Gators don't flinch, find a way to beat Miami in bizarre rivalry slop-fest
ORLANDO — Don’t flinch.
Those words appear on a sign the Florida sideline holds up when the defense faces 3rd down.
They are a favorite expression of Florida’s coaching staff, particularly strength and conditioning coach Nick Savage, and a mantra the team carries from Savage’s famously demanding offseason program right onto the football field.
“We have a saying in our program, ‘Don’t Flinch.’ Coach Savage, coach Grantham are always saying ‘Don’t Flinch.’ When adversity hits — and we know it will hit — trust your training, trust the work you put in, stay steady. We didn’t flinch tonight,” Gators cornerback CJ Henderson said following Florida’s hard-fought, ugly 24-20 slop-fest of a rivalry game win over Miami at Camping World Stadium.
There were plenty of chances for the Gators to flinch Saturday night.
The Hurricanes broke out the turnover chain 4 times, recovering 2 Florida fumbles and intercepting Feleipe Franks 2 times – the second an absolutely unthinkable throw by the 3rd-year starter into triple coverage with Florida nursing a 4-point lead with 4:20 remaining. Franks said he was hit. Mullen absorbed some of the blame, too, saying he shouldn’t have called the play.
Miami’s freshman quarterback, Jarren Williams, played beautifully, shaking off the occasional freshman mistake and standing up to a ferocious Florida pass rush to throw for 230 yards and a touchdown (and 0 turnovers) against an outstanding defense.
Florida missed 20 tackles, including at least 3 on a 50-yard touchdown run by DeeJay Dallas that gave the Canes the lead early in the 4th quarter.
Florida’s vaunted group of wide receivers had their moments, but not enough of them, with only senior Josh Hammond catching more than 1 pass out of the dangerous group of Hammond, Trevon Grimes, Van Jefferson and Freddie Swain.
Florida’s coaching staff got in on the crazy and ugly too.
Mullen and the offensive staff checked to a QB power on a 3rd-and-goal from the 8 in the 3rd quarter.
Mullen and his special teams coaches failed to consider that Miami might fake a field goal on a 4th-and-2 in the 4th quarter.
Most mystifyingly, Mullen and the offensive staff made the mystifying decision to only get the ball to Kadarius Toney 3 more times in the entire football game after the electric playmaker went 66 yards to the house on a screen pass on Florida’s first possession.
Finally, on Miami’s interminable, bizarre final possession, after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty started at the Florida 40 and included a 4th-and-34 from the Canes’ own 35, the Gators failed to recover 3 Hurricane fumbles on 10 plays and committed not 1, but 2 game-extending pass interference penalties (with a 3rd flag picked up).
In other words, there was adversity everywhere.
“We certainly didn’t follow our program’s plan to win tonight,” an exhausted, exasperated, but most of all relieved Dan Mullen said after the game. “We turned the ball over, failed to score touchdowns in the red zone, turned the ball over in the red zone, missed a bunch of tackles, committed critical penalties at critical times.”
But through it all, the Gators didn’t flinch.
Miami opened the game with a field goal and Mullen dialed up a perfectly called, well-executed fake punt to give the Gators a spark. Florida scored a play later.
The Canes rattled off the next 10 points, but Florida answered with 10 of their own in the 3rd quarter, cashing in on Miami’s lone turnover with a Lamical Perine touchdown on what that time was a beautifully designed 3rd-and-goal play. After airmailing a wide open Freddie Swain to give the Canes the ball again with Miami leading 20-17, Franks responded on the ensuing possession, making 2 of his best plays of the game on a 4-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that gave the Gators the 24-20 lead they would (somehow) not relinquish.
The first play was a laser beam throw to Josh Hammond for a 65-yard gain to the Miami 15. The second came on 1st-and-goal, when Franks executed a zone read perfectly and dived between two closing Hurricane linebackers for the decisive score.
A possession later, Franks made the mystifying decision that nearly cost Florida the game. Was that Franks career in a nutshell? Maybe. Would it have been easy for Florida to lose at that point? Absolutely. But the Gators didn’t flinch, and their defense picked up their quarterback.
Despite the pass interference penalties, the Gators held the line, limiting Williams and the Canes’ offense to 2 yards over 10 plays, despite four minutes that felt like 40 on the field.
A big reason Florida survived what at times seemed an absurd sequence of 4th-quarter events?
A ferocious pass rush that blistered a young Miami offensive line for 11 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. All-SEC defensive end Jabari Zuniga had 3 tackles for loss and 2 sacks and Louisville transfer Jon Greenard, along with nickel Trey Dean, added 1.5 sacks each.
“They have a young quarterback and a young offensive line,” Mullen said. “We have some veteran guys up front and we kept the pressure on them at the end of the game situation where they are forced to throw the ball. But some of that was also about the effort and strength of our guys. They were scrambling around on some of those sacks. I mean, if we did the distance tracker on some of our defensive line, some of those guys ran a bunch of miles chasing (Williams) around. A lot of our sacks were effort sacks, guys who just continued to strain to the ball.”
In the end, that resiliency, the willingness to keep fighting and competing and straining, especially with their backs against the wall, was how Florida survived to score only its 2nd win against the Hurricanes since 1985.
“We compete. We don’t flinch. We talk about the Gator Standard and that involves a plan to win,” Henderson said. “We didn’t follow that the way we wanted tonight, but we stayed together and came out with the win.”
The Gators came to Orlando a top 10 team, one with buzz about “catching Georgia,” an elite defense and hype about an explosive set of wide receivers and a vastly improved Franks.
We didn’t see those Gators in Orlando.
Instead, Florida turned the ball over 4 times, the defense missed a bunch of tackles and Franks limited the effectiveness of his electric wide receivers with maddeningly inconsistent play.
If those mistakes aren’t corrected, the Gators will pay for it, maybe as early as a September visit to Lexington. But for now, none of that matters.
What matters is the Gators left Orlando 1-0, the victors in a hard-fought rivalry game contested in the 100-degree August heat.
“We made a bunch of mistakes. But we competed and kept battling and competing. It seemed like we had to win the game four different times, but we continued to find a way to do that. I’m really proud of that,” Mullen said.
He should be. Ugly wins are still wins. And in Gainesville, wins over Miami are always beautiful.