkansas in 2013 until late, and the fun available over some of the rest of the 2013 schedule — which, I swear, really was available, based on my own and others' eyewitness accounts — was mitigated by seven straight losses and their snowball effect.
This 2014 season has been even stranger. The Idaho game that wasn't could've been a legendary night, had lightning and rain not ultimately scrapped the contest. The Eastern Michigan game was a dominant performance we hadn't seen from Florida in three years. The Kentucky game went to triple overtime at home at night, and Florida won it, but it felt to many like a loss.
Alabama mashed Florida out, but Florida competed — led Alabama at Bryant-Denny, in fact! — early on, before everything went to crimson hell. Florida disappointed a Tennessee team so damn sure it was going to beat the Gators for once and for all Vols in a hideous game with a beautiful result. Andre Debose's all-timer game — one that would've qualified for an Awesome ranking had I thought of that back then — helped electrify Florida's crowd against LSU, even if that game ended with a fatal blow to the Gators. And even an unthinkable blowout at the hands of Missouri was fun, at least for me: After it was over but not over, I just ran around like a moron in the stands, and let myself gorge on the snark that I've been hesitant to sample, knowing how good those empty calories taste.
Yesterday was incontrovertibly, soul-stirringly, entirely fun. If you didn't enjoy that — if you were agonizing over choosing to choo-choo Georgia instead of razzle-dazzling the Dawgs, or crying over spilled losses to LSU and Missouri that might keep this win from doing anything to help Florida in the SEC East, or bemoaning how a big win over Georgia might help Muschamp keep his job — then I am sorry.
The Gators got to smile. We got to smile. Will Muschamp got to smile, and even if he had to think about how much he wished his late father was somewhere on the sidelines, I bet he also thought about how proud Larry was, somewhere, watching this happen. Jeremy Foley got to smile, and freak out on the sideline after Taylor's long touchdown run.
This was fun. We're allowed to enjoy that.
And, well, I can see the forest, too. But I liked how the trees looked on Saturday.
Winning without turnovers ... or a QB
If you had told me on Friday that Florida would beat Georgia by 18 while forcing just one turnover, allowing 460 yards, not scoring on a return, and completing three passes, I would have simply not believed you. There was no way that was going to happen.
And it was more like a 25-point win.
Florida got lucky in this game, on Morgan's missed field goal, a near-penalty on an attempted punt block that came on the same play as a muff by Andre Debose that could've been ruinous, a forced fumble that fell to the Gators. But Georgia fumbled twice more and recovered them, scored a touchdown on a tipped pass, and grabbed Florida's only fumble, which squirted toward their defensive line despite the motion from Harris's pull on a read option with Jones theoretically dictating that it would fall behind the Gators' offensive line. The luck — to include refs not calling holding on either team, at any point — was either marginally in Florida's favor, or even.
This was really just the Gators being significantly better than the Bulldogs, without the turnovers that serve as gunpowder for blowouts or quarterback play that is integral to football in 2014, over the span of a game.
And while Florida might have worse luck going forward, it might also have better luck — and I really, really doubt that it will be as hesitant to use Harris as a thrower, even if it brings him along slowly. Hamstrung by design, Florida still hammered Georgia — and Georgia is unequivocally the best team Florida will see until it travels to Florida State, with Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and Eastern Kentucky meeting Florida over the next three games, and Eastern Kentucky holding the best record of the three teams.
Both Good and Bad
Jeff Driskel could've won this game, and this is Treon Harris's team
I know, I know: I'm Jeff Driskel's biggest fan, went as Jeff Driskel for Halloween, would supplicate at his empty throne, and so on. But nothing Harris did in this game is something that Driskel hasn't already done for Florida.
Harris basically looked like a shorter, smaller version of Driskel early on, throwing his first three passes too wide for Robinson to haul in, to no one, and well beyond Robinson's reach, respectively. And though Harris was mostly clean and clear of mishaps, his fumble on an exchange was well within Driskel's capacity.
Driskel could absolutely win a game in which he was only asked to attempt six passes, I think we can all agree, and I think he might have even helped Florida more yesterday than Harris did, all other things would have been kept equal: Doesn't a taller QB have a good chance at catching the snap that sailed over Harris's head, and wouldn't Driskel have had the sense to throw that ball to the video boards? Wouldn't merely accounting for Driskel as a Jones clone who never kept the ball on a day when Jones and Taylor were both beings of flame have put Georgia's defense in even greater pain?
But this is the catch-22 of Driskel: He should be better than every other Florida quarterback. He hasn't been, and thus, rightly, won't get the chance to be from here on in, except maybe as a short yardage thumper (though Jones getting carries from a wildcat formation on Saturday as Driskel wore a hat and a headset bodes ill for those chances).
And though we can't quantify effort any more than we can even "softer" intangibles like heart or desire, it really does feel like Florida plays better when Driskel isn't in, even if it might not play harder. This is "Treon's team" now, whether or not it is actually Treon's to run, and the Gators don't have reason to deviate from that plan.
Andre Debose could maybe be more consistent
Ol' Man Dre nearly killed Florida with that muff, which is inexcusable for a return specialist who basically doesn't do anything else on this team ... and then he left Georgia's sideline looking like Lot's wife.
Scott Carter (@GatorZoneScott) November 2, 2014
Between this, making the guy who publishes the Georgia Rivals site gloriously, righteously angry over something very stupid, and this wonderful Instagram comment on a picture of McNeely's touchdown, Debose had a damn good day.
That muff, though, could've been bad. Don't do that, Dre.
I wear a lot of red, so much that it is a running joke among my friends. And, this week, I was living out of the clothes I took with me in a paper bag down to Homestead to help my brother find and move into a new place. Two of the four shirts I brought with me were red. One of the three pairs of shorts I brought was black.
So when my brother did my laundry without me asking for it on Saturday morning, the clothes I was wearing on Friday night became what I wore for much of Saturday: A red shirt and black shorts.
At about 3:00, after getting our Game Thread up, I took a shower, and changed into a navy blue shirt and Gators basketball shorts — the only Florida apparel I brought with me, and I made sure the boxers I donned had no red whatsoever in them. But I feel like wearing the red and black and then changing is the part of the superstition I'll remember.
And, really, I'm not superstitious — only a little stitious, as the saying goes.
But it's entirely possible that, 364 days from now, I will make sure to wear red and black for most of the day before changing at the last minute.
Sports are silly. They make us do dumb things.