Transforming wins: Victories at Tennessee, rally past South Carolina define Gators

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Florida defensive back Brad Stewart Jr. intercepts a pass away from Tennessee wide receiver Brandon Johnson in the third quarter Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn. [Joy Kimbrough/The Daily Times via AP]

In every season, there are turning points, transformative moments that can lead to good things, to bad things, and sometimes, just to mediocre things.

In the case of the 2018 Florida football team, there are two significant turning points that have led the Gators to where they are now — 9-3, No. 10 in the nation and heading for a date with No. 7 Michigan in a New Year’s Six bowl game, the Dec. 29 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta.

First turning point: the SEC road win at Tennessee on Sept. 22.

The second: the second half of the South Carolina game on Nov. 10.

Many might assume that the first transformative moment came in the direct aftermath of the stunning loss to Kentucky in The Swamp that prompted Dan Mullen to demand more toughness and physical play from his players.

The Gators responded in practice, then went out and beat Colorado State 48-10.

That was a move back in the right direction. But the players will tell you the real turnaround to the season started with the 47-21 rout of Tennessee in Knoxville the following Saturday.

“Tennessee,” junior wide receiver Freddie Swain said. “I feel like that was the best game we played. We hit on all cylinders — special teams, offense, defense. That was a great game.”

Two weeks after getting physically pushed around by the Wildcats, the Gators did the same to the Vols, dominating both lines of scrimmage. The defense produced six turnovers (four fumbles and two interceptions) and the offense showed balance and explosiveness.

Complete game. Season-changing moment.

“If you go back to the Tennessee game, we had a really big game to go on the road and to come out with that win (was huge),” junior wide receiver Josh Hammond said. “Then to go to Mississippi State and come out with that win, and then to come back against LSU and get a big-time win against a top-five team at the time.

“The momentum flowing throughout the team and definitely guys having confidence and allowing guys to play faster, play stronger, play together.

“It definitely allowed us to swing that momentum into a lot of different wins and give us the confidence we needed to be successful to win those different games.”

A week after the success at Tennessee, the Gators returned to Mullen’s former stomping grounds and upset No. 23 Mississippi State 13-6. A week later, UF returned home and stunned No. 5 LSU 27-19, a victory that moved the Gators into the top 15 in the nation.

One week later, UF moved into the top 10 (No.10) with a come-from-behind 37-27 win at Vanderbilt, a game in which the Gators were down 21-3 early in the second quarter.

The win at UT was the start of an impressive four-game SEC winning streak that made UF relevant again on the national stage.

Two weeks later, though, there was a turning point in the other direction — a 36-17 loss to Georgia. The downward trend continued the next game, with the Gators losing to Missouri 38-17 on homecoming.

Then came the second big turning point in UF’s season — the second half against South Carolina.

Trailing 31-14 late in the third quarter, the Gators were staring at a possible third consecutive loss and a probable mediocre season. But they came alive and rallied for a 35-31 win, then went on to finish the regular season with wins against Idaho and Florida State.

“We could have easily been 4-7 or 5-6 this year,” junior middle linebacker David Reese said. “That South Carolina win really changed the momentum of the season.

“We almost let that game slip away, but we realized we could be facing the same thing that we just faced the year before. From that point on, we decided we were going to finish out strong and do our best to send the seniors out right.”

For the Gators, two huge turning points that have led to the Peach Bowl. One after a loss. One in the second-half of a near loss.

Those transformative moments show the kind of resiliency the Gators have developed under the new coaching staff.

“Coach Mullen always talks about pulling the rope,” Hammond said. “That’s been our motto since Day One. That’s been something we’ve always worked on. That mentality that we have from never letting go of that rope definitely helped us pick ourselves up in hard times when we lost games.

“It kind of hurt us bad, and we knew it hurt us bad, but just never letting go of that rope. Just always keep pulling and pulling and pulling and find a way to bounce back has definitely been big for us. It showed up for us a lot this year.”

 

42 COMMENTS

  1. The South Carolina game had its own turning point. Call it luck or destiny. Down 35-17 with 5 minutes and change left in the 3rd period and staring at 3rd and 8, the snap goes over Franks’ head. He scrambles back, picks it up and fires downfield to a receiver who is 2 yds. short of the 1st down. The ball goes off his pads and into the arms of another Gator receiver who is 1 yd. past the 1st down marker. First and 10 Gators. Then a TD and its 35-24 late in the 3rd. The rest, as they say, is history. Was it luck? A fluck? Destiny? No. What it was was football. That oblong ball takes funny bounces, especially for the good teams.

