It was eight years ago when an ecstatic Scott Stricklin presented a game ball to Dan Mullen in the visitors’ locker room at The Swamp.
“There’s a picture of it somewhere,” said the Florida athletic director, “but I can’t find it.”
On that night, Mullen beat the Gators.
On Saturday night, he truly joined them.
The doubters could embrace more than just promises. They could enjoy a night under the stars without worrying too much about what lies ahead.
Everyone could have flashes of the good old days of offense complete with the shovel pass to the tight end and the perfectly awkward jump pass for a score.
It was just one game against one bad team. But, hey, can you let everyone enjoy this?
“I had fun,” Mullen said. “I hope everybody else had fun.”
On Saturday night, Mullen got another Swamp game ball from Stricklin, this one signifying his first win as the Florida head coach.
It didn’t matter that this Charleston Southern team would be in the argument of worst teams ever to play in The Swamp or Florida Field or even old Fleming Field where the Gators used to play.
All that mattered was that there were enough encouraging signs to make you think things are pointed in the right direction.
You know, the one where there is an end zone.
Ignore that man behind the curtain telling you that Jim McElwain’s first Gator team scored 61 points in its opener.
Pay no attention to the message-boarders questioning Florida’s running game in the first half or the lack of offense in the second half.
Get over the fact that the back-ups allowed a fourth-quarter touchdown.
Pooh-pooh the issues with Kyle Trask and Emory Jones trying to get a simple shotgun snap in the second half.
Just go with it.
Go with the fact that your quarterback looked totally different than he did a year ago. Feleipe Franks threw five touchdown passes in the first half before sitting out the second half. Five. He threw nine TDs all of last season. The up tempo-offense led to an up-tempo postgame interview.
“I think coach does a great job of making practice faster than the game so when I get in the game it slows down,” Franks said. “It has really helped me a lot. We’re just scratching the surface.”
Go with the fact that your defense dominated, allowing only one first down in the first half and recovering two more fumbles than it did in the first two months of last season.
Go with the fact that only three penalties that were called on your team all night, none of them serious.
Go with the way your special teams played and try not to spit-take your coffee because I am praising Florida’s special teams. The Gators actually scored two points on a blocked extra point and sprint and I’ll bet you right now those aren’t the last points Florida scores on special teams this year.
Clearly, a lot of you have felt the way I have about Florida’s special teams play because the loudest roar of the night came when UF blocked a field goal at the end of the half.
“If I’m proud of one play of the game it’s the blocked field goal,” Mullen said.
Look, nobody is trying to make this more than it was. But for this team, this group of wounded guys with hunger pains, Charleston Southern was exactly what they needed.
It was what Franks needed, a simple defense that wasn’t difficult to solve.
“Overall, I thought he played well,” Mullen said.
It was what a defense that was leaking confidence late last season needed, an offense bereft of danger.
It was what a new place-kicker needed, a team that barely rushed his field goal attempts.
Saturday night might not help Florida in a week against a Kentucky team that is much better. But it can’t hurt.
“We’ve got a game under our belt,” Mullen said, “now let’s take some huge strides before the next game. Reps are precious and I think a lot of guys realized that tonight.”
This was step one on a slippery stairway. The key was that this team didn’t stumble. The rest of the steps are a lot tougher to negotiate.
But for a night, just go with it.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.