It wasn't easy for Florida in the 2015 Birmingham Bowl, this 28-20 win over East Carolina.
But has anything been for the Gators over the last two years?
Instead of Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor, we saw Adam Lane and Mack Brown running the ball. Instead of Treon Harris, it was Jeff Driskel who finished the game in victory formation. And on defense, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole made some of their best plays of the season -- but that's not to say Vernon Hargreaves III and Jalen Tabor didn't get their lockdown moments.
It wasn't the way anyone drew it up in their heads, but as meaningless as it is to say, it was a win. And a win is a win. For the seniors (who chose to don orange jerseys on their final day) and for the coaches who know they won't be back next season, it was fun to see them go out the way they've worked hard to feel.
ECU quarterback Shane Carden and wide receiver Justin Hardy drew first blood with a 78-yard drive and touchdown on their second series, but after Florida declined to respond on offense, in classic 2014 Florida fashion, the Gators opted to respond on the next defensive series with a pick-six from Brian Poole.
Kelvin Taylor got the start at running back, over Mack Brown, who was ahead of Adam Lane, who was ahead of Brandon Powell (who was ahead of Matt Jones, whom I have to believe was never going to play based off a mutual agreement to not risk injury going into his NFL Draft process). But, after Taylor played on the first series, Brown got the second, and then it was the Adam Lane show from then on out. Lane's first carry of the game went for 48 yards; three plays later, he finished that drive with a two-yard rushing touchdown, his first as a Gators.
The rest of the half was relatively quiet for ECU's offense despite a seven-catch first half from Hardy. However, the takeaway from the Gators' defensive first half wasn't the Poole pick-six: It was a scary knee injury to linebacker Antonio Morrison. Morrison was going in for a routine tackle when his leg got caught and twisted the wrong way.
Immediately following the injury, viewers could hear Morrison's screams on the ESPN broadcast, and reporters noted Morrison punching the cart in frustration as he was taken from the field. Fortunately, he did rejoin his teammates on the sideline without pads later in the game. Let's hope for a hyperextension or something not ligament-related.
Florida's offense would add to the point total before the half, as Harris threw an oddly placed touchdown to Powell late in the second quarter, but his uneven day leaves questions for new coach Jim McElwain at QB. Harris had some nifty work on third down that helped Florida move the ball in the first half, but through the air, he struggled, completing just five passes on 11 attempts.
When you combine Harris' height (just 5'10") and his inability to throw beyond 15 yards with consistent accuracy, I'm not sure how much McElwain will trust him in the spring. This is all observation, but Treon didn't finish or improve as well as I hoped he would've back when he won the starting job. It might be an uphill battle for Harris to be Florida's starter going into 2015 if Will Grier, a more practiced thrower, starts even with him at the beginning of spring practice.
The second half, though, belonged to Dante Fowler, Jr., on his finest day as a Gator.
In Fowler's last game donning the orange and blue, he recorded three sacks with three more QB hurries. I get why Fowler is forgoing his final year of eligibility, and after today, even those who didn't get a chance to watch him as much as Florida followers get it, too. Fowler has a chance to not only be a first round pick, but a top-15 pick. And there's plenty of time for that talk closer to draft day.
But, as we all know, no Florida game can come without drama this year. Following Harris' departure from the game due to a couple of injuries (believed to be minor), Driskel took the reins. You might think such an action would cause a more run-heavy, clock-controlling game plan, especially since Florida was up 28-20 with 12 minutes left to play.
But Kurt Roper had a different plan.
The Gators instead called 11 passing plays in the fourth quarter, all with the lead. They went for a mix of small yards and wide receiver drops, ultimately leading to multiple punts and a fumble by Chris Thompson.
And they gave the Pirates life. As ECU took over, so did Hardy, who ended the game with 11 receptions for 160 yards. ECU drove all the way to Florida's 23 before the unthinkable (haha, just kidding, it already happened once this year) happened: A fumble from ECU rolled towards the goal line and was recovered by the Pirates at the Florida 5.
But just as we've seen so many times before, Vernon Hargreaves III sealed the game, with an interception off of an underthrown pass in the end zone from Carden to Hardy.
Lane was named Birmingham Bowl MVP, likely because Fowler's last two sacks didn't come until the fourth quarter, and the vote for MVP had to be submitted before the start of the fourth. Lane finished the day with 109 yards on 16 carries. Demarcus Robinson lead the team in receptions with six for 36 yards, but Ahmad Fulwood led the team in receiving yardage, turning in one catch, but taking it for 86-yard touchdown on a beautiful run down the sideline.
And so ends an era. From here, many Gators will move on from many things. Moments after the game was over, Sports Illustrated writer Thayer Evans reported Tavaris Robinson would be leaving for Auburn to follow Muschamp. Interim head coach D.J. Durkin has interviewed with other schools to be a defensive coordinator and a head coach. Even Jeff Dillman served his last game as the strength and conditioning coach. This staff, almost all (if not all) will be elsewhere in 2015.
But they're not the only ones leaving. Fowler, Jones, Mike Taylor, Max Garcia and others will move on, whether to higher levels of football or something else they decide to do with their careers. I'm sure there will be a few more to join them in the next few weeks.
This is McElwain's team now. And those who remain part of the program go into the new era with a win.
I'm excited. You should be, too.