Dan Mullen cracked a can of Pepsi, cracked a smile and let out an audible sigh of relief.
“Just a regular day in The Swamp.”
No matter the jest or sarcasm inserted into the statement, it rings true. This is a regular day in The Swamp; or at least it has been of late.
The No. 10 Florida Gators knocked off the No. 7 Auburn Tigers 24-13 in the first Top 10 matchup in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium since 2012. It means Mullen’s squad is undefeated, sitting at 6-0, 3-0 in the SEC. It’s the Tigers first loss of the season.
In so many ways, it mirrored the Gators 27-19 win over the LSU Tigers last season in The Swamp. It echoed the sheer refusal mindset that helped Florida defeat the Miami Hurricanes to kick off the season. It harkened to the unbreakable spirit that helped the Gators reel off a 19-point comeback to beat the Kentucky Wildcats after quarterback Feleipe Franks was lost to a season ending injury.
This game, at the mid-way point of the season, has become the culmination of the message Dan Mullen and his staff have been preaching since arriving in Gainesville December 2018.
Live up to the Gator standard and don’t let go of the rope; never flinch, and to paraphrase Tom Petty, don’t back down. It's a message Mullen has asked for buy-in for from the team, the staff, the fans and the entire program as as whole.
And on a day when the Gators wore throwback 1960's uniforms, on Homecoming weekend and with a slew of former players on the sideline, the helped remind us all what the Gator Standard is in this classic SEC rivalry.
The win wasn’t always pretty and it was downright wild in the beginning. Florida won the toss and elected to defer. With the sun beaming directly onto Steve Spurrier Florida Field, the 90,584 in attendance came of one throat and created a wall of sound that could probably be heard in Lake City. From there the defense set the tone.
BUCK Jon Greenard (6 tackles, 3 QB hurries) took down Auburn freshman quarterback Bo Nix (11-27, 145 yards 1 TD, 3 INT; 10 rushes, 18 yards) as the ball was released, credited as a QB hurry, and two plays later the Tigers were forced to punt. Overall Florida’s defense forced Auburn to go 2-14 on 3rd downs for the day.
On the Gators ensuing drive, Kyle Trask (19-31, 234, 2 TD) found Freddie Swain (6-146 yards, 1 TD) on a slant. Swain cut to midfield and saw receiver Van Jefferson blocking an Auburn defender for him. From there, it was gravy.
"I just had a one-on-one route where it was me versus the linebacker,” says Swain of the 66-yard touchdown.
“I went inside, I got a great block from Van that allowed me to turn up and kind of score with it, so I give credit to Van…as soon as I caught it and turned up I kind of looked at that this safety and seen Van turn up here, that's why I kind of ran ahead of Van and he made a block.
“That touchdown right there was good, it gave us a confidence booster.”
On the Tigers ensuing drive, AU head coach Gus Malzahn was forced to call a timeout after Nix took the play clock down to zero. It was a result of an unrelenting barrage of sound from the crowd. By the end of the day, Auburn had been lured into three false starts.
Nix explained the miscommunication saying, "It was really loud & we had trouble hearing the clap for the cadence. Sometimes we had slow communication. Stuff like that happens. Every team that walks into The Swamp has communication issues, but we just didn't do anything to make up for those.”
“I think we got the best fans in college football,” countered safety Shawn Davis (5 tackles, 1 interception).
“I felt like when the game started, we got to [Nix], like, Greenard was getting to the backfield so fast, so he was just grounding the ball. So, I feel like we started out pretty fast on defense.”
For Mullen, that response by the Gator fans are what he’s been asking for, building and hoping to achieve on a consistent basis.
The Swamp, I guess this is how is how the Swamp used to be. This is what the Swamp is, this is what we expect it to be, is that home-field advantage,” bragged the head coach.
"The most electric environment in college football, the loudest stadium in college football. We need the Gator Nation to be able to give that effort just like the team give, all the time, like they did today. It’s hard for any team to get in here and come for a win if that’s how the crowd is going to be. They did an unbelievable job today.”
The crowd and the defense had to do an unbelievable job on the next five drives that threw this entire game into a college football kaleidoscope and said ‘let’s get funky.’
The drives went like this:
Gators quarterback Kyle Trask was sacked, causing a fumble that Auburn recovered. The defense held them to a field goal to make it 7-3.
Next drive, running back Dameon Pierce was hit helmet to helmet and was knocked out the game. Mullen said after the game they’d find out if anything is wrong, injury wise. On the hit, Pierce fumbled. Auburn recovered and was again held to a field goal, but now in a 1-point game.
Then a 62-yard Tommy Townsend punt was fumbled by Auburn fumbled and Bama native Jeremiah Moon (2 tackles, fumble recovery) recovered at the Tigers 2-yard line. An unsportsmanlike call on Kyree Campbell backed up the Gators to the 17-yard line which meant when Derrick Brown had his first of two sacks on Kyle Trask, and popped the ball loose, he didn’t have as far to go 42-yard return to the UF 35-yard line.
However two plays later, Nix went deep down the sideline and Davis was there. The safety, returning from injury that held him out last week, jumped and tipped the ball down one handed into his waiting arms. He returned the interception 41 yards.
“I’d seen that the receiver was going vertical, he didn’t really sell it much, but I knew he was going for a route. He wasn’t going to block. So I just like stayed home and the quarterback just threw it anyway,” explained Davis.
