In gritty comeback win over South Carolina, Gators and Mullen turn the corner
Years from now, when the book on the Dan Mullen era at Florida is written, people will ask when the program turned the page from a near-decade lost in the wilderness and emerged to become the one that played with the relentless effort that Mullen demanded.
The answer will be that it happened late in Mullen’s first season, on a gloomy November Saturday in The Swamp, against a South Carolina team coached by Will Muschamp, one of the two men who couldn’t ever quite figure it out in Gainesville.
That’s because the Gators stormed back to beat the Gamecocks 35-31 Saturday, erasing a 17-point second half deficit and finding a way to win with a physicality and character not seen in Gainesville since early in the Muschamp era.
“Great win for us,” Mullen told the media after the game. “Our guys kept battling. After a week ago (a 38-17 loss to Missouri), I said, ‘Let’s show everyone the team that we can be. Don’t dare take the field unless you expect to win the game.’ ”
Florida didn’t initially play like a team that expected to win, falling behind 14-0 midway through the first quarter. But they fought back to tie it at 14 and were relentless offensively in a frenetic final 20 minutes that saw Florida’s offense explode for three 70-yard-plus drives to reclaim the lead.
“Great mental toughness,” Mullen said. “Down 14-0 in the first half, then down 17 late in the third quarter and to battle back and find a way to win was amazing for us.”
It was a game that had a little of everything.
It had empty seats that filled just after kickoff.
It had November gloom and chilly air that gave way to sunshine and warmth around Tom Petty time in the fourth quarter.
There were boos for the quarterback, beginning when Feleipe Franks scrambled away from imaginary pressure on Florida’s opening possession and missed a wide-open man on third-and-19 and continuing when he missed multiple easy throws early in the third quarter.
There were boos for Dan Mullen too, coming after he dared play it safe and punt (it worked) rather than let his inconsistent quarterback throw the ball downfield on third-and-Ocala.
There were explosive pass plays on both sides, like the 89-yard pass by Jake Bentley to Deebo Samuel that helped the Gamecocks extend their lead to 31-14. There were explosive running plays, like the consistently powerful running of Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett, who each went over 100 yards for the game and each had multiple runs of 12 yards or more. There were playmakers making plays, like this bubble screen turned touchdown from Florida’s Kadarius Toney, the most dynamic offensive football player on Florida’s campus since Percy Harvin.
— Greg Brandt (@devywarehouse) November 10, 2018
There were big defensive plays, too. T.J. Brunson, South Carolina’s immensely talented linebacker, had 3 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. Florida’s star-laden defensive front was led by Cece Jefferson, who played the best game of his final season as a Gator.
There was Franks, Florida’s forlorn, much-maligned quarterback. He was booed, but kept fighting, shushing the home fans and lowering his shoulder on power runs in the second half.
There was a great Swamp crowd, criticized all week, that went silent in the first quarter but didn’t leave and made their presence felt by roaring in the fourth.
But above all, there was the comeback.
A football team that could have quit didn’t.
A football team this writer (and plenty others) wrote off in the third quarter never gave up on itself.
A program that a year ago finished a four-win season in toxic cultural crisis won a game that is only won when your players are invested and play with high character.
For Mullen’s Gators, it was the second 17-point plus comeback this season — the other coming at Vanderbilt a month ago.
But this one felt bigger because, for one, the Gamecocks are a good football team. They have a lengthy injury list and a young defense, but they are resilient, having won multiple games this season in the fourth quarter.
They have a maturing and talented junior quarterback in Jake Bentley, who was outstanding all day, completing 18 of 28 passes for 239 yards and 2 touchdowns.
And they have outstanding talent at the skill positions, led by Deebo Samuel, the most electric player in the SEC not named Tua.
Second, the Gators needed this one.
They needed it to halt a sequence of seasons stained by second-half swoons, dating back to the Muschamp era.
They needed it to finish SEC play with a winning record, keeping themselves in the conversation for a New Year’s Six bowl game and threatening, against the odds, to win 10 games in Dan Mullen’s first season, a year after winning only four.
They needed it to build momentum for the finish and to give the team confidence it can snap the seemingly interminable losing streak to in-state rival Florida State, who is terrible but was not much more than pedestrian last year and thumped the Gators anyway.
They needed it to show recruits what they were building on what will be the final “big” recruiting weekend of the regular season.
And they needed it most of all to show that while this rebuild is a work in progress, this staff, and the culture they are building, is different
“Are all our problems fixed? No,” Mullen said. “But to see our guys come back and compete and have that energy in the stadium, all that together, is going to help push us ultimately to where we want to get to, which is back competing for championships on a consistent basis.”
One day, when this staff does compete for championships, someone will ask when it started to change.
The smart answer will be that it changed in November of Mullen’s first year, in a glorious comeback win over South Carolina in the Swamp.