Gators defeat Buckeyes in Gator Bowl
Published: Monday, January 2, 2012 at 6:43 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 2, 2012 at 6:43 p.m.
JACKSONVILLE -- With all the problems, all the losses, all the discouraging moments in 2011, anyone looking back on this Florida football season will be hard-pressed to find anything special about it.
1. The Gators took command with two touchdowns on special teams -- a 99-yard kickoff return by Andre Debose and a blocked punt by Chris Rainey that was returned for a TD by Graham Stewart.
2. The UF defense not only contained OSU quarterback Braxton Miller, it was all over him, sacking the dual-threat quarterback six times.
3. With the victory, the Gators finish 7-6 and avoid their first losing season since 1979, when UF was 0-10-1 in coach Charley Pell's first season.
What: 2012 Orange & Blue Debut
When: April 7
Where: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Info: Game time, TV and ticket information for the spring game will be released at a later date.
But the Gators did manage to put a little bit of a special ending on it Monday in the 67th Gator Bowl.
Led by two special teams touchdowns -- a 99-yard kickoff return and a 14-yard return off a blocked punt for a score -- the Gators concluded their tough season on a positive note, slipping past Ohio State 24-17 to avoid UF's first losing season since 1979.
“We've got a lot of good kids in that locker room. We've got guys that have had a frustrating year,” UF coach Will Muschamp said. “The realization of this whole thing if you want to see big pictures in the last two years of the University of Florida, we're 15-11, that's unacceptable. That's what we are.
“We had a staff and a guy (Urban Meyer) that won two national championships, a heck of a
football coach. We're one game's difference from last year. We're 7-6, we were 8-5 last year.
“So sometimes I think you've got to put your realistic glasses on where you are as a program right at this point. It's not where we're going to be very long. I can assure you of that. Moving in the right direction.”
A loss on Monday likely would have produced the opposite effect. A defeat at the hands of Meyer's future team, and Muschamp's program might have been perceived as one heading in the wrong direction.
Or at least stuck in mediocrity.
Meyer's new team may be the one with a perception problem now. The Buckeyes finished with a losing record for the first time since 1988 -- and a seven-loss season for the first time since 1897.
Seven-and-six looks (and feels) a whole lot better than 6-7. Just ask the Gators.
“We don't want to be remembered as a team that lost,” senior defensive tackle Jaye Howard said. “It was a big game for us. Not only for the seniors, but for the team as a whole. It's a building block for next year.”
The biggest block Monday was the one produced by senior tailback Chris Rainey early in the third quarter. Rainey knifed through the OSU protection and blocked Ben Buchanan's punt. The bouncing ball was scooped up by true freshman linebacker Graham Stewart and returned 14 yards for a touchdown to give the Gators a 21-10 lead.
“I'm always on my own. I can do what I want to,” Rainey said. “I slid down and beat the man I was supposed to beat and I was wide open.”
It was the sixth blocked punt of Rainey's career, a school and SEC record.
Rainey's block was a huge momentum swing in Monday's game -- probably just as big as Andre Debose's 99-yard kickoff return for a score early in the second quarter. It came only seconds after Ohio State had tied the game 7-7 on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Braxton Miller to DeVier Posey.
“Coach (D.J.) Durkin just called the play and I just followed (Jeff) Demps, and he just kind of led me to the promised land for the touchdown.”
It was the third kickoff return for a touchdown in the sophomore's career, and it helped the Gators get to halftime with a 14-10 lead.
Then Rainey did his thing with the game-changing blocked punt early in the third quarter.
“Special teams is huge,” Muschamp said. “Andre's kickoff return (guy) blocked extremely well. D.J. Durkin does the best job in the country on special teams. Week-in, week-out momentum changers and putting our guys in situations to be successful.
“The blocked punt was a great design to get some guys free and changing things in the game.”
Florida's defense also came up big Monday, sacking Miller six times and producing 12 tackles for loss. The defense controlled the tempo for most of the game. The only thing Muschamp seemed disappointed in was the late touchdown drive that brought OSU to within seven with 57 seconds to play.
“We just prepared hard and wanted to get after it,” defensive end/linebacker Ronald Powell said. “We gave them a lot of movement up front and it opened it up for us to get home (to the quarterback).
“Our statement is we're an up-and-coming team. We're going to be in the running for (a championship next season).”
Despite all that went wrong in 2011, the Gators do not have to carry a losing record into 2012.
“It means a lot for us as a program,” Powell said. “It means a lot to our fans and definitely for our pride.”
The Gators now get to carry something into the offseason that they didn't have much of this season.
“I've said it before, and I mean this sincerely, we're not building a team, we're building
a program,” Muschamp said. “That takes a foundation to start. It really does. You stay the course of what you're trying to do, and what you believe in and the hard core values of what you want.
“I'm so excited for our football team. We need to get better, and that starts with me.
Our entire organization, 7-6 is not acceptable at the University of Florida, and we're looking forward to getting started on January ninth.”
Meanwhile, Meyer will meet with his 6-7 Ohio State team this morning at 7.
“This feels bad,” interim OSU coach Luke Fickell said after the game. “For our guys, this is a feeling that won't go away.”