This Florida football team hasn’t yet shown any signs of being, or possibly becoming, special. But the special teams, well, that’s another story.
They are becoming special, and that potential was on full display Saturday in the Gators’ 48-10 win over Colorado State before an announced crowd of 80,021 in a sweltering Swamp.
“Special teams are a critical part of the game,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. I’m on them all the time. We spend a lot of time on it. You see guys embracing how special teams can make a difference and sway a game. The outcome of this game is really a result of special teams.
“The special teams aspect of it, the big plays made, guys buy into that. They’re really starting to see how important it is. Here at Florida, we should always have dynamic special teams. We have through the years and it should continue.”
It continued Saturday.
In a game that Mullen described as “funky”, the Florida special teams were spectacular.
With the Florida offense sputtering and the defense giving up some plays in the passing game, it was the special teams that ignited the victory to improve the Gators to 2-1.
The special teams outscored the Rams (1-3). They scored two touchdowns and made another play that directly led to a field goal for a total of 17 points. That’s seven more than Colorado State’s potent offense put on the board.
The special teams set up an early field goal when linebacker James Houston IV tackled CSU punter Ryan Stonehouse on his own 11, then followed up by scoring two touchdowns over the course of the game — one on a blocked punt by Amari Burney that wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland recovered in the end zone in the second quarter and an 85-yard punt return by wide receiver Freddie Swain early in the fourth quarter.
“Special teams, from our perspective, are more important than any offensive play or defensive play,” Swain said. “Everything starts with special teams. When we win special teams, we’re going to win the game.”
Special teams, which were a non-factor under Jim McElwain, have become a priority under Mullen and his staff.
They’ve been putting in the work, and it showed in a big way Saturday.
“Since coach Mullen has been here, he’s had a big emphasis on special teams,” Houston said. “We practice special teams every day. We have a special teams meeting every day.
“It’s definitely a big emphasis and it definitely paid off today.”
Special teams helped the Gators overcome another sporadic performance by quarterback Feleipe Franks and the offense. Franks got off to a miserable start, going 0-for-6 in the first quarter with an interception. He recovered to complete eight of his last nine passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns the rest of the way.
“Special teams had a wonderful day,” Franks said. “Those guys work tirelessly every day to make their craft effective. Today they did a really good job of that. They had a good game today.”
The other two phases had some positive moments as well, but the overall performances on offense and defense often resembled what the Gators produced in a loss to Kentucky the week before.
Clearly, there is much room for improvement as the the Gators jump back into SEC play at Tennessee on Saturday.
“Great win for our guys today,” Mullen said. “It’s hard to win football games. We’ve got a lot of things to work on. We’re going to enjoy the win today and get into work tomorrow as a staff and evaluate what we can do better and see the things we can improve on.
“The improvement needs to continue from week to week. We’re trying to get this program back to where we want it to be.”
Mullen called Saturday’s game funky. And it was. The Gators ran only 44 plays on offense to Colorado State’s 83, but UF still managed to outgain the Rams and find a way to win — mostly through special teams.
“Any time you win how we won, you’ve got to be pleased,” Mullen said. “We had 44 plays for 341 yards. They had 83 for 310. You might not think it was a 48-10 game. That’s a real positive for our guys that they were able to go and win.”
Who: Florida (2-1) vs. Tennessee (2-1)
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.
Radio: AM-850, 103.7-FM