Florida head football coach Will Muschamp began his weekly media conference praising his team for once again overcoming adversity and coming from behind to win the big rivalry game against FSU becoming just the fifth team in school history to finish with 11 wins in the regular season.
“I’m really proud of our effort and really the way we did it,” Muschamp said. ” To lose the momentum after playing very well in the first half, squandering an opportunity to get some points. They gain the momentum back and, as our bunch has done, I guess we’ve come from behind eight times this year and three times in the fourth quarter, took the momentum back and took them out of the game. That’s a credit to our players and our program.”
Realistically, the way those guys played from start to finish in this one is a huge testament to the work ethic of the players, the fantastic job the coaching staff including new strength coach Jeff Dillman has done, and the fact that these guys bought in after being called out by Muschamp after this game last season. So many times this season these guys faced adversity, much of it self-inflicted, played from behind, and could have folded shop. This game was no different, they could have laid down or pointed fingers when things started to go against them and the Noles climbed back in to take a 10 point lead, but just like they have all season they just kept grinding, weathered the storms, and wrested control of the game back and eventually wore down the Seminoles before pulling away.
Muschamp went on to point out some important stats from the game that sort of told the tale of the game and of the season overall. Two stats that this staff focuses on, in particular, are explosive plays and turnovers. Explosive plays are defined as plays in excess of twenty yards and the Gators had ten in this game, one of the best outputs of the season in that department, and of course they had the five turnovers as well. Speaking of turnovers, Muschamp mentioned that they finished with a plus 17 turnover margin this season and ranked fifth in the country after finishing 113th last year. A huge turnaround that had a direct impact on the turnaround in won-loss record.
“So you really want to look at a stat where we were different as a team that’s the tell tell for our entire season,” Muschamp said of the turnaround in turnover margin.
Muschamp praised the much maligned offense in this one as they gained 290 yards rushing taking out the sacks and negative yardage plays on 43 attempts a beautiful 6.7 yards per carry average against the number one ranked rushing defense in the nation. The Seminoles were also the top ranked defense in terms of third down efficiency and the Gators again had one of their best performances of the season in that area.
”We were 8-15 on third down,” Muschamp said. “So very efficient staying on the field, kept it in mostly manageable down and distance on third down except the the start of the third quarter, we had some issues there and the obvious turnover.”
Defensively they hit all their marks. Stopping the run and forcing Manuel to make plays in the passing game. That played into the Gators hands.
“We stopped the run,” Muschamp said. “We made it a one-dimensional game, we affected the quarterback in the game. 14 pressures, 12 hits, and 2 sacks. When you’re able to do that against a team that wants to put the game on the quarterback you’re going to win a bunch of games.”
11 wins to be exact, and counting. A fantastic season has been in the hands of the defense from the start and they played about as well as any defense has in the history of Gator football. This one was no exception and may well have been their best effort yet against an offense that came in 7th in the nation in scoring at 43 points per game and almost 500 yards total offense per game.
It is notable that Muschamp gave offensive player of the game and scrap iron awards to the entire offensive line, tight ends, and running backs saying,
“When you’re effective running the ball against an elite defense, which they (FSU) are, you’ve got to credit those guys.”
And speaking of the offensive line, Muschamp was asked about the reason why they played so well after looking less than stellar the last four to five weeks.
“That’s the first time in four or five games we’ve been back at full strength,” Muschamp replied. “Guys have been banged up for the most part, and nagging injuries here and there. I think I’ll attribute to health and I’ll also attribute to they answered the call. We challenged them this week, we told them those guys are good up front, if we win the game it’ll be because we were able to run the football consistently well, and we were able to do that.”
Another notable item was Muschamp singling out cornerback Marcus Roberson for his work at punt returner. The only spot on special teams this season that was less than spectacular was the punt return game. Too often guys were letting the ball hit the turf and roll giving up precious field position or would fair catch either returnable balls or balls that should have been left alone. It was almost comical at times watching to see how they would possibly screw up. It was somewhat sad too considering how many great punt returners have come through this program. The last two weeks, however, Roberson has done a better job at decision making and making plays with a 50 yard return to set up a touchdown against the Seminoles and a 32 yarder against Louisiana.
On the injury front, Jelani Jenkins went out against the Noles with a broken bone in his foot which he had surgery on this morning. As a result, he’ll certainly be out for the bowl game. Muschamp said it’s a 4-6 week recovery period but added “he’ll be fine”. Neiron Ball has an ankle injury but is expected to be ready for the bowl game. Of course, Jeff Driskel is still dealing with the ankle injury he suffered against Louisiana and is in a boot. Center Jonathan Harrison also is in a boot dealing with an ankle injury. All are expected to be ready to go for the bowl game. Leon Orr has been dealing with effects of a kidney infection and is expected back some time this week. Ian Silberman and De’ante “Pop” Saunders are expected to be out for the bowl game due to unspecified injuries.
The end of the regular season with a few weeks before the start of bowl practice, which is expected to begin around December 14th, mean one thing for the staff: recruiting. The staff is out in force maximizing their efforts on the recruiting front. Asked about if he’ll be watching any conference championship games this weekend, Muschamp responded,
“I worry about the things we can control and that’s recruiting right now. We’re going to recruit hard, when I have a second to watch a game I’ll watch a game but we’re going to be recruiting, that’s the most important we got a need to do.”
With a few top guys left on the Gator’s board expected to announce in the next couple of weeks and with some previously committed recruits wavering and taking visits, it’s very important that this staff a) shores up the ones already in the fold, and, b) puts the final press on some guys that will round out a top class for the Gators as well as fill some needs that will arise with off-season defections and attrition.
