This year, instead of the usual things we are all thankful for on this national day of thanks, we’ve decided to give you ten things the Gator Nation has to be thankful for.
A ten win season that hopefully will become eleven after this Saturday. After last season’s 7-6 debacle who realistically thought we’d be sitting here heading into the Florida State game with ten wins ranked fourth in the BCS with an outside chance at the championship game? If you did you stand to make a pile of money because Vegas would have given you premium odds on that one.
Most people had this team pegged for 8-4 maybe 9-3 for the season considering the schedule they’ve played which the NCAA recently declared to be the toughest in the nation. Think about it, this is the only team that has played four of the BCS top ten with number five coming on Saturday. That equals 5 of the top ten, but if you figure the Gators are one of them and they can’t play themselves, realistically this team will finish having played over half of the top ten. NOBODY, and I mean nobody in the country can come close to matching that schedule. Don’t tell me about Oregon, don’t tell me about Kansas State, certainly not Notre Dame. None of those teams have come close to the schedule that Florida played.
All you need to know is this team opened with two of the toughest road tests in the country in Texas A&M, where no SEC football player had played before, and Tennessee. I realize that Tennessee was down this year but remember they were ranked in the top twenty, undefeated, and Tyler Bray was thick in the middle of the Heisman race when they played them. Last season this team couldn’t beat good teams at home, there is nothing that gave Gator fans confidence that this team would play well on the road Not only did they not fold, they resisted first half adversity that forced them to play from behind and won the games in the fourth quarter
So as we approach game number twelve, it’s important that Gator fans reflect on the season that has been and be thankful for the ten wins these guys fought so valiantly for. Nothing’s guaranteed, especially not wins, and many of these games could have went south if not for the character and toughness these players have shown
At number nine, are the nine guys that man the rotations on the two lines of scrimmage. Will Muschamp since day one when he took over at Florida has emphasized the fact the SEC is a line of scrimmage league. You can’t win in this league if you can’t control the line of scrimmage. Last season’s debacle can be specifically traced to deficiencies on the lines of scrimmage. Lack of depth, strength, conditioning, and mental toughness on both lines left this team beaten down, broken, and unable to beat any team with a winning record. The transformation of this team in the offseason from losers who couldn’t play four quarters, win on the road, or overcome adversity began and ended with the transformation of the offensive and defensive lines.
It started in a second half comeback at Texas A&M where the defense shut down “Johnny” Football and the offensive line shut down their big sackmasters who had killed Driskel in the first half. It continued on at Tennessee where this team overcame first half adversity from Tyler Bray’s arm and Tennessee’s tall, playmaking wide receiver corps as well as some tough close referee calls. The defensive line started getting pressure on Bray, causing him to make mistakes that led to interceptions, and they forced multiple three and outs that allowed the Gator offensive line the chance to open holes for Gillislee and Trey Burton and gave Jeff Driskel time to make some key strikes in the passing game and the Gators dominated the second half to take the victory.
Jonathan Bullard, Dominique Easley,Shariff Floyd, Dante Fowler, Jr.,Earl Okine, Leon Orr, Omar Hunter, Damien Jacobs,and Kedric Johnson man the defensive line rotation that has this defense ranked number four overall nationally giving up only 281 yards per game and sixth in rushing defense giving up a meager 95 rushing yards per game.
Chaz Green, Jon Halapio, Jonathan Harrison, D.J. Humphries, Kyle Koehne, Xavier Nixon, Trip Thurman, Ian Silberman, James Wilson man the offensive line rotation, the same line that dominated the great LSU defensive line in the second half of that game where Mike Gillisilee rushed for a 146 yards and two touchdowns. After listening to Gator fans gripe for three seasons about the offensive line, remember this, the Gators would not be 10-1 right now if not for some good play by this unit.
Offensive line, defensive line, nine reasons to be thankful this Thanksgiving!
Alright folks, this one is a no brainer, number eight is Number 8 Trey Burton. Here’s a guy that was recruited by Urban Meyer to take over as the spread option quarterback when John Brantley graduated. He was the unquestioned leader of his recruiting class singing the praises of Gator Nation before he ever stepped foot in Gainesville. He was cheerleader, public relations, and chief recruiter all rolled into one.
Since he got to Gainesville and it was apparent he would not be the quarterback that Meyer thought when he recruited him, all he has done is… everything. He is the true Slash. Mr. “And”. Tell him what needs to be done, he goes out and does it. He’s a man with no home, but is welcome in every home.
A message board poster posed the question coming into this season, “who is the face of Florida football?” Of course, the replies were as diverse as a bag of skittles. I would argue that Number 8 Trey Burton is the face of this team. A scrappy team with no dominant superstar, a group of guys that all do their jobs and play as one, he is the glue. From wildcat quarterback where he consistently gets first downs and scored a huge one against Tennessee where he showcased speed few thought he had, to h-back/tight end where he catches balls in the flat and wheel routes, to fullback where he opens holes for Gillislee, Burton is Mr. Everything for the Gators.
