It was exhausting, but a win is a win

Aug 25, 2019 | 0 comments

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The Gators had the game won. Then they lost it. Then they won it. No, wait, they lost it again?

Such was the case in Saturday night’s season-opener between No. 8 Florida and Miami. Both teams took turns giving the other the game, with the other declining the offer and giving it right back. It came down to which team could survive the ups and downs and fight through adversity better and make more big plays in crunch time. UF was able to do just enough to escape Orlando with a 24-20 win.

“That was exhausting,” Gators coach Dan Mullen said. “I'll tell you what, though, I really loved the way that our guys continued to battle, continued to compete, continued to try to find a way to win for the entire four quarters.

“Every second was probably like a thousand minutes or days. I don't know. The last five minutes of the game I think I aged like ten years.”

The fourth quarter was basically 15 minutes of adversity for Florida. They possessed the ball for just 2:48, ran just seven plays and threw two interceptions.

On the first play of the quarter, with UF leading 17-13, the Gators defense stuffed Miami running back DeeJay Dallas for a loss of four yards, but an unsportsmanlike conduct foul on defensive tackle Kyree Campbell gave them 15 yards and fresh hope on the possession. On the next play, Dallas raced down the left sideline for a 50-yard score and the lead.

On the ensuing possession, Feleipe Franks had both Freddie Swain and Tyrie Cleveland wide open over the middle of the field. If he threw it to Cleveland, it would’ve likely been a touchdown. Instead, he fired it too high for Swain. Swain tipped it into the air, and Miami’s Amari Carter picked it off and returned it to the Gators’ 25-yard line.

On fourth down, they dialed up a fake, and kicker Bubba Baxa ran 11 yards for a first down. There was a holding call on Miami that would’ve wiped out the conversion, but a late hit out of bounds by James Houston gave them an automatic first down.

Instead of feeling deflated or pointing fingers at each other, the Gators defense went back to work and forced another field goal try. Baxa missed the 27-yarder.

“I think the defense did a great job today, Jon [Greenard] and all them guys,” Franks said. “They always say they have our back just like we have their back when it's crunch time. And when we needed to get points, we went out there and got points and when they needed to get a stop, they got a stop.”

Rather than feeling gun-shy after throwing an interception that could’ve cost his team the game, Franks came out on the next series and fired a perfectly located ball down the right seem to Josh Hammond. Hammond made the catch and raced to the UM 15-yard line, a 65-yard gain.

“He's just grown into being such an offensive leader for our team,” Hammond said. “And, you know, when things get gritty and we've got to make those plays and adversity hits us, he's not a guy that's going to flinch. Feleipe is going to be that guy, be that leader to stand up for the offense and make a play when that time comes.”

Franks finished the drive with a three-yard rushing score for what eventually proved to be the winning points.

Mullen said he was pleased with the way his quarterback responded to the first interception. He threw the ball with the same confidence he had all game, something that he didn’t always do last season.

“I think Feleipe is going to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country when it’s all said and done,” receiver Van Jefferson said. “That just shows his character, that just shows his mindset and how mentally strong he is. For him to do that and bounce back, it was great to see.”

After a stop by their defense, the Gators offense took the field with 4:30 remaining, desperately needing to burn some clock. Instead, Mullen thought he saw something in the Hurricanes’ defense that he liked and opted for a passing play. Franks got drilled as he tried to throw the ball away, and the ball fell into the hands of Miami defensive back Romeo Finley.

While fans viewed the interception as a horrible play by Franks, Mullen said the blame should be on him. He tried to get cute and take advantage of something he saw in the defense, and it backfired. He wanted to put the game in Franks’ hands and let him carry the team to victory. He might not have had the trust in Franks to do that last year, he said.

The game’s final possession summed up the entire game perfectly – sloppy yet entertaining. After the interception, Miami started on UF’s 40-yard line. On first down, Greenard forced a fumble by K.J. Osborn, but the Hurricanes recovered. On second-and-26, the Gators sent nickelback Trey Dean on a blitz. He creamed UM quarterback Jarren Williams and forced another fumble. Once again, the Hurricanes recovered.

Finally, after another sack, Miami was down to one desperation heave on fourth-and-34. Jeff Thomas had Marco Wilson beat, but the Gators were well-positioned to make the tackle and force a turnover on downs. Instead, Wilson practically tackled Thomas and was flagged for pass interference. Three plays later, another pass interference penalty, this time by Trey Dean, extended the Hurricanes’ drive.

Eventually, UF’s defense stopped Miami on downs and sealed the game.

How bizarre was that final drive? It lasted 10 plays and took 4:08 off the clock but only went 14 yards.

While the Gators were fortunate to overcome a lot of negative plays and beat the Hurricanes, there are a lot of things they need to clean up if they’re going to contend in the SEC. Offensively, they rushed for just 52 yards at a 1.9 yards-per-carry clip. They turned the ball over four times and struggled to get much going downfield in the passing game. Hammond was the only wide receiver with multiple catches, and Jefferson, their No. 1 receiver, caught just one pass for 14 yards. They converted just two of 10 third downs.

Defensively, while they recorded 10 sacks and 16 tackles-for-loss, they probably missed close to 20 tackles and gave away too many yards with cheap penalties. Florida committed nine penalties for 100 yards in total.

“We got a lot of things to fix and correct, but that doesn't take away from the time on this team and the drive that we have on this team,” Greenard said. “We're going to do some really good things. You know, things didn't go our way at times, and we had to just put the fire out when the time was needed. But we're just going to move on from here. If teams to want to take us lightly and take this game and think we're going to apply this the rest of the year, then they're going to find out real soon that was a mistake.”

Mullen said one of the biggest positives from the game is that all of the mistakes are correctable. He liked the relentless effort and energy his guys played with; the execution just needs to be better. Ball security and tackling drills will certainly be a big part of practice over the next two weeks.

“We talk about our plan to win and how we want to win games,” Mullen said. “And we certainly didn't do that tonight with turning the ball over, with not scoring touchdowns when we get down on the red zone, some critical penalties at critical times. We had some missed tackles. But, I'm going to tell you what. Our guys compete. They competed, and they competed, and they kept competing and kept battling. It seemed like we had to win the game about four different times, but we continued to do that. And so, I'm really proud of that.”

It wasn’t the blowout statement win Florida’s fans were hoping for. In a lot of ways, the performance they saw was extremely disappointing. The Gators have a lot to work on in the coming weeks, but they’ll get to work on them as an undefeated team.

And that’s really all that matters. Even the best teams are going to have games where everything that could goes wrong seems to go wrong. It’s about fighting through adversity and finding a way to win anyway. The Gators are 1-0 in that category as well.

“Things happen throughout the course of the game that you don't plan, and that's what adversity is,” Franks said. “It's all about just trying to persevere through those kinds of things and that's what we did tonight and just got a great team win.”


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