GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The regular season was going to end one of two ways on Saturday night for the Gators.
They were either going to defeat in-state rival Florida State and feel good about themselves heading into a bowl game, or they were going to lose to the Seminoles for the second consecutive season and have to win a bowl game to avoid the program’s first losing season since the infamous 0-10-1 nightmare of 1979.
This is where I’ll let Gators head coach Will Muschamp tell you the outcome.
“[I’m] extremely disappointed with tonight and the season overall,’’ Muschamp said. “We’re a soft football team. We’re not a physically tough team, and we’re not a mentally tough team. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but soft is not one of them. And we are.”
The moment had been building as the losses piled up since a 4-0 September. The latest setback – a 21-7 defeat Saturday – prompted the first-year Gators coach to publicly challenge his team.
However, he didn’t let himself off the hook.
“Self evaluation is hard sometimes, but that’s a fact,’’ he said. “That’s my fault. We’re going to have a very physical bowl practice.’’
Muschamp understands that finishing 6-6 is not what anyone had in mind when he was hired to replace Urban Meyer last December. He said he is first in line when it comes to those disappointed with Florida’s record.
The loss marked the first time since 1987 that the Gators have lost six games in a season. They can still extend their streak of consecutive winning seasons to 24 with a bowl victory, but they’ll have to play better than they did in Saturday’s performance against FSU.
The defense did its job, limiting the Seminoles to 95 total yards. Yes, you read that right. FSU won by 14 points and gained less than 100 yards of total offense.
It was that kind of game in front of an announced crowd of 90,798 fans at The Swamp, many probably not sure at times if the two teams on the field were really the Gators and Seminoles.
But in a game in which every point was scored off a turnover, the Gators’ sturdy defensive effort went to waste due to four interceptions – three by starter John Brantley and one by back-up Jacoby Brissett, who replaced Brantley after the fifth-year senior had to leave the game due to a hit to the head late in the first half.
FSU’s Devonta Freeman scored on 1-yard runs on the ensuing drives following two of Brantley’s picks, and the Seminoles scored their other touchdown early in the fourth quarter when safety Terrance Parks picked off Brissett and returned the interception 29 yards for a score.
The Gators avoided being shut out for the first time in 296 games – dating back to a 16-0 loss to Auburn in 1988 – when defensive tackle Jaye Howard recovered Jermaine Thomas’ fumble with less than five minutes left in the game.
After a pass interference penalty, Brissett hit Quinton Dunbar for a 6-yard touchdown strike to finally give what was left of the Gator portion of the crowd something to yell about.
“It’s a hard way to go out,’’ senior running back Jeff Demps said. “We’re going to go out and practice real hard for a bowl game and hopefully come out with a victory.’’
The loss was difficult to swallow for Florida fans on many levels – it was FSU, after all. But the way the Gators lost is what really stung Muschamp.
They were unable to play the kind of game he envisions for his program.
They were unable to pick up a yard on fourth-and-1 from FSU’s 15 in the second quarter. Instead, Trey Burton bounced off the line and was dropped for a 14-yard loss.
They played superb defensively – perhaps the best tackling game of the season – yet forced only one turnover.
“You’ve got to look at it from a Gator perspective,’’ Howard said. “A lot of players on the defensive side of the ball, young players, grew up today. They grew up for next year. We played the best we played all season.’’
Once again, the Gators had little success running the ball as diminutive backs Demps and Chris Rainey had trouble finding room to run against FSU’s physical defense.
And while the Gators had their moments up front, including four sacks, FSU won the physical battle at the line of scrimmage.
To complicate matters, several Gators had to leave the game because of injury, the most serious one to linebacker Darrin Kitchens. Team trainers spent several minutes to stabilize his neck and put him on a stretcher.
If this all works out as Muschamp envisions, Saturday’s loss will likely be viewed as a turning point in the history books. These are the 2011 Gators, not the 2008 or 2009 Gators that steamrolled teams and produced more than a dozen NFL players.
These Gators are young and raw and have ability, but they don’t have depth or much experience.
Much of Muschamp’s next month will be spent preparing this team for a bowl game, most likely the Gator Bowl according to various reports.
But that’s not all he’ll be doing. The future is now.
“It’s all recruiting. I won’t be in Gainesville, Florida,’’ Muschamp said of his plans for the next two weeks.
Junior defensive tackle Omar Hunter didn’t hesitate when asked about Muschamp’s assessment of the Gators being soft.
“I agree with him 100 percent,’’ Hunter said. “We have to get tougher mentally and physically.''
Dunbar, one of the young players with talent but not much experience, said in the locker room afterward that the Gators can’t listen to critics as they prepare for a bowl game and an opportunity to finish with a winning season.
“We’ve just got to stick together because people outside the facility are going to take shots at us,’’ he said.
That’s another part of the job Muschamp is familiar with. His mentor, Alabama head coach Nick Saban, faced the same kind of criticism at Alabama in 2007 when the Crimson Tide finished 6-6 in the regular season during his first year in Tuscaloosa.
At his postgame press conference Saturday, Muschamp addressed those who may have left The Swamp early, not only disgusted about another loss to the Seminoles but a .500 record entering bowl season.
“I have a clear vision of what we want to do and how we want to do it,’’ Muschamp said. “I’m more excited today than the day I was hired. I know where we’re headed. We’re going to be fine.
“It’s a very frustrating time right now to be a Florida Gator and I understand that. It falls on one guy’s shoulders and that’s mine. It’s going to get corrected. We’ve got a good young college football team. I know everybody is frustrated. I get that. I do. I’m frustrated too … more than anyone sitting inside the stadium. I know patience is a bad, bad word, and I’m not asking for it, but I also think that sometimes you have to be realistic.’’
The reality is 6-6 and a bowl game to determine a winning season or losing season.
Muschamp and Gator fans everywhere are hoping the tone will be different after that bowl game in a few weeks.