GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Since last October, a disastrous eye-opening stretch in Will Muschamp’s first season that included four games and four losses, the Gators have built toward a moment like the one that unfolded on Florida Field early Saturday evening.
Florida’s 14-6 victory over No. 4-ranked LSU had just concluded. Everywhere you looked Gators celebrated as the packed Swamp roared. Dominique Easley danced on the visitor’s sideline. Lerentee McCray gave high-fives to fans. Muschamp hugged his son and then ripped off a few Gator Chomps. Jeff Dillman kissed his wife and slapped players as they walked by.
A few minutes later in the locker room, the Gators continued to celebrate in a way they hadn’t at home in a long time. The Gators didn’t just win; they beat up LSU the way LSU likes to batter opponents – a punch to the gut.
All those hours in the offseason working out and pumping iron as part of the Olympic-style weightlifting program implemented by Dillman in January paid off in front of a national television audience and a sold-out crowd of 90,824.
The Gators literally flexed their muscles by taking over the game in the second half.
If Florida fans had any lingering questions about what type of team Muschamp envisions building, you saw it Saturday. A tough, physical, hard-nosed football team reminiscent of those the Gators fielded when Muschamp was a kid in Gainesville.
“That was typical 1980 SEC right there,’’ Muschamp said afterward. “It was a physical, physical match because both lines of scrimmage are going to put pressure on the quarterback. That’s the difference in playing in this league and these other leagues you watch on TV. I know y’all like all these points being scored, but the quarterback won’t make it through the game or the season in our league.
“I’m very proud of the players, a resilient effort in what they did, and how we won the game in the second half is what I’m most proud of. It was a good win.”
The Gators trailed 6-0 at halftime, mustering just 47 yards of offense and six first downs. Still, they stayed away from the panic button because the game was playing out exactly the way they expected: low-scoring, physical and ugly.
“We were hitting hard in practice,’’ said junior safety Matt Elam. “We knew what this was going to be like.”
The game turned on Florida’s second drive of the third quarter. The Gators started at their 15, and after quarterback Jeff Driskel hit tight end Jordan Reed for a 14-yard gain on the first play to give Florida some wiggle room, the offensive line and running back Mike Gillislee went to work.
Gillislee carried three consecutive times for 17 yards. Three more plays and a 15-yard facemask penalty on LSU resulted in Florida moving to LSU’s 12, where it was Gillislee’s turn again. His 12-yard scoring run tied the game and Caleb Sturgis’ PAT put Florida in front.
The Gators never trailed after Gillislee’s score although on LSU’s ensuing possession it took a hustle play by Elam – he raced down LSU receiver Odell Beckham after a 56-yard pass to force a fumble – to preserve Florida’s momentum. Gators defensive back Pop Saunders recovered – officials reviewed the play after initially calling Beckham down – and the Gators turned once more to the ground.
On an 11-play, 77-yard scoring drive that ended on another 12-yard touchdown run by Gillislee, the Gators didn’t pass once. Gillislee rushed six times for 45 yards on the drive as the Gators’ offensive line overpowered and wore down LSU’s deep and talented defensive line.
Gillislee reminded the offensive line of all those workouts repeatedly during the drive.
“Every time Gillislee came back to the huddle and he knew it was a run play, he would tell us, ‘this is what we’ve been training for, this drive right here.’ He would keep saying that on the next play,’’ starting right guard Jon Halapio said. “That was definitely our mindset.”
It took Muschamp all of 23 seconds in his postgame press conference to bring up Dillman’s name. Muschamp worked with Dillman when the two were at LSU on Nick Saban’s staff in the early 2000s and when former strength-and-conditioning coordinator Mickey Marotti left for Ohio State, Muschamp brought Dillman on board to get the Gators bigger and stronger.
Saturday revealed the dividends of all that work as Florida won by running the ball 25 consecutive times to close out the game, starting with Gillislee’s first touchdown with 5:15 left in the third quarter.
“Everything we did is just paying off right now,’’ center Jon Harrison said. “It shows we have some dedicated players and we really are a bonded team this year from coaches, players, training staff, everybody included. It just goes to show we can do great things if we put our minds to it.”
As the offense did its job in taking control, the defense never let up from the start. The Gators limited the Tigers to eight first downs and just 42 yards rushing. In Florida’s 41-11 loss in Baton Rough a year ago, the Tigers dominated the Gators by rolling up 238 yards rushing and physically beating Florida on both lines of scrimmage.
Those roles reversed as the Gators snapped LSU’s 18-game regular-season win streak, the longest in the country. The win gave the Gators six consecutive wins dating back to January’s Gator Bowl, their longest winning streak since the 2009 season.
“To me the whole game of football is about breaking the will of the man in front of you,’’ defensive tackle Dominique Easley said. “I like to see people bow down. That’s my theory.”
His theory came to fruition on Saturday.
As pleased as Muschamp was with the victory – and the way the Gators won -- he seemed equally pleased for those cheering as the Gators ran off the field.
Muschamp has faced his fair share of scrutiny since taking over and trying to rebuild the program’s culture and style of play – none more than during that four-game losing streak last October – but the signs are clearly pointing in the right direction as Florida improved to 5-0 and should climb even higher in the top 10.
“I’m not really worried about me,’’ he said when asked if Saturday’s win perhaps soothed over fans. “I’ve got a bunch of friends out there. I think it’s important for our fans that we need to come in The Swamp and play well. We need to win at our place. Our fans deserve that. And they really haven’t gotten any exciting wins, maybe, so to speak, based on their perception of who is good.
“So I’m very happy for our fans. It was alive in there tonight.”
It was alive all around Gainesville late Saturday night as the Gators won their biggest game under Muschamp.
The Gators will move up in the polls and the perception of them will certainly improve after Saturday’s win. The Gators are back, or at least that’s what they will say. Muschamp immediately tried to tone that thought down early in his opening remarks.
“I know we’re going to go out of hand with this. But this is one win. It doesn’t count for one-and-a-half and it doesn’t count for two,’’ he said. “We have a huge challenge in front of us next Saturday night in Nashville. We need improvements.”
Whatever improvements the Gators need to make, they aren’t nearly as daunting as the ones they had to make since last October. The ones that made the difference on Saturday.