History and logic suggested that when Austin Hardin lined up for a 43 yard field goal with a little over two minutes remaining, he’d miss. That’s just the way the last four years have gone for Florida.
But he didn’t miss. And right there, you have the difference between Jim McElwain and Will Muschamp. No team goes an entire season without struggling against an inferior opponent. The way you separate the good teams from the bad teams is simple: did they win?
McElwain and his white helmet clad team can say yes. Sure, it was ugly. Florida could only muster a mere 258 yards of total offense, turned it over four times and could only generate nine points despite starting seven different drives inside Vanderbilt territory. They survived anyway thanks to Hardin’s field goal and an elongated stop by the Gators’ defense that featured two first downs on penalties, one of which- a targeting call on Jordan Sherit- was so wrongfully administered it should probably cost the ref who called it his job. But no matter. The Gators merely stopped Vanderbilt a third time, setting off a wild celebration Florida fans have been waiting six years for.
All those three and four year plans to rebuild the Florida program suggested in articles and message boards, while being forced to watch Georgia, Missouri or Tennessee celebrate winning the SEC East, can be ceremoniously lit on fire and then have its ashes stomped on. Instead, mark down a spot in Atlanta for the Gators, who make a mysterious return to the SEC Championship Game in the new Head Gator’s first year after going all four years with their last coach without making it there once.
The opponent? Alabama has the inside track after beating LSU last night following a crazy Arkansas win over Mississippi.
But Florida has a lot of work to do offensively if they want to compete with whoever it may be.
The Gators opened the game with a huge kickoff return by Brandon Powell to the Vanderbilt 22. Jordan Scarlett followed that up with a big run to the shadow of the goal line on the first play from scrimmage. The Gators then ran four straight plays that gained a grand total of zero yards, turning it over on downs- foreshadowing at its finest.
Backed up near its own end zone, Vanderbilt got one first down but then had to punt, giving the Gators the ball at the Vandy 41. For the only time all day, Florida took advantage of the great field position, punching it in via a Kelvin Taylor run in which defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. absolutely destroyed a Vanderbilt corner to pave the way for Taylor. Walk on kicker Neil MacInnes then shanked the extra point, proving why McElwain elected to go for it on fourth down on the previous drive. But Florida led 6-0 at that point nonetheless- and then the Gators began to self destruct.
Three of the Gators’ next four drives ended in turnovers: a fumble by Cece Jefferson on a fake field goal (but come on, he’s a lineman… and replay suggested that he was down) a fumble by Treon Harris, and an interception from Harris near the end of the half on a wounded duck on fourth down that, had Vanderbilt been as smart as their reputation suggests they are, would have batted down so as to give themselves considerably better field position.
Or maybe Vanderbilt cornerback Ryan White was a genius for intercepting that ball. Because on the very next play, running back Ralph Webb took off through a gigantic hole and outran the entire Gator defense for a 74 yard touchdown run. Vanderbilt, unlike Florida, made the extra point and took a 7-6 lead. Prior to that run by Webb, with less than a minute to go in the half, Vanderbilt had just 49 yards of total offense. That’s a testament to both how nasty Florida’s defense was and how bad Vanderbilt’s offense was, as Webb was responsible for over half of those yards.
But then Webb made a mistake. He walked right up to the Florida fans sitting in the corner of the end zone he’d just scored in and did the Gator Chomp. They say there’s a curse for doing that. And while I hate curses and superstition, there might be something to this one.
If such a thing is possible, Vandy’s offense was even worse in the second half than it was in the first before that run by Webb. The ‘Dores could only collect 52 yards of offense in the second and third quarters combined, and 21 of those yards came on a fourth and 25 play that Florida was more than happy to give up. In addition to that, Vandy’s offense generated just three first downs in the second half.
Unfortunately, the Gators’ offense was no better. Treon Harris struggled mightily- there’s no denying that- but he wasn’t the only one. His teammates might want to consider helping him out some as they go forward. The offensive line took a step backward after improving each week following the Tennessee game, and struggled to contain Vandy linebackers Stephen Weatherly and Zach Cunningham. The receivers’ route running was, for the most part, not very sharp, and even downright lazy at times.
With 13 minutes to go in the game- still down 7-6- offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier finally tried something different and allowed Harris to start hitting quick passes to receivers. Finally, things seemed to be working. Finally, the Gators had established some rhythm on offense. Finally, it looked like things would be OK. And then with 11 minutes to go, deep in Vanderbilt territory, DeMarcus Robinson did something anybody who’s watched him enough knew he would do if he continued to not protect the football. He fumbled. Vanderbilt recovered. And for the first time, I truly believed Florida was in danger of losing.
Despite the frustration of having sure points snatched away, the Florida defense held strong once again and forced a punt. And maybe because of that whole Gator Chomp curse thing, it was a really bad one, off the side of Tommy Openshaw’s foot and out of bounds after traveling just 12 yards past the line of scrimmage, setting the Gators up with a first down at the Vandy 45. And then Harris, who was having his worst day as a Gator, rebounded to connect with Robinson twice on that drive, each time for eight yards, to help set up a field goal.
It was a field goal that Florida certainly would have missed under Will Muschamp for the simple reason that nothing went right under his leadership. And given the situation, what reason was there to believe that Austin Hardin would make it? Hardin has a big leg, but is very inaccurate. He was benched in favor of a walk-on dental student. He was ice cold as he walked onto the field, having not even been given much of an opportunity to warm up. And, well, what else had gone right on the day aside from the defense’s overall extraordinary performance?
But maybe that’s just not the way the story was supposed to end.
Austin Hardin's game winner, and the reason the #Gators are in the SEC Championship Game. #ItsGreatUF https://t.co/FatrNq57oi
— InAllKindsOfWeather.com (@AllKindsWeather) November 7, 2015
And because Vanderbilt’s offense is 113th out of 128 FBS teams, that was ball game. OK, no it wasn’t because of a defensive holding on fourth down, and then a horrible targeting call on Jordan Sherit as Florida was about to stop the Commodores again, but that merely prolonged the celebration. Florida’s defense pushed the Commodores backwards, and when Johnny McCrary’s fourth and 25 prayer was caught by Sam Dobbs several yards short of the first down, where he was tackled immediately, that was ball game.
Treon Harris is now 2-1 as Florida’s starting quarterback, but there’s a lot of work ahead for him if he wants that second column to stay a 1. He hasn’t actually cost Florida a game yet, as the LSU game wasn’t really his fault, but the Gators simply won’t be able to survive much longer if he continues to struggle to the extent that he did (more on that later this week). There were small signs of improvement, and McElwain has proven to be able to coach limited QB’s to significant improvement (and, you know, national championships).
But the time for saying “he has to, can and has proven to be capable of” is fading fast. We’re quickly approaching the point where those changes have to be made, instead of saying they have to be made. If this team wants a legitimate opportunity to win the SEC… well, we know. We’ve been through that.
The bottom line, though, is that Florida will get to play in that special game that I’m saying Harris has to improve for. And because of how bad this program was under our previous head coach, that in its own is worth celebrating.