At his introductory press conference last November, new coach Dan Mullen promised Florida football fans that the program would relentlessly pursue the Gator standard and that Florida football would be fun again.
On a sun-drenched Saturday in The Swamp, Mullen’s program made good on that promise by upsetting then-No. 5 LSU 27-19.
On a day that Florida honored Tim Tebow, the greatest player in program history, by inducting him into the Ring of Honor, Gators fans arrived early and were raucous for four quarters, especially late with the game on the line.
This is the loudest I've ever heard a stadium. Wow.
— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) October 6, 2018
The Swamp was The Swamp of old: boisterous, bananas, a cauldron of heat and sound that willed Florida through a tightly-contested, brutally physical football game.
When it was over, no one wanted to leave, students and fans lingered, snapping scoreboard selfies, singing and swaying to the Alma Mater, and stumbling joyfully out into the humid Gainesville night.
But Florida didn’t just honor Tebow Saturday by inducting him into the Ring of Honor.
They honored Tebow by playing to the Gator standard Tebow was so instrumental in setting.
“Relentless effort, passion, physicality, a desire to win and a willingness to suffer and sacrifice and never quit. That’s what Florida football is supposed to be and what Coach Mullen wants to build again,” Tebow said Friday night.
The Gators played to that standard Saturday.
Short-handed and playing one of the most physical football teams in America, the Gators were relentless on defense all night, forcing critical stops to corral LSU’s early first-half momentum and continually stalling the Tigers on offense in the third quarter when the Gators offense fell dormant.
Vosean Joseph was a one-man wrecking crew, collecting 14 tackles including 3 1/2 for loss and two sacks. If you want a one-man litmus test of Florida’s culture change under Mullen, consider this: Joseph was Florida’s lowest-rated starter (per Pro Football Focus) in the Sept. 8 loss to Kentucky. In Florida’s wins over then-ranked Mississippi State last week and top-five LSU this week, Joseph was Florida’s highest-rated player by some distance.
But the Gators weren’t just relentless.
They were more physical than LSU at the point of attack.
The Tigers built the best resume in America over the season’s first month by winning physical battles at the line of scrimmage in wins over Miami and at Auburn.
Florida went haymaker for haymaker with the Tigers Saturday, and while they’ll doubtlessly leave The Swamp bloodied and bruised, the Gators walk away with the win and the receipts.
Florida won the rushing battle 215 yards to 180 and averaged 5 yards per rush to LSU’s 4.4. Florida didn’t surrender a sack, collected five and pressured LSU quarterback Joe Burrow all afternoon.
Most of all, in a riveting game filled with momentum swings, the Gators answered the bell every time, in all three phases of the game.
Florida surrendered a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on LSU’s opening possession. But the Gators came up with a huge turnover one drive later to keep LSU from stretching the lead, even as the Florida offense started slowly.
Florida relied on special teams and another outstanding performance from punter Tommy Townsend to control field position, eventually tying the score on Lamical Perine’s 1-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter.
Finally, Florida’s offense got into gear late in the second quarter with a masterfully called seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to take a lead into halftime.
The Gators didn’t just get contributions from all three phases. They grinned at adversity throughout Saturday’s game.
When Florida threw a red zone interception on its first possession of the second half, the defense forced a quick LSU punt. The Tigers got just a field goal in the third quarter, despite five consecutive empty possessions for the Gators offense.
When an exhausted Gators defense finally broke early in the fourth quarter, conceding multiple gap-busting explosive runs to LSU’s talented running back, Nick Brossette, the Gators offense answered immediately, engineering a nine-play, 75-yard TD drive to reclaim the lead, 20-19.
But plenty of Florida teams over the past decade still would have coughed up the game.
LSU was so physical, had the running game going, wasn’t beating themselves and had the football with over eight minutes to play.
The Gators defense stood tall, forcing a punt, only to see their offense pinned inside its own 5 on a brilliant punt by LSU’s Josh Growden. Florida’s offense then grinded out two consecutive first downs, draining precious clock.
Still, Burrow and LSU had their chance.
Burrow entered as one of two quarterbacks in the Power 5 who had over 1,000 yards passing and zero interceptions.
His final two series against Florida changed that.
First, it was Brad Stewart’s turn. The safety from New Orleans only chose the Gators when the home state Tigers didn’t recruit him heavily as a senior. As dusk fell in Gainesville, Stewart stepped inside an out route and returned the interception for a touchdown, sending The Swamp into pandemonium.
The roar heard 'round Gainesvillepic.twitter.com/kdziMnRBxt
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) October 6, 2018
Florida’s secondary wasn’t done.
Last week, Gators safety Donovan Stiner closed out Mississippi State with a de-cleating sack of Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald that sent the Bulldogs faithful sadly shuffling into the Starkville night.
This week, Stiner closed out the Tigers, intercepting a fourth-down Burrow pass and sealing another upset Florida victory.
Call Stiner “The Closer.”
He has earned it.
— FLORIDA (@UF) October 6, 2018
Call Florida “DBU.” The program has earned it — or at least, in the long-running debate over whether LSU or Florida is DBU, the Tigers will need to wait until next year to argue.
Meanwhile, for Florida, next year is suddenly now.
Florida is 5-1, with a tricky trip to Nashville ahead next week, a bye, and a suddenly nationally meaningful Cocktail Party should the Gators hold off the Commodores and Georgia handle its business.
Even if the Gators stumble in Jacksonville, 10-2 with an impressive resume is suddenly a possibility and with it, a New Year’s Day 6 bowl game likely awaits.
Talk about sea change.
In six weeks under Mullen, Florida has eclipsed its win total from 2017.
To say that the coaching change has mattered doesn’t do it justice.
Mullen and his staff have improved Florida’s culture, schemes and infused The Swamp and the program with an energy not seen in Gainesville since, well, Tebow.
The Gators aren’t a finished product. Hardly.
But the echoes started to wake up Saturday in The Swamp.
For one Saturday, Gators football was a blast again.
The future might be too.