The Florida Gators completed one of the biggest turnarounds in their history this season finishing the regular season 11-1 after going 6-6 in the regular season last year. While there are many plays and many players efforts that go into such a turnaround, here I give you ten plays that ultimately defined their season.
Marcus Roberson interception against Bowling Green
The Gators opened their season at home in the Swamp against a very talented MAC opponent Bowling Green State University. The Falcons returned the bulk of a very potent offense from the previous season. Facing a quick release short passing game similar to what they would later see from SEC opponents Kentucky and Missouri, the Gator defense had their work cut out for them right from the get go. The Gator offense was a big unknown with sophomore quarterbacks Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett locked in a battle for the starting spot. The staff had decided to let each player play a quarter in the first half and then they would choose a starter for the final two quarters at halftime. Despite the odd arrangement, Driskel would be named the starter for the second half and for the rest of the season.
After taking a 14-7 lead into halftime the Gators found themselves locked into a battle with the Falcons late in the third quarter holding on to a tenuous 17-14 lead. With less than a minute to go in the third the Gator’s Omarius Hines fumbled the ball away on a quick screen setting up the Falcons with a first down from the Gator 30 yard line. After a couple of quick plays to end the third quarter, Bowling Green faced a 3rd and 3 at the Gators 23 yard line. Falcon quarterback Matt Schilz, who had played well to that point dropped back to pass but was intercepted by cornerback Marcus Roberson at the Gator 16 yard line, the Gators first of the season. The interception not only stopped a Bowling Green scoring threat which might have given them the lead or at least tied the score, but the Gators capitalized three plays later when quarterback Jeff Driskel hit Frankie Hammond for a 50 yard touchdown pass which basically put the game away for the Gators at that point.
Jeff Driskel scramble against Texas A&M
In the second game of the season, a difficult road test against new conference member Texas A&M, the Gators had survived eventual heisman winner Johnny Manziel’s first half assault to take a 20-17 lead deep into the fourth quarter. The Gators had played disappointingly in their first game against MAC opponent Bowling Green the previous week and were under intense pressure to show fans this team had improved significantly in the offseason as they had been led to believe by staff and media.
Having never played in the stadium, and having never seen new coach Kevin Sumlin’s offense being run by these players, and most importantly having never seen, much less played against, new quarterback Manziel, the Gators were at a serious disadvantage in this game. On top of everything else this was the first start of quarterback Jeff Driskel’s career, and for three quarters he had been outplayed by the A&M quarterback. Manziel had gashed the Gators several times in the first half on quarterback scrambles when the Gators had thought they had the Aggie offense stopped. Halftime adjustments helped the Gators shut down Manziel and the Aggie offense for much of the second half.
With 3:13 left in the game the Gators defense forced an A&M punt and took over on their own 14 clinging to a 20-17 and needing a couple first downs to run out the clock and leave College Station with a signature win. During last season’s calamitous 6-6 season their biggest issue was failure to hold leads late. So here they were in the first SEC game of the season needing to protect a three point lead on the road.
After a face mask gave the Gators a first down, Solomon Patton took a jet sweep 12 yards for a first down up to the Gators 45 yard line setting the stage. After Mack Brown was stopped for no gain on first down the Aggies called timeout hoping to hold the Gators to a punt which would give the Aggies one last shot. On second and ten from the Gators 45 yard line, Jeff Driskel scrambled for a 21 yard gain, making A&M players look silly as he ran through the heart of their defense, giving the Gators a huge first down on the A&M 34. That scramble by Driskel allowed the Gators to run out the clock. giving them a tone setting road victory, their first SEC win of the season, and most importantly, gave the players and fans confidence that this team and season would be different.
Matt Elam sack against Tyler Bray against Tennessee
The week after the Gators got their first big signature win under Will Muschamp at Texas A&M, they took another tough road trip to Knoxville to take on SEC East rival Tennessee. Coming into the game Tennessee had all the swagger with two big physical wide receivers in Justin Hunter and Cordarelle Patterson and then Heisman candidate quarterback Tyler Bray. The Gator defense which had played so well in shutting out eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel in the second half of that game would be sorely tested in this one. And so it played out with the Tennessee wideout combo getting the better of the Gator secondary in the first half. When they weren’t catching jump balls over the shorter corner Marcus Roberson or making cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy look like a poor tackler, they were getting pass interference penalties called on third cornerback Jaylen Watkins. By halftime the Gator secondary was frustrated and the Vols led 14-10, a score which was much closer than the play on the field indicated it should.
