Dooley: Defense paves way to win


Florida defenders make gang tackle during the first half of the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Monday Jan. 2, 2017. Florida leads the Iowa Hawkeyes 10-3 at the half in the Outback Bowl. (Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun)

Published: Monday, January 2, 2017 at 7:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 2, 2017 at 8:22 p.m.

TAMPA — It was Picture Day for the Florida football team Monday afternoon at the Outback Bowl. Position players posed with other position players, friends with friends, coaches with their families, cheerleaders with cheerleaders.

This wasn't the flag-waving, in-your face celebration in Baton Rouge when they won the East. This was more of a job-well-done, satisfied celebration.

Freshman linebacker David Reese grabbed senior linebacker Jarrad Davis and rubbed his head. Neither one played in the game, but Reese knew what it meant for the seniors to go out with a win.

This will be a different offseason for the mighty Gators, not that it means less work, but that it will mean better memories.

Even with three linebackers out and a fourth going down early in the second quarter, Florida's defense refused to go over in the corner and feel sorry for itself.

“They put the preparation in and they weren't going to be denied,” said Florida coach Jim McElwain. “They didn't take no for an answer.”

Even when it looked like we may be watching a repeat of the Alabama game with Austin Appleby throwing first-quarter interceptions, the Gators refused to wilt in the sun. To be fair, both picks came on deflected passes.

“I was as unlucky as I was at the Hard Rock Casino earlier this week,” Appleby said.

But he settled down when the defense didn't let those mistakes became too big a deficit. And eventually, the defense went from shutting Iowa down to ending the Hawkeyes' hopes of getting off their bowl slide (five straight losses now).

It's not that Iowa was tearing it up offensively during the regular season, but the Hawkeyes were expected to be a bad matchup for the Gators because they can pound the ball and Florida was down three linebackers. Two of them were captains for the game dressed in jerseys and sweats.

But the Gators had a plan. Interim defensive coordinator Randy Shannon and his staff put safeties in the box and dropped the corners off their usual press coverage.

“It kept them out of the run game a little bit and allowed us to put more beef up front,” McElwain said. “The guys executed it. Our defense played their tails off.”

LeShun Daniels, who came into the game with over 1,000 yards rushing for the season, had only 45 on 15 carries. Akrum Wadley had three nice runs that totalled 58 yards, but managed only 57 yards on his other 19 carries.

“It was frustrating,” said Iowa offensive lineman Sean Welsh. “It was different from what we were expecting but that's no excuse. You need to give them a lot of credit.”

If there was one perfect example of how McElwain has gotten these defenders to understand how to forget what just happened and concentrate on what is about to happen, it came late in the second quarter when Iowa was driving to take the lead.

On third down, Hawkeyes quarterback C.J. Beathard scrambled to his left where he was hit hard by Florida safety Marcell Harris. Harris should have wrapped Beathard up at the 3-yard line but went for the big hit. Instead, Beathard bounced away and nearly made it into the end zone.

But next on a huge fourth-down play, Harris crashed in from the corner to tackle Daniels for a 2-yard loss.

“You gotta let that go,” Harris said of the missed tackle. “You can't dwell on it. There's another play.”

And then in the second half, it became the Chauncey Gardner show as the freshman took a deflected pass 58 yards for the score.

“I was really looking for my D-linemen,” Gardner said, “because I needed some blockers. Without our D-linemen blocking, that wouldn't have been a pick-six. They got the pressure. They caused the play, so the pick-six is on them. That's their pick-six, it's not mine.”

Minutes later, more pressure and another pick for Gardner.

“Anybody can play in our defense if you just listen to the older guys,” Gardner said. “They pass the torch.”

Even if they weren't playing. As a result, a defense that looked like it would be in trouble next year with all of the talent leaving sure looks a lot different.

“Good players follow good players,” McElwain said.

And on a steamy Monday afternoon, that was never more evident.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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