It was almost kickoff time on a gloomy, rainy November morning when a lingering fog finally dissipated ahead of the 63rd meeting between Florida and Florida State.
By mid-afternoon, the fog had also been lifted from Florida’s struggle for state supremacy as the Gators routed FSU 41-14 Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium. UF decisively ended both FSU’s program-best five-game winning streak in the rivalry and FSU’s near-decade dominance over the Gators.
In addition, Florida’s win ended two of FSU’s national-best streaks. The Seminoles saw their 36-year streak of bowl seasons and 41-year streak of winning seasons come to an end. As the Gators and their large traveling contingent of fans celebrated, it would be fair to suggest the only gloom enveloping Tallahassee by Saturday afternoon were the serious questions surrounding the culture and direction of Willie Taggart’s FSU program.
Florida didn’t just win. The way the Gators dominated matters. It was a game the Gators had to have, and they seized it. Coach Dan Mullen said it was a win for Florida’s seniors, who finally beat the Seminoles, but admitted it was also about culture-building.
“Rivalry games are so important. It’s awesome (to get this win). These seniors worked so hard to win games and to win this game,” Mullen said. “This win — to come here and get these bragging rights —that’s huge for this program and for Gator Nation. Twelve months before you have to go do it again. But to see this result, it just shows that players are buying in to what we are trying to do. … Our cultural buy-in is great and we are laying that foundation for what it takes to compete for championships here and win them, which is the Gator standard.”
Florida might not have reclaimed the mantle of the premier program in Florida in one fell swoop Saturday, but it certainly demonstrated the differences in direction between the Gators and FSU.
Taggart brought swagger and stories of accountability and culture change to Tallahassee after Jimbo Fisher’s unceremonious and acrimonious departure from Tallahassee last December.
But his #DoSomething mantra never materialized, unless by doing something he meant guarantee a victory, as sophomore cornerback Stanford Samuels III did. Samuels then committed an atrocious, entirely unnecessary personal foul penalty to extend a Florida red zone possession on the first drive of the second half. Samuels’ mistake — which drew a justified tongue-lashing from Taggart — proved critical. Florida scored a touchdown moments later and reclaimed the upper hand after the Seminoles seemed to have seized some control in the second quarter.
It wasn’t just Samuels on Saturday.
It’s not fair to put a loss on one player, especially a 27-point whipping on your home field.
As has been the case all season, the Seminoles found ways to lose. Saturday, they kept committing costly, untimely, unforced penalties throughout the afternoon.
With FSU trailing 10-0 in the second quarter, senior Nyqwan Murray was called for an illegal shift, negating a brilliantly executed misdirection throw and run by Cam Akers for a 70-yard touchdown. The Seminoles were tripped up by repeated procedure penalties and personal fouls, which are the kinds of errors that happen when your culture lacks accountability. That’s a big reason FSU has lost 13 games in the past two seasons and doesn’t appear to be trending upward.
Meanwhile, Mullen and Florida’s offense punished FSU like he did a decade ago. Back then Mullen was the offensive coordinator for Urban Meyer when UF was 4-0 in this game and routinely found itself on center stage nationally.
For the third consecutive game, Florida complied over 500 yards of offense. This time, however, the Gators did it to an excellent defense with a bevy of blue-chip talent up front.
Florida pounded one of the nation’s stingiest run defenses for 282 yards rushing, including 129 from junior Lamical Perine, who a year ago mustered on 21 yards on 12 attempts against essentially the same front.
"THERE GOES PERINE!"
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 24, 2018
Perine’s 74-yard touchdown run, untouched, staked the Gators to a 10-point lead in the second quarter, but he was hardly the only one doing damage. Jordan Scarlett added 88 hard-fought yards including the bruising run below, and when he stormed in from 9 yards late for a 40-14 lead, it was time for Florida to celebrate.
Jordan Scarlett dislikes you – pic.twitter.com/6gzHfxucY8
— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) November 24, 2018
It was time for Florida to celebrate a culture change that has gone as promised, one where Florida has played with relentless effort and energy, living up to that “Gator standard” which Mullen has mentioned since Day 1.
Florida hasn’t been mistake-free in 2018 and has had disappointing Saturdays. But it hasn’t been about culture or buy-in or effort. To go from four wins and a toxic hellscape of a culture to nine wins and a likely New Year’s 6 bowl bid in twelve months is astonishing. To finish that turnaround in Tallahassee in stylish fashion is icing on the cake.
“We ended the streak,” Gators receiver Van Jefferson said. “There have been tough days. But we worked all season and all week — strained in practice and in the weight room, and it paid off today. It’s incredible to be a part of that process and it is incredible to be a part of this rivalry. I haven’t been here long but to be here and have the opportunity to play in this game and win this game today was amazing.”
It was time for Florida to celebrate the play of Feleipe Franks.
Booed on his home field earlier this month, Franks has responded with strength of character and resolve, leading an epic fourth-quarter comeback to beat South Carolina and outplaying counterpart Deondre Francois badly Saturday.
On a day when the coaches put Florida’s early offensive success on Franks’ shoulders, the quarterback delivered his finest performance as a Gator: 16-of-26 for 254 yards and three touchdowns. His second touchdown pass, a scramble and strike to Trevon Grimes, was a play that defined his growth, both in poise and understanding the offense.
HELLO, END ZONE!!!
— InAllKindsOfWeather.com (@AllKindsWeather) November 24, 2018
It’s hard to know what the future will hold for Franks, but Saturday was a day to celebrate.
Finally, it was time for Florida to celebrate the foundation it has built for the future.
In the most fertile recruiting state in the sport, being best in the state matters. The Gators looked the part Saturday. They’ll get to sell that in the month to come.
“By putting ourselves in the national conversation, by being in discussion for a New Year’s Six bowl, by winning this rivalry game, we lay a foundation,” Mullen said. “We’ll enjoy this tonight. But we have to hit the road recruiting, to make sure this is more than a moment, to make sure we continue to build this program for the future. We will do that on the road recruiting, starting tomorrow.”
It has been a while since Florida recruited as the best team in the state.
That’s something to celebrate.