Once again the Gators made some halftime adjustments, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn calmed the secondary down challenging them to continue playing through the mistakes and penalties and to stay focused and aggressive. A quick Gator field goal coming out of the half got them within one point at 14-13 but the home team Volunteers quickly took the kickoff and drove 81 yards in 12 plays to go up by a touchdown at 20-13. Once again the Gators found themselves down on the road in the second half. It was a scenario that had ended in defeat for the Gators throughout the 2011 season. When the Gators needed a play, there was nobody to step up and make the play. This season, though, would prove to be different.
The Gators would move the ball out to their own 42 yard line where they faced a fourth and nine as they lined up to punt. But instead of punting they snapped the ball to Matt Elam on a fake and he was tackled after only a five yard gain turning the ball over on downs to Tennessee at the Gator 47 yard line. With Tennessee set up in great field position in Gator territory, the crowd roaring, and momentum swinging in the Volunteer’s favor, Bray dropped back to pass on first down hoping to catch the Gators napping. Using a great play action fake Bray looked up hoping to catch Patterson streaking alone behind the Gator secondary, hitting him for a huge touchdown which would take control of the game and send the Gators reeling. What he saw when he looked up, however, was Gator safety Matt Elam, the same guy who was stopped short on the fourth down fake, making amends to the Gator faithful by making a huge hit on Bray forcing an intentional grounding call which was tacked on to a ten yard sack and a loss of down. The Vols would play it safe from there on second and third and long, being happy to simply settle for a punt and keep the Gators in unfavorable field position.
At the time it looked like a great play which merely stopped a good scoring opportunity for the Vols and got the Gators out of a hole created by a poor coaching decision. What it did in actuality is change the whole momentum and complexion of the game. On first down for the Gators after the Volunteers had punted, Trey Burton lined up in the wildcat formation, faked the inside handoff to Mike Gillislee and, as the Tennessee defense sucked down on Gilly, the offensive line and fullback executed their blocks to perfection and Burton took off to the races 80 yards untouched for a Gator touchdown which tied the game at 20. From there the Gators offense moved the ball at will with the Tennessee defense wearing down and Bray and the Tennessee offense imploded where at one point head coach Derek Dooley was famously gif’ed catching an errant Bray pass on the sideline and slamming it to the turf in disgust.
Loucheiz big hit on punt returner Odell Beckham versus LSU
While the first two plays were big plays in their own right and came at key moments in the game, play number three was somewhat innocuous in comparison. It certainly didn’t have a big direct impact on the final score or even a big momentum swing in the game.
When Florida took on LSU in Gainesville on October 6th, many expected a tough physical match-up from the visiting Tigers. The Tigers had gone undefeated in the regular season last year including beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa in a hard hitting affair that eventually led to a rematch in the BCS title game in January. When the Gators went to Baton Rouge last season, the week after being pounded by Alabama at home, they were physically overmatched. In all honesty, they were more physically overmatched in this game than any other all season. They were actually competitive in every game last season but this one. Even against Alabama they matched up well in the first half before losing starting qb John Brantley to a concussion and folding in the second half. Against LSU, however, the Gators were thoroughly beaten on both lines of scrimmage and it was the signature game which told head coach Will Muschamp how far these Gators had to go to become competitive with the top teams in the SEC.
So coming into this game, fans and media knew that this would be the Gators first real test of whether or not they could be competitive physically against the best of the SEC. Texas A&M and Tennessee were great tests to see how these Gators would handle the road and how they would handle adversity, especially in the second half of games. LSU, though, would be the physical test. Were the Gators truly contenders, or mere pretenders that caught A&M off-guard in their first SEC contest and who had beaten a Tennessee team which was largely overrated? Certainly they would find out against LSU, correct? In the words of Johnny Carson sidekick Ed McMahon, “you are correct sir.”
If the Gators had come to play, they certainly would want to show that to the Tigers early, give them an early wakeup call that said, “we ain’t scared, and we ain’t laying down. If you want it, you got it.” Interestingly, the game began with LSU taking the opening kickoff and establishing some offensive rhythm behind new quarterback Zach Mettenbergerl They promptly drove the ball 64 yards in ten plays settling for a 31 yard Drew Alleman field goal to take a quick 3-0 lead.
