GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GatorZone.com senior writer Chris Harry contributed to this report.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- After finishing 12th in the Southeastern Conference in penalties in 2011, Florida coach Will Muschamp put a huge emphasis on cleaning up the flags in his second season as Gators coach.
But 14 penalties for 106 yards wasn't what he had in mind.
Those were the numbers from Saturday’s 27-14 season-opening win against Bowling Green and clearly Muschamp wasn’t happy with them at all.
“It’s something we’ve worked on. Believe me, we’ve exhausted every measure I know and we’ll continue to do so,” Muschamp said. “We’re going to look at the tape and obviously make some changes with guys who can’t stay on-sides.”
While they’re at it, the coaches also can address defensive holding, chop blocks, unnecessary roughness, etc.
"We've got to cut it out,'' defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. "For us to get where we want to go, we've got to cut these penalties out."
GLAD TO BE BACK
Gators linebacker Neiron Ball played in his first game since the 2011 Outback Bowl.
Ball missed all of last season due to a congenital vascular condition that required radiation treatment and close monitoring.
Ball expected to play Saturday but he didn't expect to start. However, after starting strong-side linebacker Darrin Kitchens was hurt on the opening kickoff, Ball found himself in the starting lineup.
"I was next up,'' Ball said. "I was definitely nervous but excited at the same time. It was just an amazing feeling that I can't really explain. I was just so thankful for it."
Ball made one tackle in his long-awaited return to the field. What did he think of his performance after so much time away?
"I think I played OK. I was a little nervous at first but I think I got in the groove,'' he said.
With the victory, Florida improved to 79-27 all-time in season openers, including a 64-6 mark in Gainesville.
And make that 23 straight to open the season for the Gators, which is the second-longest streak in the nation behind Nebraska’s 27. The Cornhuskers defeated Southern Mississippi 49-20 Saturday at Lincoln.
QUOTE OF NOTE
“As our competition heats up a little bit, we’ve got to be able to open up our offense, and we will. It’s a long season. You’ve got to understand that it’s not just about emptying your bullet here in Game 1. We’ve got to win the game, and do what we need to do to win the game, and that’s what we did." -- Muschamp
QUOTE OF NOTE II
"We really put ourselves going into the fourth quarter with a chance to win the football game and didn't execute well. Missing those kicks hurt a lot, too. Get those two kicks and it's a one-score game with the ball at the end. Congratulations to Florida. I think they have a good football team but we certainly feel like we let one get away.'' -- Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson
Speaking of areas Muschamp wanted to improve, UF’s turnover ratio was a hot topic. The Gators finished minus-12 in ’11, among the bottom 10 in the nation, and one of the big reasons was missed opportunities.
As in dropped interceptions.
So you can imagine how happy the Florida sidelines was when cornerback Marcus Roberson, the sophomore who suffered a season-ending neck injury against South Carolina in November, picked off a tipped pass from Falcons quarterback Matt Schilz inside the UF 15-yard line -- with the Gators up just 17-14 -- and returned it 33 yards.
Three plays later, Florida scored on a 50-yard Jeff Driskel-to-Frankie Hammond touchdown pass to take a 10-point lead.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Gators also recovered a muffed punt return. And while UF running back Omarius Hines fumbled away one possession, Florida came out of Week 1 with a plus-1 turnover number.
“A good team, offense and defense and special teams should play off each other,” Muschamp said. “We didn’t do that very well last year. Hopefully, we will as we move forward.”
KICKING IT FROM 50
Muschamp calls Caleb Sturgis the best kicker in the country. It's hard to argue.
Sturgis proved his worth again on Saturday with field goals of 34 and 51 yards. The 51-yarder extended his school record of field goals of 50 or more yards to six.
Sturgis' 51-yard kick with 8:28 remaining gave the Gators some much-needed breathing room.
"It's huge," Muschamp said. "I think he's the best kicker in the country. I got tremendous confidence and when we hit the 35-yard line, I feel comfortable about Caleb."
Eight freshmen played for the Gators in the opener, all in reserve roles or on special teams.
They were: LB Antonio Morrison, DE Dante Fowler, WR Latroy Pittman, TE Kent Taylor, RB Matt Jones, RB Mark Herndon, OT D.J. Humphries and DE Jonathan Bullard.
Of those players, Morrison and Fowler each had three tackles, with Fowler, the five-star end from St. Petersburg, coming up with a tackle-for-loss on a fourth-down play late. Jones had a great 17-yard run in the first quarter, but got a stiff talking-to when the 6-2, 230-pounder went laterally on a third-and-3 play.
That’s not what Florida recruited the former Seffner (Fla.) Armwood horse to do.
“He’s a young player, but in that situation you have to understand the down and distance,” Muschamp said. “It’s not about hitting a homer on third-and-. It’s about sticking your foot in the ground and getting north and south. He knows that. He’s a very intelligent player and he will learn from that."
Senior RB Mike Gillislee became just the sixth UF running back since 1996 to rush for at least 148 yards in a game. The others: Fred Taylor (3 times), Ciatrick Fason (3), Earnest Graham (3), Bo Carroll (1) and Jeff Demps (1) ... Gillislee's 38-yard touchdown run marked fifth straight season opener Gators have had a rushing touchdown of more than 35 yards ... Andre Debose's 32-yard punt return in the second quarter was a career-best and was longer than any punt return for the Gators last season ... Gillislee, OL Jon Halapio, DT Omar Hunter and DB Josh Evans served as game captains ... Capt. James Nichols, a UF graduate, Commander John Mooney and UF assistant professor of Naval Science Bill "Cookies" Tolson performed a flyover prior to the game.