Florida coach Dan Mullen has been exhorting Gator Nation to show up and show out, restore The Swamp to its former glory back when the Gators were winning big games and championships in his previous run in Gainesville as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator.
On Saturday, The Swamp was definitely back, like 2008 all over again. Packed with 90,584 fans, the stadium was alive, rocking and roaring and energizing the Gators, while negatively impacting the opposing team.
So, The Swamp is back. And the Gators are coming back. That was Mullen’s take after No. 10 Florida’s wild and wacky — and also defining — 24-13 victory over No. 7 Auburn on Saturday.
“We’re going to get there,” Mullen said of the Gators, who are now riding a 10-game winning streak heading into another top-10 showdown at LSU next Saturday. “There are a lot of things we can clean up and improve on. We’ll build on this.”
So, while the Gators are coming back, The Swamp is already there after Saturday’s performance.
“That was exciting,” Mullen said. “I’ll tell you what was awesome, the fans. The Swamp was what it used to be. This is what The Swamp is. This is what we expect it to be. It’s that home-field advantage, the most exciting environment in college football, the loudest stadium in college football.
“We need the Gator Nation to give that effort like the team gives all the time. It’s hard for any team to come in here (and win) if that’s how the crowd is going to be.
“They did an unbelievable job today. You look at causing some penalties, creating the energy on our sideline, the excitement the whole time.”
It was an emotionally draining kind of game, one where the momentum ebbed and flowed throughout for Florida. But the crowd stayed into it all the way, and the players delivered a big, defining victory that moves the Gators to 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the SEC.
The Gators overcame four turnovers — all fumbles, three by quarterback Kyle Trask — a first-half injury to Trask, a failed fake punt that led to Auburn’s touchdown and a powerful and relentless Tiger defensive front that brought the heat all afternoon.
Trask managed the offense with the passing game, taking what was there and throwing for 234 yards and two touchdowns. And when the Gators really needed something in the running game to pop, it did — an 88-yard touchdown run by Lamical Perine with 9:04 left in the game that gave UF a 24-13 lead and breathing room.
“It almost brought tears to my eyes,” Perine said. “Just a big-time atmosphere, big-time crowd, and I’m glad I was able to make that big play.”
Perine’s wasn’t the only big play on offense. Freddie Swain caught a 64-yard touchdown pass from Trask on UF’s first offensive play of the game that ignited the big crowd and set the tone for the day. And Josh Hammond caught a 13-yard TD pass early in the second quarter that put the Gators up 14-6.
“Offensively, our guys did a decent job managing all day,” Mullen said. “Great (Auburn) defensive line. We knew we needed to throw the ball to win, but we wanted to try to stick with the run game. We ran it 33 times and threw it 39. It didn’t force us at any point out of the run game totally.
“We were able to crack a long run at the end to kind of seal it. Not many people coming into the game would think we’d rush for more yards (132) than Auburn (124). Pretty good by our guys to be able to do that.”
The offense made enough plays to win the game.
And then there was the effort by the UF defense. Every time the offense put those guys in harm’s way they responded with game-changing plays of their own, intercepting true freshman quarterback Bo Nick three times, including safety Donovan Stiner’s pick in the end zone late in the third quarter. Safety Shawn Davis made a one-handed interception and returned it 41 yards to set up a Gator touchdown early in the second quarter.
“Defensively, an amazing job by (defensive coordinator) Todd Grantham and his staff and the defensive guys,” Mullen said. “Hard as they can every play. That’s the defense we expect to play around here. Really proud of those guys. They gave up one score and that was on me. Don’t fake the punt and they probably don’t get the touchdown (in the first half).”
The Gators held the Tigers to just 12 first downs and 269 total yards and allowed Auburn to convert only two of 14 third downs. And they made Nix look like a true freshman maybe for the first time this season.
“I think we had a great performance,” Stiner said. “From our preparation, we knew it was going to be hard. We were all on the same page and it came up big for us.
“We have to make sure we keep getting better every week as the competition rises.”
Saturday’s win was big, a sure indication that the program is on the right path under Mullen. But this team remains a work in progress, Mullen said.
“Our guys, I think we’re building, we’re building,” he said. “I know what the Gator standard is and I know what the expectations are. My expectations are higher than everybody in Gator Nation. We want to play in these games. We want to have top-10 matchups in The Swamp. We want to win these big games.
“You have to get that mindset. You know what winning a big-time game like this means? You have to show up tomorrow and get ready to win an even bigger one. That’s what life is like in the SEC.”
Who: No. 10 Florida (6-0, 3-0 SEC) vs. No. 5 LSU (5-0, 1-0)
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La.
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850