  2. Ky humbled them and coaching got their heads out of their a–e’s. Beating UT was a confidence builder but they are a mess. The come back was a huge move forward. What to me was pivotal was the lots to missou after UGA. That was an inside team after a loss. Once they put the kids behind them they played the rest of the season like a winning team. They had to find their mettle. If they had it in them. These coaches got tons of results from what they had. What they have ain’t that bad.

    • That’s what I think too, 65, so that makes two of us. I think those back to back losses did more to define this team’s character than any other games this year — they had a decision to make after their balloon burst, and they chose gumption over paralysis.

    • Spell check really got me. Loss not lots. Immature not inside, loss not kids. Phone has mind of its own. One of the things young people have to learn is at every crossroads there is a choice. Forward or quit, right or wrong, left or right. They have great coaching now to give them the tools to execute. Making those decisions is an individual effort.

  3. Yep, UK was the “hit in the mouth” and CSU followed by UT was the response showing they “have it in them” to play SEC caliber football. BUT the MO game was a regression game. Still don’t know why MO and 3/4 of USC regression happen? BUT Dan and Staff appear to have them on the long road to recovery. MI will tell the tell!

    • Mizzou was definitely a regression game. After the UGA loss, Gator Nation “regressed” a full year to the losers mindset that took over the day McElwayne was fired.

      I was at the Mizzou game. The student section was half empty at kick-off and the rest of the crowd was subdued. The players were listless and just went through the motions. It was like a wake. Mizzou kicked out rear ends from start to finish.

      It took Mullen and Co. a week of practice and over half the USCe game to get the Gators out of their funk, but they DID IT! That lucky bounce of a pass for a 1st down on 3rd and 8 in the 3rd Quarter was the spark that lit a fire I hope never goes out again.

      Go Gators!!!

  4. Sorry about being absent, car crashes do that. The two pivotal games this year were Missouri and South Carolina. The drubbing at home by Missouri caused the outcry of the fans, and it got to one player in particular, Franks. That being said, Franks really didn’t turn his whole game around until FSU. The Missouri loss was a total team blunder. They got blasted by Georgia, and since there were no championships, they didn’t come out ready to play. They didn’t come out ready against South Carolina, either….but they came out mad! They came out mad at the fans, and the fire that needed to be lit, was starting to burn. Once the fire got going, and they learned the strength was in physicality, not throwing the ball down field, they rampaged through South Carolina in the second half, and won the game, They won that game, on anger.
    That anger bled over to the FSU game, and I don’t care what condition FSU’s program is in, the bigger the win the better! Florida physically dominated FSU, and Franks had a very good day throwing the ball downfield. Without jinxing him, he may have found his rhythm with passes more than 5 yards downfield. And if he has, next year’s spring is going to be impressive at qb.
    Now the truly defining moment for 2018. Beat Michigan. Dan Mullen has won the bear minimum of games allowed for a football coach at UF, 9. That’s the bar set by the Ole Ball Coach, and that’s the level we demand. The opportunity is there for a 10 win season, a first win over Michigan, and a full throttle momentum going into next year. And it’s doable. Ground and pound, slam and jam, and hope that Franks can continue to throw the ball the way he did against FSU. Will Florida take the next step, under Dan Mullen? See you December 28th in Atlanta! Merry Christmas, everybody!

  5. Don’t forget that South Carolina comeback occurred against a coach touted by none other than the Gainesville Sun as the greatest coaching mind of his generation- The Marvelous Mush and his invincible Wall of Mush defense. Who would have thought it possible to even score against this coaching mastermind, let alone mount such an amazing comeback?

    But happen it did with Mullen on our sideline, staying cool, calling play after play, drive after drive after drive ending in touchdowns. Muschamp, on the other sidelines, glassy eyes filled shock and confusion, completely befuddled by what we were doing, screaming “Play like you are made of mush today!!!!! Unleash your inner MUSH!!!!!!” Yet, just as against Texas A&M, just like against Clemson, just like in so many games in a career defined by mediocrity, Mush was totally outclasses and out-coached, a sad and impotent fool who could only watch with a stupified look on his pudgy face as once more he got taken to school by a far superior coach.

    Of course, after the loss, he received a text filled with rainbows and smiley faces from the Boston Bean Brain congratulating him on another masterful coaching job, which Mush read while stuffing his face with Moonpies and crying in the dark, his collector’s edition of Rudy playing on the flat screen. “Just give me more time,” he mumbles. Moonpie crumbs falling from his chocolate crusted lips and landing in his lap, “I just need something like 15-20 years, and I will finish second in the SEC East You’ll see!!!!!!!”

