Dooley: A step in right direction

Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp celebrates with Ronald Powell (7) after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes 24-17 in the Gator Bowl at EverBank Field on Monday, Jan. 1, 2012 in Jacksonville, Fla. (Matt Stamey/Staff photographer)

The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, January 2, 2012 at 6:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 2, 2012 at 6:20 p.m.

JACKSONVILLE -- Brian White had made his way down from the coaches booth when it was over and was looking for someone to hug. Finally, he raised his arms in the air and just yelled, “Wooo-hooo!”

There hadn't been a lot of scenes like this for Florida's football program this year. Coaches hugged wives, players hugged each other and Will Muschamp drew a loud cheer when he was introduced to accept the Gator Bowl trophy.

Did all the pain go away?

Of course not.

“It almost makes this season worth it,” said quarterback John Brantley.

Brantley was wearing a Gator Bowl Champions hat instead of his customary Cincinnati Reds lid. He had not had a particularly memorable game but it was one he will never forget.

“We've had a lot of ups and downs,” he understated.

But on this late afternoon as the sun set and the bus ride home to Gainesville awaited, it was as if they won something really important.

They had just beaten an Ohio State team that is now branded with the double-whammy -- losing season and probation. They had scored 10 offensive points and were outgained. Brantley had three turnovers in the game.

But if there was ever a poster team to demonstrate how it's not how you win, but whether you do, it would have been this team on Monday afternoon.

White, pressed into service as the offensive coordinator, didn't show a lot more than his predecessor. But the toughness Muschamp had complained about surfaced in this game on so many levels.

How many times did one of Florida's little backs get a yard more than he should have? When Florida needed to run some clock, the Gators picked up three first downs before punting the ball away. They were tackling demons on special teams. They forced six sacks and most of them were coverage sacks.

Does this mean all of the problems of 2011 were fixed in the first game of 2012? Not even close.

But it was a baby step in the right direction.

And that's why White was being mobbed by offensive linemen on the field, the coach grabbing each and yelling into his ear, “That's a start! That's a start!”

Because no matter how bad this season has been, the coaches never lost focus, looking forward instead of backward. They know what has happened to Florida football is not right and accept some of the blame.

But there has been a sense, especially during bowl week here, that this team has finally come together and will take new chemistry into next year. Maybe the best indication came in the locker room when the players presented Muschamp with a game ball.

“We got a lot of good kids in that locker room, we've had a lot guys with a lot of frustration but if you want to really see the big picture of this thing,” Muschamp said, “we're 15-11 over the last two years. That's what we are. We're one game difference from last year.

“Sometime time you have to put your realistic glasses on and where you are and where you want to be as a program. We're not going to be here long.”

In a way, this win was a stepping stone to the next season but it was much more than that. These guys didn't want to be known as the players who had a losing record. As frustrating as 2011 was, one more loss would have branded them for life.

“We won our first four games and we thought we were going to go undefeated,” Chris Rainey said. “Things happen in college football. I just hate losing.”

It was Rainey who did everything he could -- as he has done throughout his career -- to keep that from happening. Andre Debose was named the game's MVP, but I thought Rainey deserved it. He ran for 71 tough yards, caught three passes for 31 yards and blocked the punt that changed the game.

Rainey was the epitome of the ups and downs these seniors experienced at Florida. From national champs to under the radar. The fall was not pleasant.

But they will go out with a smile on their faces and hope that these lessons of a difficult season will not be lost on their young teammates.

“I don't want anybody to forget this season,” Muschamp said. “The frustrations, the tough times. I hope they understand what it's going to take to be successful again.”

In the end, the game with so many names went old school.

It was called the “Urban Bowl” and the “Traitor Bowl” and the “Frustration Bowl.”

But on a cool Monday night, it was the Gators' Bowl.

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