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Florida vs. Auburn, Sunday Morning Post: A big win, and bigger things

Florida scored its biggest triumph in years on Saturday. But this game reminded me of things bigger than sports.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Florida Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators fought their first true heavyweight bout of the 2019 season on Saturday.

After 12 rounds, and more than a few knockdowns on both sides, they came out as the victors, downing Auburn in a topsy-turvy 24-13 game.

Here are our Sunday morning takeaways from this game, which come without having given it or its highlights a second viewing.

The Swamp was The Swamp again

Worries that Florida’s Steve Spurrier-invented home field advantage permanently went the way of the Pell Shield were overstated. For one day, at least, Florida had an incredible and largely indefatigable — I’ll get to the qualifiers later — crowd on its side, making The Swamp the least friendly confines imaginable.

It was loud on first down, and second down, and third down. It was loud in 95-degree heat that was the most withering I’ve ever experienced outside of a September game in Gainesville. It was loud in the first quarter and the fourth. It was loud when everyone sang “‘Neath the orange and blue vic-TOR-i-ous!” after the game.

It may never have gotten as ear-splittingly loud as it did for touchdowns against Ole Miss in 2015 or Matt Elam’s miracle forced fumble against LSU in 2012 — my personal high-water mark for volume — or it did in sending off Tim Tebow in 2009. I didn’t go to a Florida game prior to 2007, so I can’t compare those seminal moments of mass hysteria — of The Swamp becoming an insane asylum upon Jarvis Moss blocking the ‘Cocks or Jacquez Green getting behind the defense — to what I’ve experienced.

But The Swamp gets up for big games, because Florida fans get up for big games. Florida fans get up for big games because fans get up for big games. Fans get up for big games because they’re big games. Big games are big games when your team is good and can win the big games.

This ain’t rocket surgery.

I get the obsession with pictures of half-full stands and declining attendance in college football; it’s a sport that is increasingly best experienced by going to a few big games and watching the rest from a couch. But if a top-10 Florida team played top-10 teams at home every week, it would draw crowds among the 10 biggest in school history every week. That it doesn’t is just the nature of the beast, and ought to be understood and not endlessly debated by fans, the consumers whose shrewdness when it comes to not buying wolf tickets is a problem for those in charge of college football to solve and not a reflection of a lack of passion.

I didn’t want to see Florida beat down Tennessee-Martin or Tennessee or Towson. I wanted to see Florida play Auburn, as did a group of my closest friends, and we made this game a priority this year. If Scott Stricklin can figure out a way to get 90,000 fans to the first three games, he’s a damn wizard. But if 90,000 fans turn out for the Auburn game, that’s because Stricklin hired the right coach to create a program capable of winning big games.

And ultimately, that’s the most important job duty he has.

Florida’s coaching staff is doing one great job

Okay, look: Dan Mullen having a fake punt look installed that requires Tommy Townsend —who is supremely confident in his own abilities, but maybe more optimistic when looking for the right alignment to exploit than he ought to be — to sprint forward against an SEC punt return unit? That’s bold in a bad way.

Most of the other things Mullen has done as Florida’s head coach have been bold in good ways. No move was bigger for this Saturday than the hire of Todd Grantham, whose skills have been dissected by college football fans throughout his time on sidelines.

Florida’s defense looked like it had Auburn’s shit — what else should I call Gus Malzahn going to the elbow in his bag of tricks? — scouted to the last feint. Sweeps got blown up. RPOs were largely contained. Third downs weren’t converted. Anthony Schwartz, ballyhooed as one of the great weapons in college football, misfired on his only touch.

The Florida secondary took the bait on Auburn’s one touchdown — a smart post-turnover shot in the Spurrier mold that also featured Bo Nix’s best throw of the day — and gave precious little else. Florida’s pass rush, even if it didn’t generate sacks for the defensive line, had Nix throwing from platforms that I believe included “offshore drilling” and “Ross Perot’s 1996 policy” in addition to the usual ones. Auburn came into Saturday’s game averaging more than 30 points per contest, and was on pace for 52 after one quarter. It finished with 13, and didn’t score after that first period.