And he is the number eight reason Gator Nation has to be thankful this Thanksgiving.
Matt Elam, Josh Evans, Loucheiz Purifoy, Cody Riggs, Marcus Roberson, De’ante ‘Pop’ Saunders, Jaylen Watkins make up the seven members of the defensive backfield’s “starting” rotation. This unit is the number seven reason Gators have to be thankful this season.
This unit leads the nation in defensive pass efficiency playing tight man coverage, they’ve shut down passing game after passing game week after week. Last season this unit was young and green and repeatedly couldn’t make plays when they were in position to do so. In the Georgia game last year this unit gave up two fourth down touchdowns on jump balls that they were unable to recognize and make a play on. Fast forward to this season, this unit is a team strength and their turnaround has this team ranked ninth in the country in turnover margin after finishing near the bottom of that category last year.
They play fast and physical, knocking down passes, making tackles in space, providing great run support, blitzing quarterbacks, and blowing up outside screen plays. From Loucheiz Purifoy setting the tone on the first play from scrimmage against South Carolina stripping the ball from the USC quarterback to Josh Evans making a game sealing interception at the end of regulation against Missouri these guys have been absolutely stifling.
And they are the number seven reason the Gator Nation has to be thankful.
At number six on the list of things Gator Nation has to be thankful is of course, Number 6 himself, Jeff Driskel. In his first career start on the road at Texas A&M he played with poise in the second half to lead this team to a comeback victory. His second start was another huge road game at Tennessee where once again he didn’t blink and played with poise leading the team to another second half comeback. He never wavered when teams started scheming to take Gillislee out of the offense stepping up with the zone read game after game after game. He had a huge rush against Texas A&M to seal the game and single-handedly won the game against Vanderbilt with three long touchdown runs. He’s made big time poised throws as well such as the huge touchdown to Jordan Reed with a pass rusher in his face against Tennessee and the short play action touchdowns in the South Carolina game.
When the staff chose Driskel as the starter after game one against Bowling Green, they mentioned his running abilities as what separated him from Jacoby Brissett. The staff knew that we would struggle somewhat this season in the passing game regardless of which quarterback they chose, as such, they knew they would need Driskel’s running ability to be successful. He hasn’t disappointed at all. With 26 runs of ten yards or more on the season he’s tied with Mike Gillislee in that department and is the yang to Gillislee’s ying in this offense. As we saw at Vanderbilt, when teams focus too hard at stopping Gillislee, Driskel is able to hit the edges of the defense for big gains moving the chains and softening the defense.
For this reason, Jeff Driskel is the number six reason that Gator Nation has to be thankful.
Number five on the list would certainly be senior placekicker Caleb Sturgis who is fifth in the country in field goals per game. However, it’s not the number of field goals so much as his reliability that has him on this list. Sturgis who has kicked 66 field goals in his Gator career is one made field goal away from tying the Gators career record. He is almost certain to leave as the career leader. This season he set a team record with 8 career field goals in excess of 50 yards. Currently he is one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award which goes to the nation’s top placekicker. This is the second consecutive season he has been named a finalist.
He’s been a huge weapon for the Gators since he arrived in 2008. This season he has been the picture of consistency and reliability missing only four field goals and one extra point and four of the five misses were blocked. His booming kickoffs have repeatedly kept opponents from starting drives in good field position. He’s certainly one half of the dominant special teams specialists that Muschamp has relied upon this season keeping the Gators in games and in position to win games late.
As such, Caleb Sturgis is the number five reason that Gator Nation has to be thankful.
At number four is another no-brainer, Number 4 Kyle Christy the Gator’s punter who is incidentally ranked number four in the country in punting with a 46.2 yard per punt average. Sophomore Christy is the other half of that dominant special teams specialists and like Sturgis is an award finalist as well. He was named one of the three finalists for the Ray Guy Award which goes to the nation’s top punter. Florida is the only school with finalists for both awards.
As weapons go, Christy might just be team MVP as his booming punts have consistently and repeatedly flipped field position for the Gators. When they opened up with a quick three and out inside their own ten yard line against Tennessee, Christy booted the ball out of the end zone forcing a fair catch all the way back to the Tennessee 37 yard line. All you need to know is the one game the Gators punted less than seven times, they lost.
It’s not just the booming punts, however, of his 58 punts he has 24 punts downed inside the twenty yard line which leads the nation and only four touchbacks. Christy is the biggest weapon on the team and has allowed Muschamp and company to play safe, conservative offense relying of tough defense and field position.
Number 4 Kyle Christy is the number four reason Gator Nation has to be thankful this year.
The number three reason Gator Nation can be thankful this year is the third (and fourth) quarter. Last season the Gators played well in the first half of every game they played. They would go into halftime in good position on the scoreboard but then when they came out in the third quarter they seemed to tank. Defense would get weak, offense would lose control and by the fourth quarter of most games the Gators were doomed. Second half failures were the biggest thing one could point to last year for the paltry 7-6 record.
