While their athletic director has been searching for a new coach, the Florida Gators have been desperately trying to find one simple pleasure that has been missing from their lives during a five-game losing streak.
Fun. Just a little fun playing the game again.
They found it Saturday in The Swamp.
There’s nothing more fun than winning. Winning big makes it even more enjoyable.
And that’s just what the Gators experienced with their dominant 36-7 victory over UAB before an energized crowd of 84,649.
For about three hours, the Gators put all their troubles behind them — the player suspensions, the loss of Jim McElwain, the rash of injuries, the demoralizing losses — and enjoyed being together and winning together again for the first time in 49 days.
“It was a good win for our team,” said place-kicker Eddy Pineiro, who was five-for-five on field goal attempts and had a school-record two from 50 yards. “Our locker room is happy. We’ve been down a lot and just this whole trouble with Coach Mac getting fired and all this stuff going on in our lives.
“This win was needed.”
It’s doesn’t change the outcome of this difficult season. The Gators (4-6 overall and 3-5 in the SEC) are still going to finish with a losing record — and without their head coach. But it’s a win that eases a lot of the pain and puts this team in a more positive frame of mind heading into the finale against arch-rival Florida State on Saturday.
It was a feel-good day/night for the Gators, and it was badly needed.
“I’m really proud of this football team, the players and the coaching staff,” interim head coach Randy Shannon said. “They did a tremendous job, just never quit. They went through the whole ordeal and they came out tonight (and played well).
“We started off three points, then three points and we nickeled and dimed and finally in the second half we start scoring touchdowns.”
For a team that has struggled in all phases since a win over Vanderbilt back in late September, things seemed to come much easier and more naturally for the Gators on Saturday.
Led by quarterback Feleipe Franks and a trio of hard-working (and productive) running backs, the offense ran smoothly and efficiently for most of the game, rolling up 25 first downs and 409 total yards, 257 coming on the ground.
The defense created four turnovers and was dominant, giving up only one big play, a 74-yard TD pass on the first play of the fourth quarter. Other than that, the Blazers did almost nothing, making just eight first downs and rushing for only three yards.
The special teams also had a good night with Pineiro’s perfect performance. Pineiro has now made 14 field-goal attempts in a row since his miss in the opener against Michigan.
For at least one game, the Gators put the fun back in their football.
“They had a lot of fun,” Shannon said. “All they want is an opportunity to express themselves. They also understand that expressing themselves is doing it the right way. Those guys are doing a tremendous job at being who they are, and that’s what they were tonight.”
For the first time since September, there was noticeable improvement in a lot of areas, especially on offense, where Franks appeared much more comfortable in command and the Gators moved up and down the field with a balanced attack.
Franks completed 15 of 30 passes (and had several dropped) for 152 yards and two touchdowns and the Gators were strong on the ground, with running backs Lamical Perine, Mark Thompson and Adarius Lemons combining to rush for 243 yards and a touchdown.
“He did a nice job tonight,” Shannon said of Franks. “Our receivers dropped a lot of balls, and those can be demoralizing to a quarterback. But he stayed poised and made some throws and they made some nice catches.
“We really worked hard in the red zone offensively scoring touchdowns. We did a great job of that. Our run game really kicked in tonight. The running backs and offensive line did a tremendous job getting big plays for us and putting us in situations to score touchdowns.”
Franks seemed comfortable and poised in the pocket, often checking down to his second or third receiver to try and find the open man. For much of the season, he has locked onto his primary receiver.
“From game to game, I’ve been getting more confident,” Franks said. “The guys helped me get more comfortable. Our line did a great job tonight, just gave me time to throw it. It all went pretty smooth.”
And it led to a fun night in The Swamp for a team that really needed one.
“It’s always fun when you get a win,” Franks said. “That’s the main goal. Like Coach Shannon has said, you don’t have to like one another, but the common goal is to always win.
“When you get that done and all your hard work pays off with a win on Saturday, you’re going to be happy. We’re going to enjoy the night and just come back Monday ready to work on Florida State.
“You have to have your fun and then get ready for the next week. We’ll enjoy this. It was a fun game.”
It was a tough game for a bowl-eligible UAB (7-4 overall) team that came into The Swamp looking for a win against the struggling and banged up Gators.
“I told our guys before we left the hotel that I thought they couldn’t be any more ready to play,” UAB coach Bill Clark said. “We came down here giving it our best shot. This hurts to lose here, but we’ll put it behind us and move on to next week.”
Who: Florida State (4-6) vs. Florida (4-6)
When: 12 p.m. Saturday
Where: Florida Field
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850