Florida scored on a 13-yard crossing route to Josh Hammond (2-23, 1TD) off the turnover.
Then two drives later, the Gators went for a fake punt on 4th and 3 that came up short. Auburn scored their only touchdown of the day, a 32-yard pass to Seth Williams, off the turnover.
By that point we were only mid-way through the second quarter.
But the Gators, having listened to the message Mullen has been preaching for the past two years, didn’t flinch.
This staff has been working to recreate a program, build more than just a team but an identity, and doing so requires “living up to the Gator standard” and “not dropping the rope,” the latter being a Nick Savage favorite during strength and conditioning drills.
In the second half, the Gators outscored Auburn 7-0, building on a second half dominance this season. Florida has outscored opponents 112-17 in the second half through six games, including a 64-7 advantage in the fourth quarter alone.
“The things that we go through in practice, how hard we work all offseason, like, we’ve got to meet the Gator Standard. Everybody expects us to work to the Gator Standard. So that’s what we’re trying to becoming and we’re punching in our head that we’re the Gators,” explained Davis.
Kyle Trask agrees, “That Auburn defense is super tough. They're a tough team from top to bottom, and nothing was given to us in this game. It was all earned. That just comes from being resilient. This is one of the most resilient teams I've ever been a part of. That's just a result of us being dialed in throughout the week in preparation and that shows on Saturdays.”
The Gators offense put up nearly 400 yards of offense on the Tigers defense that came in to the game giving up 320. The 398 total offensive yards included 266 passing, making this six consecutive games now the Gators have passed for 250+.
It helped that the Florida defense held Malzahn’s offense to 269 total yards. In fact, Freddie Swain had more receiving yards, 146, then the Tigers did total passing (145). Todd Grantham's crew garnered two sacks and ended the day with three interceptions (Donovan Stiner and Marco Wilson in addition to Davis) and the Moon fumble recovery.
It’s a mindset that Mullen has been preaching.
“When you look at what we're trying to build and the type of program that we want to be: The guys believe in it. Offense, defense and special teams—it seems that all year when we could really use an offensive play, [today] an 88-yard touchdown run and we put the game away. We could use a first down and we get a first down We turned it over three straight times and put us in some bad positions. We could use a stop and a stop and a stop and we create a turnover. They get the ball in the red zone and we create a turnover in the red zone. We could use a big special teams play here and we get a big punt.
“That's the guys buying into what we do. Nick Savage and the strength staff do an amazing job to get our guys in shape. We roll a lot of guys through and we tell them to get ready to play and they go in. That's great. You get these type of wins and they are team wins. They are awesome team wins. There are a lot of things we can clean up and get better at. The great thing about this team is they're going to enjoy this win. They're fired up. They're also going to pay attention to detail to the things they can improve on and get ready to go next week. "The other thing I thought we did a really good job being physical at the line of scrimmage. I mean everyone coming in the game said Auburn’s going to dominate both lines of scrimmage and their great players made some dominating plays but it’s hard to look at the stat line and say that Auburn dominated the line of scrimmage tonight."
The 88-yard touchdown Mullen mentioned came off a Lamical Perine run that’s been brewing for six weeks. The senior running back has had to patiently wait while the offensive line put together some semblance of a run blocking scheme.
But on Saturday, he broke off the run he’s been chipping away at all season.
“Almost brought tears to my eyes. Just a big-time atmosphere and big-time crowd. I’m glad I was able to make that big-time play,” said Perine.
“Honestly, I came out Monday morning, 8 o’clock team meeting, my mindset was totally different. I knew I had to make some big-time plays for my team. A lot of people doubted me, but I just continued to keep working and go out there and just try to help my teammates to this victory.”
It was the longest touchdown run for a Florida player since Emmitt Smith’s 96-yard score against Mississippi State in 1988.
The Gators legend was on the sidelines for the game and congratulated the Bama kid who was told he was too slow for Auburn during the recruiting process.
“He came up to me after the game and was just like, ‘You did a great job man running the ball, fighting through adversity.’ That was big coming from a great guy like him.”
Perine’s mindset while waiting for the line to gel has admittedly tested his patience. He’s seen the tweets and stories calling for him to be benched for Pierce, he’s seen the skewed stats provided without context. But as he’s done his entire time in Gainesville, he was patient.
“Just control what I can control. I know I’m a big-time player and a lot of people, they doubt me sometimes, but I come in every day and give my all for my teammates. It was just an honor to be able to make a big play for this team, how much I go out and just go hard. I’m a humble guy, but everybody know when it’s time to play big games, I’m a guy they can look to.”
That in itself echos the message Mullen has worked to make the foundation.
“Just goes back to our preparation,” continued Perine.
“A lot of things Coach Savage teaches us, Coach Mullen teaches us, they instilled that in our head and we just came out today and got the W. We knew it was going to be a hard-fought battle, we came out with that mindset, so we were ready for the dogfight today.”
The dogfight continues next week against No. 4 LSU in Baton Rouge. The team gets one night to celebrate this big win, another part of the Gator Standard, Mullen wanting them to enjoy the game and the fun. But then it's back to work. The Gators will most likely be underdogs yet again, as they were this Saturday. That’s fine with them. They’re not living up to anyone else’s standard. They’re living up the Gator Standard.