TALLAHASSEE — The game was over, but they were still playing out the final minutes on the field. A majority of the Florida State fans had headed for the exits knowing they had witnessed the bad kind of history they wanted to leave in the rear-view.
Or maybe they just didn’t want to hear what was coming.
It came anyway.
The Gator fans in the stands started the giddy noise, “Orange!” in one section and “Blue!” in the other.
To say they were happy would be to say the players who would soon celebrate on the field were mildly pleased.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who has become the king of celebrating, and a few teammates sprinted to the UF end zone and grabbed oversized flags and began to run around the field with them flapping the colors.
The same Feleipe Franks who was booed earlier this month was throwing wrist bands to kids (and a few adults). As I stood there watching, Gator fans pleaded with me to fish a pair of used mouthpieces out of the mud and toss them their way as if they were Golden Tickets.
The brand is back, even if it’s not all the way back.
“It’s heading in the right direction for us,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “I have high expectations. But I’m not disappointed.”
He was talking about the season as a whole and how a group of dysfunctional football players bought in, some slowly and some quickly, to form what can only be considered a successful first season for the UF head football coach.
And then he talked about more to come.
Meanwhile, in the other interview room, Willie Taggart tried to explain the mess that is Florida State football.
“Disappointing game, disappointing season,” he said.
A season like no other in the past 37 years. No bowl for you. Enjoy the off-season. It has already started.
It has started because a disciplined team dominated an undisciplined one. FSU couldn’t get out of its own way and when it did, the Gators were always there coming off the top rope with a forearm shiver.
“We knew they were the most undisciplined team in America and we were going to take advantage of every opportunity we had,” Gardner-Johnson said. “That’s what we did.”
It wasn’t just that FSU had 10 penalties, but when they came. One took away a Seminole touchdown, a thing of beauty from Cam Akers on a short pass that would have cut the lead to three. Another gave Florida a second chance in the red zone, the one place the Gators struggled Saturday.
And, of course, they took advantage.
Make no mistake about it, this game was a referendum on coaching. One guy and his staff getting the most out of his team to win nine games. The other one, not so much.
Here’s the thing — FSU’s goal was the take away the running game. Florida ran for 282 yards, 74 of them coming on Lamical Perine’s run that was beautifully blocked against a defense that had stacked the line with no safeties deep.
“We did a good job of fitting that all day,” Mullen said.
And then there was the TD pass to Van Jefferson when he put a double move on a safety and was so open he could have eaten lunch waiting for the ball.
“When they called the play, I knew I was going to score,” Jefferson said. “They say those are the hard catches, but I was zoned in on the ball.”
Jefferson is an example of what Mullen has brought to Florida, a transfer from Mullen’s former rival who was one of the easy buy-ins because he had seen what Mullen could do firsthand.
“I knew Coach Mullen was going to change the culture of the team,” Jefferson said. “I believed in Coach Mullen when I decided to come to Florida.
“He has exceeded my expectations. He calls the right play at the right moments. He came to me and said we’re going to run ‘Houston.’ It’ll be just you and the safeties. Right play, right time.”
Florida broke three streaks in one day and we’ll see if they start a new one. You know, consecutive seasons in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
But whatever the immediate future holds for this team, we know what this meant for this program. And for guys like Jordan Scarlett, who worked his way back from a season’s suspension to play his best football down the stretch of the season.
“We had to literally come together as a team, man,” Scarlett said. “This almost is the same team as last year, missing a couple dudes, new coaching staff. These guys came in here and instilled a great thing in us, you know, they taught us how to play football well, just be a first-class team and that’s what we did.”
In the corner of America’s smallest locker room entrance, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin was answering questions about how this season has gone.
He, too, has high expectations.
“From where we were a year ago to where we are now is pretty fulfilling,” Stricklin said. “I’m incredibly pleased. It would be hard to anticipate the first year going so well.”
Remember the introductory news conference?
Make Florida Fun Again?
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.