It seemed as if things might continue where they left off last season when LSU dominated the Gators to the tune of 41-11. On the ensuing series the Gators moved the ball a little bit but after a sack on Jeff Driskel the drive bogged down on the Gators 40 yard line where the Gators were forced to punt. On fourth down, punter Kyle Christy booted one high and deep and the punt was fielded by Odell Beckham one of the most exciting return men in the SEC. Loucheiz Purifoy, a gunner on special teams and starting corner on defense, promptly laid out Beckham with one his trademark big special team hits on the nine yard line for no gain. While he was celebrating the big hit on the sideline facing the crowd, fellow backfield mate Marcus Roberson laid out Purifoy in celebration in a now famous vid spread all over the internet.
At the time the hit was simply that: a big special teams hit which had little effect on the stat line or boxscore, but what it did for the Gators is it sent a message to the LSU players, the media covering the game, and Gator Nation as a whole that these are not the same Gators who got run over last season. They came to play, to hit, and to win. It was a foreshadow of things to come as the Gators outphysicalled the SEC’s most physical team, harrassing Mettenberger into sacks and turnovers, and eventually running 25 consecutive times in the second half to take over the game and to close it out. That big hit from Purifoy sent a message not only to LSU that these Gators were back but to the whole conference and the whole country as well.
Soloman Patton fake punt and run against Vanderbilt
The LSU game resulted in a tough hard fought victory for the Gators. It was the most physical game of the season to that point and the Gators came out somewhat beaten up. They traveled to Nashville the following week to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores in what set up to be a classic “trap” game. A conference road game against what would appear on paper to be an overmatched foe, but in reality a team with the ability to beat you, played the week after a huge emotional victory. After all the Commodores had almost pulled the upset last season in Gainesville and appeared to be a program on the upswing with quarterback Jordan Rogers, a good stable of talented wide receivers and a running back who would compete for SEC honors.
Coming out of halftime with the Gators clinging to an 11-7 lead, Vanderbilt promptly went on a 15 play drive eating up 8 minutes and 43 seconds of clock time and moving the ball down to the Gator 27 yard line. At that point the Commodores were moving the ball effectively and had all the momentum. After the drive stalled, the Commodores settled for a 44 yard field goal attempt which was subsequently blocked by Earl Okine and then recovered by Loucheiz Purifoy. That big play had swung the momentum into the Gators favor, but on the ensuing Gator offensive series, they were seemingly held to a three and out, wasting a golden opportunity coming off a turnover and slowing any change in momentum the blocked kick had provided. But as the inimitable Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast my friend”. On fourth down, the Gators executed a perfect fake punt snapping to the up man who quickly handed the ball to wideout Soloman Patton on the jet sweep. Soloman took the handoff 54 yards down to the Commodore 3 yard line. After a couple of negative plays, Jeff Driskel took it thirteen yards to paydirt and an 18-7 lead.
The fake punt was the perfect call, at the perfect time, and executed to perfection. While it may not have been the biggest play of the game, it set the tone for the team letting them know that the staff would go against it’s predictable nature on occasion to jumpstart the team and take advantage of situations where the opponent has it’s guard down. The play kept a drive alive, kept momentum on it’s side, allowed the Gators to take advantage of a big turnover, and, in a game that was a touchdown difference late into the fourth may very well be the play that saved the game for them.
Loucheiz Purifoy forced fumble by Connor Shaw versus South Carolina
Last season one of the toughest losses for the Gators was the South Carolina game. The Gators lack of physicality and toughness was quite evident as they played them close and had a shot to win but the defense could not get the Gamecock offense off the field in the fourth quarter while the Gator offense could not get first down’s. Coming into this season’s game the Gators knew that they would need to amp up their level of physicality if they were to have a shot at beating the Gamecocks. They would certainly do that and they would show it early and often.
The Gamecocks received the opening kickoff and Bruce Ellington tried to take the ball out of the endzone but was quickly stopped short of the twenty yard line, the first of many Gamecock bad decisions on special teams. On first down from the Gamecock 17, head coach Steve Spurrier, as is his tendency, called a play action pass hoping to catch the Gators off-guard and open with a big play. Unfortunately for Spurrier and the Gamecocks they did start out with a big play. Giving up a big play that is.
