GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Will Muschamp walked out of The Swamp with both fists in the air, acknowledging the cheers of a freshly adoring fan base. This was his moment.
For the first time in 18 games as head coach of the Florida Gators, he had done something Urban-esque. Or Spurrier-esque, if you prefer. Those comparisons to Ron Zook can stop now, thank you.
“We haven’t really gotten any exciting wins, by (the fans’) perception,” Muschamp said.
There had been victories over Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, but there were zero wins in five tries against ranked opponents. That changed emphatically Saturday. Muschamp’s first “exciting win” was over No. 4 LSU – a credibility game for the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division against the previously dominant West, for Florida as a program, for Muschamp, and for the Gators’ manhood.
The low point of a 7-6 season last year was a winless October against SEC competition. And the low point of October was a 30-point punking in Baton Rouge.
“They put us in the ground last year,” safety Matt Elam said. “We had to put our foot down and make sure it didn’t happen again.”
It didn’t happen again because Muschamp is bringing brutal back in Gainesville. He’s reintroducing the pounding physicality and steely mental toughness of the Tim Tebow days. He’s got an undefeated team that has come from behind in the second half in three SEC games, and has not allowed a fourth-quarter point to anyone all season.
After several late-game fades in 2011 – prompting Muschamp to call his team “soft” – Florida is now the finest finisher in college football. They’ve gone from being outscored 87-59 in the fourth quarter last year to holding a 41-0 edge in the fourth quarter this year.
Now, shutting out an LSU offense that has become a dysfunctional mess was not terribly difficult. Dating back to the BCS Championship Game debacle against Alabama, the Tigers have scored one touchdown in their last three games against SEC opponents. They’ve scored a total of three points in the second half of those games.
It’s no longer all Jordan Jefferson’s fault. Highly touted quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who never seems to sense pressure in the pocket and rarely seems to read defenses, might actually be worse. At least Jefferson had some mobility.
But Florida did more than just shut out LSU in the second half. It wore the Tigers down every bit as authoritatively as it has worn down the previous four opponents.
The Gators scored the last 13 points of their opener against Bowling Green. They scored the last 13 at Texas A&M in a 20-17 victory. They scored the last 24 at Tennessee in a 37-20 victory. They scored all 38 of the points on the scoreboard against Kentucky. And against the Tigers, they scored the last 14 points here.
Credit the Florida coaching staff with some astute in-game adjustments. But more than anything, credit the offseason obsession with strength, conditioning and mindset.
“The things we struggled with last year have been pounded into their heads,” Muschamp said. “As a competitor, you take that personal, and we have a competitive bunch.”
The guy tasked with pounding that into the Gators’ heads is first-year strength coach Jeff Dillman, who worked with Muschamp and Nick Saban at LSU when the Tigers won the 2003 national championship. Dillman’s media-guide photo looks the part: head shaved, unsmiling, eyes slightly maniacal. Those who witnessed his offseason workouts said the intensity sometimes reduced 300-pound linemen to tears.
There have been no tears on Saturdays this fall, though. The work has paid off.
“We’re twice as strong as last year,” said offensive guard Jon Halapio, who added that he's now squatting 495 pounds in-season – but still trailing defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd's 550.
But only twice as strong? That's an understatement, according to running back Mike Gillislee.
“We’re ten times better (at finishing a game) than last year,” he said.
“Gilly” is the Gators’ offensive finisher. A career backup finally given a starring role as a senior, he has carried the load late in every game – especially this one.
“I’ll take “Gilly” over anybody,” Muschamp said. “I tell him that all the time, and I mean that. He’s a Will Muschamp guy. … He’s a program guy. This guy puts Florida before himself.”
“Gilly” put Florida on his back in the second half. He ran for a career-high 146 yards and two touchdowns on 34 exhausting carries, enduring hit after hit and still churning for more yardage. With sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel overwhelmed by the fast and fierce LSU defense, Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease went Cro-Magnon in the second half – and it worked.
Florida ran the ball on its final 24 offensive snaps. It hammered away at the Tigers like a Tom Osborne team, pulling guards and mashing facemasks with any defender who presented himself as an obstacle. Even when LSU knew what was coming, it was powerless in the second half to stop the Gators and get the ball back.
“That was fun,” Muschamp said, a smile creeping across his face.
An old defensive player, Muschamp is coaching in a place where Spurrier’s Fun ‘N’ Gun dazzled and Meyer’s spread amazed. In a complete departure from the program’s DNA, Florida threw for all of 61 yards Saturday. The school has stats going back to 1996 and that’s the lowest single-game passing output in that time, but it’s an absolute certainty that no Spurrier team threw for that little – and he took over in 1990.
But in today’s SEC, you must be able to win physical battles with the likes of Alabama and LSU if you want to win the league. Florida showed its progress by taking care of the Tigers on Saturday, and Will Muschamp showed signs that he’s the right guy to succeed his champion predecessors.
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