Jim McElwain has a new signature win ... and another SEC East title
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — On Oct. 3, 2015, the Gators notched their defining win of Jim McElwain’s first season, a 38-10 thumping of No. 3 Ole Miss. It was a victory that shouted to the SEC, loud and clear, that Florida was back. At the time, it had all the makings of a signature win.
It was a game in which everything that could go right did go right for UF. Will Grier’s “flu game” seemed destined to become part of Florida folklore as the quarterback turned in the best performance (24-of-29, 271 yards, 4 TD) of his brief tenure.
On that night, former Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley appeared to be a genius. It looked like McElwain had figured out how to properly coach the talent Will Muschamp signed.
That was until Grier got suspended, Treon Harris took over at quarterback and the offense fell apart over a painful eight-game stretch. After the way the 2015 campaign ended, the Ole Miss game started to feel more like a fluke than a banner win.
The 2016 campaign has been something of a roller coaster. Every time the Gators looked like they were taking a step in the right direction (Kentucky, Georgia), they came crashing back to Earth (Tennessee, Arkansas) with a humbling loss.
This time, it’s different. While everyone likes to talk about the divide between the SEC divisions, Saturday’s win at LSU demonstrates that McElwain has built an SEC East champion able to hold its own with the conference’s superior division by playing that style of football.
Perhaps most surprising is how the Gators beat LSU – winning in the trenches. Earlier this week, LSU edge rusher Arden Key said the Gators were poor at pass blocking and not much better at run blocking. While QB Austin Appleby didn’t have his best day passing (7-of-17, 144 yards, TD), he was only sacked twice. That’s one less sack than the personal goal Key set for himself earlier in the week.
“Our offensive line was challenged, they were called out,” McElwain told reporters after the game. “It will be interesting to watch the replay, but I thought we played with some pad level and we played with some resolve, some finish and some energy. I wanted to pound it at them, and we pounded it at them. These guys getting called out up front, that ain’t right. I’m proud of them.”
Only two ball-carriers have gained 100 yards on the Tigers this season: Alabama QB Jalen Hurts (20 carries, 114 yards) and Florida RB Jordan Scarlett (22 carries, 108 yards). The sophomore running back from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has established himself as the team’s top runner over the course of the season, forcing McElwain to reluctantly scrap a four-headed monster committee approach in favor of a one-two punch with Scarlett and true freshman Lamical Perine.
Scarlett and Perine combined for 146 yards on 29 carries, outrushing LSU’s vaunted duo of Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice (31 carries, 123 yards). The young Gators did the heavy lifting on a pivotal fourth-quarter drive that went for 15 plays, 70 yards and took 7 minutes 45 seconds off the clock, resulting in a field goal that gave UF a 13-10 lead. Fifty-seven of those 70 yards came on the ground.
And like McElwain’s offense at Alabama, there’s more to Florida than ground and pound. The biggest highlight of the day came when Appleby connected with freshman WR Tyrie Cleveland for a 98-yard touchdown pass. With the emergence of Cleveland, opposing defenses will no longer be able to get away with focusing on Antonio Callaway, Florida’s leading receiver this season (37 catches, 545 yards) as well as last year (35 catches, 678 yards).
With Scarlett, Perine, Cleveland and Callaway, McElwain has built an offense that can succeed at Florida and compete with the SEC’s best teams, from either division. He showed that in his new signature win.