Dan Quinn, knowing Spurrier’s tendencies, and equally wanting to take advantage called a corner blitz for speedy special teams star Loucheiz Purifoy. When the ball was snapped, quarterback Connor Shaw faked the hand off and dropped back to pass looking downfield for an open receiver. Purifoy came crashing in from the left side of the defense, which is Shaw’s blind side. Rather than drilling him for a huge sack, Purifoy reached around and stripped the ball out of Shaw’s hand resulting in a fumble which was recovered by Lerentee McCray at the Gamecock two yard line. That led to a quick Gator touchdown and a lead they would not relinquish. Purifoy’s play set the tone for the game showing the Gators were ready to play fast, furious, and physical. Their aggressiveness forced five Gamecock turnovers on the day and led to a huge 44-11 Gator victory.
Jordan Reed fumble against Georgia
If there’s one truism in football, especially in the Southeastern Conference, it’s that it is very difficult for a team to get up for two emotional games in a row. Big conference games, rivalry games, and others require a huge amount of emotion and excitement. Often the week after one of these games a team comes out a little flat. Such was true for the Gators this season versus Georgia.
The week before they had played an emotionally high game against the South Carolina Gamecocks. They were the aggressor continually making big hits, forcing turnovers, and cruising to a big 44-11 victory. The next week they traveled to Jacksonville to play their biggest rival the Georgia Bulldogs who had played an unemotional game against the Kentucky Wildcats the previous weekend. This game ultimately would be for Eastern division supremacy and for the Gators it was a chance to clinch an SEC championship game berth.
The week before the Gators were aggressive, forcing loose balls, and making big plays. While they would continue to force some turnovers in this one, offensively they seemed tentative, a step short or a step late, somewhat out of synch, almost flat if you will. Georgia was very aggressive on defense loading the box to stop the inside run. forcing the Gators to make plays in the passing game and then being disruptive with their pass rushing ace Jarvis Jones.
In spite of giving the ball away five times the Gator defense had all but shut Georgia down and trailed by only a point at 10-9 early in the fourth quarter before giving up a touchdown with the Gators sitting in a prevent zone. Down 17-9 with 7:11 remaining the Gators took over on their own 26. Behind the running of Mike Gillislee and the passing of Jeff Driskel the Gators moved the ball down to the Georgia 18. On second and six, Driskel dropped back to pass and hit tight end Jordan Reed on drag route where he promptly took the ball upfield headed towards the end zone. As he got to the five yard line he attempted one of his patented hurdle moves in an attempt to miss a tackle and make a big scoring play. What he couldn’t see was Jarvis Jones giving chase from behind. As Reed leaped into the air Jones reached around to tackle him and in the process stripped the football from Reed’s hand. The ball was ultimately recovered by Georgia and with it the Gators hopes of a victory over the hated Bulldogs, an SEC East title, an SEC championship game berth, and quite possibly a chance at a BCS title game opportunity.
Josh Evans walkoff interception versus Missouri
The Gators would return from that fateful trip to Jacksonville to take on new conference and Eastern division opponent the Missouri Tigers in the friendly confines of The Swamp. After losing a heartbreaker to Georgia the fear was the team would play flat and uninspired with their SEC hopes all but dwindled. The Tigers put up a fight and gave the Gators all they could handle with Mizzou leading 7-0 at halftime.
The Gators would make their now famous halftime adjustments and come out a little more fired up in the second half. Defensively, they shut down Tiger quarterback James Franklin with pressure from their front four and zone coverages which allowed the Gators defensive backs to play facing the qb reading his eyes and waiting to take advantage of mistakes. He made them and the Gators capitalized forcing four turnovers on the day. It would be the last that would prove to be biggest.
With the Gators clinging to a 14-7 lead late in the fourth quarter, the Gator’s backup field goal kicker Brad Phillips would miss a short field goal which might have all but put the game away. Missouri took over on their own 20 with 1:49 left and promptly drove the ball down the field toward a tying score. With the Gators playing a soft zone defense, Franklin drove the Tigers to the Gator 21 yard line where they faced a fourth and six. Franklin dropped back to pass and under an intense Gator pass rush threw the ball into the end zone where free safety Josh Evans stepped in front of the football for a game saving interception. Game over.