This season the third quarter has been their quarter. This staff has been as good as I’ve seen at making halftime adjustments. Repeatedly, this team has gone into halftime either behind or leading a close game. Each time, except for the Georgia game, they made adjustments at the half and came out dominant in the third quarter which set them up to win it in the fourth.
When Texas A&M quarterback was gashing the Gator defense with big scrambles and quarterback draws, the staff focused the defense on protecting their gaps and controlling their pass rush. The result was that Manziel had no big runs in the second half and the defense shut them down. The next week at Tennessee when Bray and company were making big plays in the passing game, the defense came out of haltime, put pressure on Bray which forced turnovers and three and outs allowing the Gators to make their second straight second half comeback. Against LSU when the Gators were in a dogfight, they came out of the lockerroom, went to a BIG package and proceeded to run the ball down their throats scoring and eating clock allowing them to finish with a big 14-6 victory.
All season the script has been to keep it close in the first half, make adjustments at the half, and then come out in the third quarter and take over the game. If there is one thing you can point to this season that is the biggest reason for their transition from 7-6 to 10-1 it is their play in third quarters overcoming adversity, making adjustments, and winning the third and fourth quarters.
There you have it the number three reason Gator Nation has to be thankful this year.
At number two on the list are two senior starters that anchor each side of the football Mike Gillislee on offense and Jon Bostic on defense.
Before the season, Gator fans, media, and coaches alike knew exactly one thing about this team: if they were going to be successful they would need Mike Gillislee to step up and play like he has never played in his Gator career. Coming in to the season, Gillislee had played sparingly mostly in mop up duty due in part to nagging injuries that always seemed to sideline him and partly because previous offensive coordinators overlooked him in favor of smaller quicker backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. Gillislee never pouted, never questioned a coaching staff that refused to give him touches. Instead he bided his time quietly, worked hard, and stepped up when it was his time to shine.
And shined he has. In spite of not reaching his stated goal of 1500 yards Gillislee has nevertheless been the solid player they’ve needed him to be. Rarely being stopped on first contact or by one defender, Gillislee consistently gets tough yards, hitting the hole hard, and getting extra yards after contact. Even more importantly the staffs consistency at giving him the ball inside and his consistency at getting tough yards has opened up the edge for Driskel and opened up the play action as well.
Middle linebacker Jon Bostic has played well in his senior season. A mainstay at linebacker since his freshman season, Bostic has always had talent. In previous seasons however he has played somewhat small, having difficulty at shedding blocks in the hole, getting run over by physical backs, and repeatedly making tackles downfield rather than near the line of scrimmage. The staff challenged him in the offseason to get stronger at the point of attack and lead this defense this season.
Bostic accepted the challenge. He added 12 pounds of bulk in Dillman’s strength program, worked on pad level and hand fighting techniques, and has been the MVP of this defense. Always a fast linebacker, many thought he was an outside backer playing in the middle, he actually seemed to get quicker in the offseason consistently covering tight ends and crossing routes like a cornerback. He’s certainly the unquestioned leader, teaching players, coaching them on the field, and bringing fire and passion to his position. His leadership is the number one reason this defense is top five in the country and he will surely be missed when he’s gone.
Gillislee and Bostic are definitely the number two reason Gator Nation has to be thankful this season.
The number one that Gator Nation has to be thankful is the number one coaching staff in America led by head coach Will Muschamp, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, and offensive coordinator Brent Pease as well as special teams coordinator D.J. Durkin and new strength coach Jeff Dillman. You may not agree, a lot of fans have groused all season about Muschamp, Pease, etc… but if you think anybody else could have done a better job with this team than what this staff has done, you are slightly looney. The great Urban Meyer with the same players in the system they were recruited for plus many others that have left the program couldn’t do it. Muschamp and company weeded out undesirables, changed the attitude and personality of the team, coached guys to play beyond their potential, made good decisions in terms of personnel and schemes, and has been the number one reason this team is 10-1 and ranked number 4 in the BCS.
Like him or not, you have to admit that Muschamp has done more with less than just about any coach in the nation. Arguing with an Oregon fan on Twitter about why I felt Muschamp deserved coach of the year honors, I simply asked him to name one superstar on the team. He couldn’t. Heck, the Gators best player is arguably their punter. How many teams in the top five can you say that about? The argument that the offense is pedestrian used to say this staff is weak actually proves my point altogether. This offense is pedestrian by design and because they lack top flight talent. To be this highly rated and still within a stone’s throw of playing for a BCS championship with an offense ranked 104th in the nation says a lot about this staff’s ability to get more with less.
They are the Number One reason that Gator Nation has to be thankful this Thanksgiving.
Happy Thanksgiving Gator Nation,
and Go Gators!