Florida’s backup quarterback, a two-star recruit unknown to the world at the time of his signing, is playing well enough that the drop-off from the starter hasn’t been sizable enough to lose Florida a game. Florida’s running backs are churning legs and fighting for yardage even when it hurts (sorry, Dameon Pierce) and even when nearly six full games had everyone wondering whether previous pronouncements of actual quality were wrong (sorry, Lamical Perine). Florida’s skill position players are good, and have been helping to mask some of the deficiencies in Trask and the offensive line by being good. (How Freddie Swain found himself consistently open after scoring a long touchdown in the game’s first two minutes baffles me, by the way.) And that offense did enough on this day — when not gleefully shotgunning its own feet, that is — to outscore a reputedly explosive offense by double digits.

And I have to put a lot of that on the work of recruiting or development done by this coaching staff. Almost all of those players alluded to above were Jim McElwain recruits — Pierce, who committed to McElwain but signed with Mullen, is the exception — and many were not seen as blue-chippers as of their signing. But Florida has forged them into better players by developing them, both under McElwain and Mullen, and by putting them in positions to succeed under Mullen.

And where the Gators have needed immediate fortification, as at wideout (where Swain, Josh Hammond, and Tyrie Cleveland have benefited from having the veteran leadership of Van Jefferson and the big body of Trevon Grimes supplementing their own talents) or at edge rusher (where Jonathan Greenard has been a godsend), they have found it.

The exception to all of this is Florida’s offensive line, which is candidly like two steps above utter crap at most, and is doing juuust enough to allow these wins to happen. (It didn’t really produce the two TDs on Saturday: Perine’s touchdown run was almost all Perine; the Swain touchdown catch was a quick catch-and-run.) There, what John Hevesy did in making over last year’s line of talented underachievers into a competent unit apparently cannot be replicated with this year’s mix of either lesser or younger talents. But I think most fans ultimately trust Hevesy to create another good line at *some* point, and recognize both the degree of difficulty of this year’s challenge and the weird limbo between having players near full development by a previous staff and having his own guys fully steeped in his system.

So, gripes by the worst sorts of message-board denizens aside, I think there’s a whole passel of reasons to believe that Florida hired the right head coach and that he’s mostly assembled the right staff since. There are and will be things to criticize about it -- there always are -- but the argument against Dan Mullen’s results, 20 games into his tenure as Florida’s head coach, is a losing one.

Lamical Perine making the big play was beautiful

Yesterday, I had the distinct privilege of sitting two rows down from the literal worst fans I’ve ever encountered at a Florida game — and I’m including, like, people drunk and high off their asses and outright racists in this accounting. These were people — adult men, middle-aged at minimum, and Florida fans by garb and comportment — who spent a game that Florida did not trail in mercilessly deriding Gators players and coaches after every single play. To hear them tell it, Perine “couldn’t shake anyone,” Kyle Pitts “was playing soft,” and Stone Forsythe was getting dominated. The target would move, too: The run up the middle on one drive lamented on one drive was pined for on the next, and the throws to this or that receiver that were called for and then delivered on got met with little recognition or relief.

It was like having to deal with our friend skigator83 in real life — but after every play, and also a hundred times worse. And it was hot as hell. And I didn’t have a decade of exposure to and love for these assholes like I do with ski, who is not an asshole and whom I tease because I love him and mean that.

These yahoos? I seriously considered fighting them, despite how stupid that idea would have been in execution. They were the worst. I can’t emphasize that enough.

And so I’m glad that Lamical Perine got to shut them — and a lot of other critics, mostly on Twitter — all the way up.

Perine’s run to glory is going to go down as the play of his career, in all likelihood, and likely one of the plays of the season and decade for Florida. And it was simple and wonderful: He ran right on a zone run from shotgun, found a crease created by Florida’s line that an Auburn defender had filled expertly, defeated that tackle by staying on his feet, scampered to the sideline, shook another tackle, and sped to the end zone. It was a running back told he was too slow by the program he suited up against on this Saturday and questioned often by fans of his team for a lack of elusiveness serving up plates piled hile with crow to two tables at the same time — and, oh, staking the heart of a top-10 team in the process.

Perine has been easy to root for throughout his Florida career, even if bits of his origin story have gotten blown up and mythologized and mutated — that “he mowed lawns to pay for a ticket to Florida camp” story is one he sort of walked back this year, while his spurning of in-state Alabama and Auburn increasingly appears to have been underplayed — because he has been a hard worker who has played well while always plugging away at getting better.

