Gators learn hard way
Published: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 5:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 7:15 p.m.
Over the long course of a frustrating 2011 season, Florida coach Will Muschamp managed to suppress a negative feeling that was growing in his gut about his football team. He held it in all the way to the end.
But in the final regular-season game, it finally came pouring out, triggered by one awful play that validated what he had been feeling about his team.
The Gators were soft. They lacked mental and physical toughness.
Muschamp let his players — and everyone else — know his feelings in a honest and revealing post-game news conference after last season's 21-7 loss to Florida State.
“When you're fourth-and-one and try to run a quarterback sneak and you lose 14 yards, that will trigger it,” Muschamp said earlier this week. “I think it was a culmination of a lot of things during the year.
“We wore down stopping the run against South Carolina late in the game. We don't get off the field against Georgia. Same thing defensively. And then we struggled to be able to take the pressure off our quarterback in being able to run the ball in some form or fashion.
“It was a culmination of things that got built up. A little frustration, and you say what's on your mind. That's what I do with my team in the locker room when the game is over.”
For Muschamp, the breaking point last season came in the FSU game, with that one almost surreal fourth-down failure.
Trailing 14-0, the Gators had moved inside the FSU 20 midway through the second quarter. Facing a fourth-and-one from the 15, Muschamp decided to go for it. He inserted 230-pound Trey Burton at quarterback and challenged his offensive line to make one yard on a quarterback sneak.
Burton tried the middle, but the FSU front had blown up the UF offensive front and Burton was bounced backward. He tried to reverse field and somehow scramble for that one yard, but he ended up losing 14 instead.
It may be the first time in college football history that a quarterback lost that much yardage on a sneak.
And it pushed Muschamp over the edge.
After the game, he stood up in the locker room and called his players soft. A few minutes later, in his news conference, Muschamp blamed himself.
"Hard to say it," Muschamp said. "I've been called a lot of things in my life, and soft is not one of them, and we are, and that's my fault.
"Self-evaluation is hard, and it starts with me, and it falls on my shoulders, and I'm responsible. But at the end of the day, you are what you are."
From that point on, the Gators have been working and grinding and lifting and running and doing everything they can to shed the soft label their coach put on them. And, everyone seems to agree, they have.
“Night and day,” Muschamp said. “You look at the adversity we've faced through the year in different games and different circumstances, different places, and how we handled it. Top to bottom: Offense, defense, special team, coaching staff. All are included. Night and day.”
The Gators have proven their mental and physical toughness on the field.
The team that could not run the ball when it had to last season wore down one of the nation's elite defenses in the second half in a victory over LSU.
The team that could not get South Carolina's offense off the field last season did it all game long in a 44-11 rout.
The team that lost the fourth quarter badly last season is winning it by 68 points this season.
The team that wilted on the road at LSU, Auburn and South Carolina has won at Texas A&M, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
Some players may have been offended when Muschamp first called them soft a year ago. But they took his comments to heart and did something about it. Senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter said Muschamp did the Gators a favor calling them soft.
“It played a huge role (in what's happened this season),” Hunter said. “Even this offseason, approaching it with those comments he made. Our whole offseason program, coach (Jeff) Dillman coming in and preaching to us about mental toughness and physical toughness.
“It's improving in those areas, making workouts a little tougher, getting toward the end of the of the workouts and making them a little bit harder. Different challenges we've had to face in the workouts have definitely made us tougher.”
Muschamp said he could see a change in attitude and work ethic during the team's Gator Bowl practices in Jacksonville last December. It carried over into the offseason, through the spring and summer and into this season, he said.
“When you're 6-6 at Florida, it's never a good experience,” he said. “But you also find out who is on board and who's not with your football team. I knew then with that football team, and the team we've got now, that we had a bunch of guys who had bought into what we were doing.”
The Gators have passed toughness test after toughness test this season. Now comes one of the biggest — against the team (FSU) that triggered all this a year ago.
“This is what we train for, to be able to last all four quarters and be able to last the whole season,” senior middle linebacker Jon Bostic said. “We knew it was going to be a long season and we saw how our bodies wore down a little bit last year.
“We've been training for this all season. We need to keep doing what we've been doing and go out and be ready to play 60 minutes Saturday.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.
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