Loucheiz Purifoy blocked punt versus Louisiana
A week later the Gators faced what appeared to be another trap game. Coming off an emotional conference game against Missouri and playing a very talented Sunbelt conference foe in Louisiana-Lafayette who on paper should not be able to compete against SEC power Florida, the Gators once again found themselves in a tight game. A 13-3 lead early in the third quarter became a 20-13 deficit early in the fourth quarter.
After the Gators had kicked a field goal on the opening possession of the third quarter they promptly gave up a long touchdown drive to Louisiana cutting the Gator lead to 13-10. On the ensuing possession, the Gators were forced to punt when Louisiana’s Bradley Brown broke through to block it. Blake Comminie picked up the loose football and returned it 22 yards for a 17-13 Ragin’ Cajun lead heading into the fourth quarter. After the Ragin Cajuns kicked a field goal the lead was 20-13 and Gators looked desperate early in the fourth quarter.
With starting quarterback Jeff Driskel sitting on the bench with an ankle injury, backup Jacoby Brissett led the Gators on a touchdown drive tying the score at 20 with less than two minutes to go in the game. After the Gator kickoff, Louisiana was held to a three and out but inexplicably the Gators did not use any of their timeouts as the clock wound until finally coach Muschamp called one with 13 seconds remaining and the Ragin Cajuns set to punt. Muschamp would later explain that he called the timeout to set up a designed punt block play they simply call “black”. Black is the play designed to free their fastest outside rusher who in the past was Chris Rainey but this season became cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy.
When the ball was snapped, Purifoy faked an inside rush and hit the outside unblocked to cut in front of the punter as his leg stroked the football. Purifoy’s outstretched hand caught all ball as it careened in the air to be caught by linebacker Jelani Jenkins at the 35 yard line. Led by a caravan of Gators, including Loucheiz Purifoy who was signalling Jelani to take it into the endzone. He would do just that, scoring the winning touchdown with 2 seconds remaining on the clock saving the game and the Gators season.
Antonio Morrison big hit on E.J. Manuel versus Florida State
In the season finale the Gators faced a tough opponent in state rival Florida State, a top ten team who many had tabbed as a BCS title contender in the preseason. The Gators actually dominated most of the first half but settled for field goals and after giving up a late field goal to FSU led only 13-3 at halftime. Florida looked to be in good shape at the start of the third when Marcus Roberson stepped in front of a Manuel pass for an interception at the Gator 30 yard line. That, however, was when the fun started. After a couple of penalties and a sack on Jeff Driskel, the Gators were forced to punt from their own twelve yard line. A rare muffed punt and poor coverage set the Seminoles up with a first and ten from the Gator 26 yard line. They would capitalize with a big touchdown making the score 13-10.
The Seminoles were not done. On first down of the next Gator posssession, the Seminoles forced a Driskel fumble which defensive end Bjoern Woerner caught in middair and returned to the Gator 17. They capitalized on that turnover as well and just like that the Seminoles had a 17-13 lead. By early in the fourth quarter the Gators and Seminoles had traded a couple of field goals leaving the Noles with a 20-16 lead. A game that had momentum swing from the Gators in the first half to the Noles in the third quarter would have one more swing back in the Gators favor.
The Seminoles took possession of the ball with 13:27 to go in the game and quickly moved the ball out to the 42 yard line. Weakside linebacker Jelani Jenkins had been knocked out of the game on the previous play due to a knee injury so true freshman backup Antonio Morrison came in as his replacement. On first down, Nole quarterback E.J. Manuel dropped back to pass and, sensing the pass rush, and with no good options downfield, took off on an off tackle scramble where he was met by Morrison. As he approached the line of scrimmage with lots of green in front of him, Morrison laid a lick on Manuel which knocked the ball out of his hand and knocked Manuel out of the game for a series and set the Gators up on the Seminole 37 yard line.
The momentum which had swung wildly in the Noles favor through the third quarter had quickly shifted back to the Gators. On first down, Mike Gillislee took an inside handoff, hitting the hole with authority and sprinted to a 37 yard touchdown. The td gave the Gators the lead at 23-20 but more importantly deflated the Seminoles hopes and gave the Gators the lift they needed to cruise to a huge 37-26 road victory against bitter rival Florida State.
Ten plays. In a season which saw the Gators make their biggest turnaround since 1980, ten plays were instrumental in that turnaround. Ten plays that defined a season.