  6. exciting season. mostly good. how can beating lsu not be the defining moment, even though lsu lost to texas a & m which sort of took the magic out of their season. i still like beating the vols. but that stretch from towards the end of the georgia game until towards the end of the south carolina game was every bit as awful as the muschamp years and the end of last year, and a real reminder that we cant allow ourselves to fall apart, there is no safety net (translation – we need more depth) for a while.
    Kentucky game was one of those things, a couple of times muschamp beat them when he shouldnt have, this time they got the breaks like that bad call on the field goal etc. ok we didnt tackle very well, but still i consider us the better team and the better program, no matter what the results of that day were.
    the only question i have about the SEC is whether Texas A&M is moving up the food chain, or are we, or are both of us. i am a little nervous about recruiting, but not in a panic, we will get good players, the question is whether our scouting department is better, or is the newspaper better at predicting who will be the best players going forward. i still believe that our staff will get the right clay they need to mold, but i was wrong on coach robinson, gladly so. and other things too.
    but i am also for giving the program time. we still have not fully recovered from the linemen lost in the credit card scandal and a couple of other guys we lost who could really help us next year, the qb thing is not completely proven 100% solid, and looks like the nfl is planning a talent raid on our junior class. georgia and bama still have good qbs, in fact, most of the sec except missouri has good qb play coming back. im for not screaming if we still struggle next year.

    • justin fields is leaving georgia which makes them a little weaker once squeaky fromm’s relative moves on (unless you are old you wont know about squeaky fromm of the manson family, sorry). if he were thinking clear he would transfer to uf imo, because he fits our style, but im sure there are 20 places trying to sign him.
      anyway, i forgot to mention that cdm still doesnt even have a roster of his kind of players yet, so he needs time. its predicted he will recruit bigger names in the next decade. i am for patience, but when i lose patience, then, well.
      about cdm’s tenure, a true alligator has a lot of problems in the wild until he gets 4 foot in length, then then he is a lot of problems for everyone else. hear that alabama, clemson, ohio state, oklahoma? CDM has us about to 3 foot alligator. when we are 4 foot we are going to be a big problem for you and your kind. we suffered through champ, we can wait another year or two.

    • Mveal…I agree that LSU was a big win. But the UT game, on the heels of getting their behinies handed to them by the Mildcats, was a great confidence booster. I was at the game in Neyland and I can attest to how the thorough beatdown just deflated the crowd and gave the Boys from Ole Florida an adrenaline boost. As much as it propelled the Gators into a great season, it took whatever wind the Vols might’ve had and just deflated their season. Neither team was the same after the game…in different directions.

      • But as much as I hate to say it, wait until the Vols begin their own rebound. We’ll always be a couple of years ahead of them, mind you, but brother that’s when the East will be back to form c Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee all elite…..and Kentucky/USC at least competitive. That’s going to be some great football!

        • I don’t know about Tennessee. Pruitt has a long row to hoe in bringing the Vols back to elite status.

          Remember, recruiting is destiny and Pruitt has a weak in-state talent base. Furthermore, he’s surrounded by UGA, Bama, Clemson and Ohio State. Which of those is he gonna steal elite talent from?

          On the other hand, I sort of enjoy seeing Krispy Kream Phil always looking like he has a bellyful of jalopeños every time ho goes on TV. Does that make me a bit of a sadist?

          Go Gators!!!l

          • You hit is StL, recruiting is definitely a tough nut to crack up here in East TN. UT’s campus is in a beautiful place and they have great facilities but the overall HS talent in the state doesn’t compare with prep football in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and Ohio. Tough recruiting is why UT, in the past 10 years or so, did a home and home with UCLA, Cal, and Oregon and its one reason why Lane Kiffin came in for a year and just turned this place upside down….trying to get some attention on Rocky Top.

            Agree with you 6 that a strong East is more fun…. as long as our Gators are the Alpha Male most years 🙂

            I met Phat Phil a couple of times……still not sure why these prison orange folks love him so much.

          • Pflatulant Phil? Naw….doesn’t make you sadistic in the least, but he wouldn’t be Phil Fulmer without the pudge factor. Personally, I like the guy and hope he can straighten things out up there — not enough to ever beat us, but you know what I mean — however, my wife does an absolutely hillarious impression of him being interviewed that would have you rolling on the floor. I have it on authority that he chases his jalapenos with Lone Star beer, so that makes him OK in my book at least!