This is the time of year when the focus starts to shift towards next year and some of the young guys that may have played but will likely be counted on more next season. One such player is running back Matt Jones. With Gillislee graduating the only two experienced guys left are Jones and Mack Brown. Jones has played a number of snaps this season as Gilly’s primary backup and really showed out in relief against FSU finishing with 81 yards on eight carries and one touchdown. Concerning Jones,
“I thought he played well against Louisiana,” Muschamp said. “He’s practiced better and that’s hard some times for young players, they’ve been the big fish in a little pond. They haven’t always had to work as hard and do the things you got to do on this level. The speed of the game, understanding the scheme, the system, trusting your blocks and that’s something that he’s continued to work on and he’s just done a better job of preparing himself throughout the week. And understanding what it took to be successful. He’s got a great role model in Mike Gillislee, as good as you’ll ever find. Given the opportunity he had he’s done an outstanding job.”
Loucheiz Purifoy is another young guy that has really played a ton of snaps in his first year starting at corner, on special teams, and even a little on offense. Asked about whether he would see more snaps offensively next season Muschamp responded,
“No question. Bottom line is you got to get the ball into the hands of guys that can make plays. Play hard,and play fast, and play physical and he does. So he will have a lot of opportunities as we move forward. He’s still going to be a corner though.”
Another young guy with an opportunity is true freshman Antonio Morrison. With Jenkins out, Morrison will get full reps leading up to the bowl game and then get the start during the game. Asked how important it is for young guys to get the extra time in bowl practice Muschamp responded,
“Loucheiz Purifoy, I think he started the bowl game for us last year at corner. Marcus hurt his neck and he came in and played really well in the Gator Bowl. It’s huge for a young player to take steps forward.”
It’s another spring ball,” Muschamp added. “It’s another opportunity to really improve yourself as a football player and help this team. Loucheiz is the greatest example of that and certainly Antonio will take advantage of it. Antonio is a really good football player but the reason as much as anything is he’s very mature. He practices well, he prepares himself well.”
One of the other bigger concerns at this time of year is coaching attrition. As teams start to let underachieving coaching staffs go, the silly season for football coaches begins. Which means worry on the part of fans who fear the loss of good assistant coaches who inevitably will get snatched up by some school yearning for more W’s and less L’s. Muschamp’s response to coaching attrition?
“This is a great place to work and we’ve got a good young football team,” Muschamp said. “We’re going to be good for a long time. I always tell our staff this, if you have an opportunity for a promotion, if you’re a position coach and you can go be a coordinator, you’re a coordinator and you can go be a head coach, I’ll support you a thousand percent, that says what kind of job we’re doing here at Florida. Guys that want to make parallel moves, they’re always looking for the next job, they don’t need to be here anyways. We’ll go find a good coach, there’s a bunch of people who want to coach here. there’s a long list, right in my desk.”
After beating an in-state rival there is always a lot of chest beating among fans. It’s always the best way a new coach can endear themselves to the fanbase. After losing to both Georgia and Florida State last year and then again to Georgia this season, it’s obvious Muschamp was feeling some heat. He made it clear today that he understands how critical winning rivalry games really is to the fanbase.
“Beating your rivals is very important, beating your in-state rival is critical. Because you’ve got to live with it for a long time.”
“These Gator Clubs will be a lot more fun this year I can tell you that,” he added. “It’s critical, it really is. It’s important to winning your state, winning your back yard, it helps create positive momentum I think in a lot of areas for your program. A positive light for your program, and where you’re headed and what you’re doing.”
Asked how good he feels this Gator defense is Muschamp replied,
“I think we’re playing as well as anybody in the country right now defensively. They’re a very talented group and they’ve really played well together. They play for each other, regardless of the circumstances or the situation, they play through it. They’ve got a mental resolve about themselves and it’s a tough bunch now. I’ll put them up against anybody. They’re a group that really plays well together. They understand the team concept and how it complements each other. We cover well on the back end, we can play man and zone very well. We’re able to rush the passer and stop the run up front and we’re very athletic at linebacker. We stack up pretty good.”
In another lighter moment, Muschamp was asked what he thought of Nick Saban complaining that the loser of SEC championship game should get to play in the Sugar Bowl rather than Florida which didn’t play in the game, he responded,
“I can switch and go to Atlanta if he doesn’t want to go to Atlanta and play the dawgs.” Adding, “Be careful what you ask for Nick.”
On the value of Punter Kyle Christy and kicker Caleb Sturgis, who are finalists for awards at their respective positions, and if they have been the difference between a couple of wins and losses this season,
“There’s no question,” Muschamp said. “When you roll Caleb out there, unless you fake a field goal, you’re going to get three points every time.”
“Kyle has been outstanding. He really has changed the field for us. We’re a field position team. We haven’t been as explosive maybe offensively as we want to be. In our league with some of the defenses as good as they are you got to play field position. Your going to have a hard time putting together 14 to 18 play drives consistently in a game. So you got to be able to work on a short field and make them work on a long field and Kyle certainly has done that consistently for us.”
Would you put Caleb out there for a 60 yard field goal to win the game?
On whether or not players might be frustrated not getting the opportunity to play for a national championship despite having such a great resume Muschamp said,
“We knew the rules of engagement when we started the season. I’m not one who’s going to sit there and complain about it. It is what it is, we had our opportunity in Jacksonville and we didn’t get it done. That’s our fault, nobody else’s.”
“We should have won the game.”