This offseason, while shifting into a featured role he was not really sharing for the first time, I think it’s clear that Perine worked at getting a little faster and better as a receiver, moves that will probably help his NFL stock but maybe cost him some of the strength used previously to shake tacklers and some reps running behind this mediocre-at-best line. I’m not sure those moves worked all that well, as Perine is averaging just 4.7 yards per carry, down from 6.2 a year ago — and 3.5 yards per carry apart from that one run yesterday — and a pitiful 5.2 yards per catch, worst on the team among players with more than one reception.

But he’s happy — or at least dutiful about — being run into the breach again and again, and at least working to keep Florida from losing yards and falling into big holes. On his 69 (nice) carries this year, Perine has lost ... 11 yards. And those catches have often been for short gains that prevented sacks. He’s not despairing about his situation like fans have despaired about him, despite ample reason to do so. He’s just taking notes... he always has:

I do have to fault him for one thing, though: Changing his number from the one worn by Emmitt Smith robbed us all of an “88 YARDS FOR DEUCE DEUCE” call on the longest run by a Florida running back since Emmitt scampered for 95 yards in 1988.

C’mon, Lamical.

Some things are more important than football

Those awful fans from the last section? I’m not going to remember them best from this game — because I also ran into the best Florida fan I’ve ever met at a game.

That would be Donna, who sat right in front of me, and helped me in my time of greatest need at a football game.

I woke up at 5 a.m. yesterday after sleeping fitfully for maybe four hours on Friday night, then wrote for a couple hours, then drove to Gainesville — stopping for a large iced coffee that I needed to stay awake on the road, and then for food at Angel’s in Palatka (my typical treat for myself on the way to or from Gainesville). I found parking, walked to the O’Dome, drank a couple drinks, and walked with my fellow game-goers into a goddamn furnace.

I like to stand for as long as I can — because you should, right? I was sitting by the second drive. I wasn’t really yelling — not with hands cupped and a lean forward — for more than one in three drives. I felt ... not faint, really, but weak. Like I needed to sleep or reorient myself? Through that excruciating first half, I was there, but I was also not there.

Enter Donna, who was cheering her heart out and clearly very into the game — more so than I was, even. She noticed my red face — I get red, always have — fighting with a genuine pallor. Noticed me needing fluids. Got up during the early third quarter and brought me back a lemonade, unsolicited. Made sure to offer to get me to the medical room if need be — then did it, when I needed it.

For Donna, who was there to watch the game every bit as much as I was, I became more important than the game.

I stayed in that medical room for almost all of the third and fourth quarters. Missed the second Derrick Brown-forced turnover. Missed Donovan Stiner’s pick. Missed Perine’s run — or seeing it, at least. (Boy, could you hear it.) I took fluids, and got an ice bag, and had my vitals taken, with my heart rate going from a little low to a reasonable range. The folks at East Med couldn’t find a vein to give me an IV, despite their best efforts, but that was the only part of their treatment of me that wasn’t utterly exemplary.

Ultimately, I went from worrying about literally collapsing to being just fine — fine enough to come back to the stands and cheer Marco Wilson’s pick and chant “IT’S GREAT TO BE A FLORIDA GATOR!” and sing the alma mater. I got to thank Donna, too, which was more important to me at that point.

I don’t know that I can point to any one thing as the reason I felt the way I did yesterday. I’m out of shape, and I was probably slightly dehydrated, but I brought some ice I’ve been that way before for games, and dealt with them just fine. I got my usual cups of ice and a Gatorade (thanks, Marcus! I’m paying you back when you least expect it) during the game. I just couldn’t make a go of it yesterday.

And I’m fine now, though the bruise from the IV adventure will be a fun story to tell. I just need to come back to sing “I Won’t Back Down” and “We Are the Boys,” is all.

But I wanted to publicly thank Donna — whether or not she ever sees this, and whether or not she might recognize this situation as one in which she was a guardian angel — for helping me, and also for reminding me that being good to a fellow human is far more important than even rooting for our beloved Gators.

I’ll never forget that kindness and care. And I can assure you I’ll do my best to pass it on.