Florida football: 2019 Gators will leave a winning legacy
It was a cold afternoon in Columbia, Missouri, a place that has been even colder to Florida over the past few years. But you wouldn’t have known that Saturday afternoon, watching the Florida players celebrate their 23-6 victory over Missouri.
As the Gators have done so often this season, they played a close three quarters and pulled away late because they were the tougher, more physical, mentally strong football team.
When it was over, junior quarterback Kyle Trask and senior Jonathan Greenard, two of Florida’s most unlikely heroes of this unlikely season, stuck around a little longer, slapping hands and sharing a quick embrace. Two other seniors, Joshua Hammond and Lamical Perine, weren’t far behind, trotting off the field together after singing the fight song.
They had reason to celebrate.
“It was good to come here and win,” Hammond told the media after the game. “As young guys, we came here and had such a bad experience, getting blown out right after Coach (Jim McElwain) got fired. To come here and win today was meaningful.”
You know what else is meaningful?
The legacy of this football team.
Behind the play of those four young men — and so many of Florida’s other veterans, who were embarrassed on this very field only two seasons before — Florida put a winning bow on SEC football games this season and primed fans’ hopes about what’s to come.
No, this Gators team won’t play in Atlanta. They had their shot at securing that trip in Jacksonville to open the month, fought hard and came up short against Georgia.
But the Georgia loss, while crushing, will only be a small part of a broader story in the history books for the 2019 Florida Gators, one far more surprising and stirring.
That’s because this tough, proud, never-quit group of Gators will mostly be remembered as the team that helped coach Dan Mullen and Florida turn the corner, righting a wayward ship after a decade in the wilderness.
Every program that rises to college football’s elite has that team.
At Nick Saban’s Alabama, it was John Parker Wilson and the 2008 Crimson Tide, who stormed to a 12-0 regular season before falling just short against mighty Tim Tebow and Florida in the SEC Championship game. Alabama finished 12-2, but the foundation they left behind lasts to this day.
At Clemson, it was Dabo Swinney’s 2012 team. The Tigers could have folded after losing to Steve Spurrier and South Carolina but rallied to finish 11-2 instead, capping the season with a huge bowl win over Les Miles and LSU. That game and that team, Swinney still says, showed the players in his program they could compete with anyone on any field.
For Kirby Smart and the Dawgs, who clinched their third consecutive SEC East title Saturday evening at Auburn, it was the 2017 team. Sure, Georgia came up a couple of plays short of ending the school’s long national championship drought. No matter. If Smart wants to show his team what the program standard looks like at his Georgia, all he has to do is flip on the video of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel vanquishing Auburn in Atlanta.
These Gators have earned a place — that place– in the hearts of Florida fans.
They understand the Gator Standard Dan Mullen preaches about and they play to it.
“We told them when we got here,” Mullen said this spring. “You didn’t sign up to play for us. Who do you want to be? Will you buy in? Will you commit to restoring the Gator Standard, to leaving the place better than you found it?
This Florida team will.
This season, the Gators had plenty of opportunities to quit, cower, or make excuses.
Instead, Florida closed this program’s lost decade in style, grinning in the face of adversity and striving to leave behind something bigger.
The story starts under center.
Florida lost starting quarterback Feleipe Franks two and a half quarters into SEC play, and gutted out more or less the entirety of the SEC slate with a backup quarterback who hadn’t started since freshman football in Manvel, Texas.
Most Florida teams over the past 10 seasons would have crumbled. Heck, most Florida teams over the past 10 seasons crumbled with or without their starting quarterback as soon as adversity hit.
In 2019, Florida didn’t. Kyle Trask became a program folk hero instead, leading the team to a 6-2 conference record and 9-2 mark overall.
He was brilliant again Saturday, throwing for 282 yards and 2 more touchdowns against the SEC’s best pass defense.
The Gators lost their best playmaker against Kentucky too, when Kadarius Toney broke his arm. Toney was finally back full strength Saturday, but in his stead, a deep, talented and senior-laden receiver corps made play after play.
They were sensational again Saturday, with senior Van Jefferson catching 6 passes for 82 yards, junior Trevon Grimes adding 66 yards on 3 receptions and Joshua Hammond making this acrobatic, full body turn touchdown grab to give Florida all the separation it would need in a game that was tight for three quarters.
Trask gets some time to throw and goes 34 yards to Josh Hammond for six – let's Go Gators! pic.twitter.com/dbdqCz9d2r
— libgator (@lib_gator) November 16, 2019
All year, Florida couldn’t run the ball, with an inexperienced offensive line that lacked depth lacking much leverage in the run game.
The end result was that one of Florida’s key leaders, senior running back Lamical Perine, was limited in influence.
Or so we thought.
Perine found other ways to contribute, becoming a better blocker, improving as a route runner and pass-catcher. Saturday, he sealed the game with an outstanding catch in tight coverage in the end zone.
How about the defense?
They too stared down the face of adversity and won.
Senior defensive end Jabari Zuniga was a consensus preseason All-American. He played one healthy series, and five total quarters, in SEC play. Zuniga was one of the first to show up to the football facility and last to leave anyway, and his leadership meant the world to a group that found ways to win games without him.
A big reason for that was Greenard, the senior transfer from Louisville who will be an All-American this December if there’s any justice in the universe. Saturday, Greenard was a monster, collecting 2 sacks and 5 tackles for loss to continue piling up insane numbers in a tremendous campaign. When Florida struggled offensively in the first half, Greenard and the defense answered the bell again and again, as they have so often this season.
These Gators aren’t perfect. They lack top-end depth and are still a bit too lean on high-end talent, compared to championship peers.
But they sure are a good football team. Saturday — and most of this season — that has been more than enough. It has been special.