Dan Mullen walked into his post game press conference with a bit of a dazed look on his face. His hair looked like he’d been pulling on it for the past hour, he seemed like he’d just competed a marathon he didn’t know he was running and there was a sense of relief when he finally dropped down into his chair.
“That was exhausting,” admitted the Florida Gators head coach.
Across the room, the stadium and the country, his sentiment was echoed.
The No. 8 Gators walked away with a touch 24-20 victory over in-state rivals, the Miami Hurricanes. The Week 0 kickoff game to the 150th season of college football had all the makings of a memorable game. The two bitter rivals facing each other for the first time since 2013, a former Mullen assistant—Manny Diaz—now the head man for the Canes across the field, four turnovers by the Gators, potential playoff implications given the Gators rankings, Florida governor Ron DeStanis was in attendance along with a horde of former Gators players; and then there was just absolute madness from beginning to end.
“I must say, honestly, it felt my life clock was going probably at about a thousand times faster, right? I mean, every second was probably like a thousand minutes or days. I don't know. The last five minutes of the game I think I aged like ten years.
“In the end they'll remember -- I know I hope everybody remembers -- it's a fun game to be a part of. It's a wild game to be a part it. We're certainly reminded college football is back and it looks like we're in for another exciting season. After 150 years, it hasn't dulled at all.”
While the last five minutes may have been what ages Mullen—and plenty of fans everywhere—the game and the Gators provided fireworks from their opening drive.
After holding Miami to a field goal on the Canes opening series, quarterback Feleipe Franks (17-27, 254 yards, 2TD, 2INT—7 rushes, 8 yards, 1 TD) and the Gators offense set themselves up for a quick 3-and-out. Instead, on 4th and 3, Dan Mullen called a fake punt. Senior punter Tommy Townsend pulled the ball and scampered to the right, picking up six yards and moving the chains, as Mullen had planned on all week.
“Coach Knox and Coach Mullen was like ‘this is gonna be the first punt of the game.’ So he went through with it and it got the first down,” reveals receiver Van Jefferson (1 reception, 14 yards).
Him actually going through with it still takes some guys by surprise, like Franks, who was standing with his coach as Townsend made the first down.
“Coach Mullen is good about that. Right when that happened, I was talking to him and then that happened and I was, like, man, you're sneaky.”
The very next play, Franks hit do-it all man Kadarius Toney (3 rushes, 3 yards—1 reception, 66 yards, 1TD) on a bubble and the junior did the rest. He got a great block from fellow receiver Jefferson that sprung him then he put on a KT special, slipping and picking his way through the entire Miami defense. Fellow receiver Tre Grimes escorted him into the endzone, the closest player on the field to his teammate.
As Miami and the Gators began to trade the expected defensive punches, a fire alarm insisted on blaring in the press box with an automated voice warning of a fire in the building and an order to evacuate. That really became on omen for what this match evolved into.
The second quarter opened with Florida make it to the redzone before a bad handoff between Franks and senior running back Lamical Perine (10 rushes, 42 yards—6 receptions, 25 yards, 1TD) resulted in a fumble. At first replay, it appeared Franks had recovered the fumble. But then Miami defensive lineman Scott Patchan sprinted to the Canes sideline with the ball in his hand and exchanged it for a new and blingier version of the Miami turnover chain.
Miami followed that with a drive so riddled with penalties that the Gators band and fans brought back a ditty/chant that had previously been banned. We’ll let you use your imaginations there.
The ensuing Gators drive ending with another fumble, this time at the hands of redshirt sophomore Malik Davis. Again, it appeared Davis recovered the fumble but the searching hands of Miami linebacker Shaq Quarterman had officials granting the Canes possession. Looking back, Mullen says he can see that call being questionable.
“I really did think about [challenging] it. To be honest with you, I thought he had the ball; he was on a knee and he went to stand up and made a football motion and the ball came out. Someone called, maybe it could have even been a late hit on that, our ball and plus 15 yards when someone calls that way.
“But I just—I don't think that's one that, in such a bang-bang play, that you're going to win. You guys probably have better looks at it, but I'm guessing that would have been a call stands type of deal. Maybe not.
“But we'll turn it in, and I'll get an opinion from the officials. But that would be one I would be nervous, the call stands. I didn't want to use a challenge in that situation.”
Three drives later, the Canes redshirt freshman quarterback Jarren Williams (19-29, 214 yards, 1 TD ) fought back from two sacks and with a poise that belayed his age and inexperience, led a 12 play, 90-yard drive that bled 6:08 off the clock and ended in a Canes touchdown that gave the South Florida team a 13-7 lead.
Of the play surrounding that drive and others, Mullen said, “There’s a lot we can learn from that game and a lot we can get cleaned up defensively. We can get that coached. We can be better coach and we can get them coached better, get the players to play better. It's hard to coach that effort, that strain, and that desire to find a way to win. That's hard to coach and they showed they had that tonight.”
He’s right in that there will be plenty of missed tackles to coach off of but it should be noted the Florida defensive front four was smothering to the point of suffocating. They ended the night with 11 sacks, abusing the two freshman tackles on the Miami offensive line. Linebacker Ventrell Miller played in the box often and well, joining Jabari Zuniga, Jon Greenard, Kyree Campbell and Jeawon Taylor with a team leading six tackles.
Greenard doesn’t want the rest of the country to take for granted what he feels the Gators defense and entire team is capable of doing this season.
“They were all antsy, just worried about our get offs and getting them to the quarterback. But, you know, at the end of the day, we're going to stay humble. We're going to keep working. We understand that there's going to be better competition in the future. We're just going to be all right after that. We're going to keep working to get to where we want to get in the future.
“Obviously it was a sloppy game. We're at the beginning of the season. We got a lot of things to fix and correct, but that doesn't take away from the time on this team and the drive that we have on this team…if teams to want to take us lightly and take this game and think we're going to apply this the rest of the year, then they're going to find out real soon that was a mistake.”
As for the second half, I can tell you a few things that for sure actually happened.
Evan McPherson kicked a 27-yard field goal to give Florida back a 13-10 lead (one of five lead changes in the game) and the Florida defense sacked Williams six more times.
Miami’s Jeff Thomas fumbled a punt and Van Jefferson recovered it at the Miami 11-yard line. Franks took advantage of the field position and hit Perine—who was beat up all game—with an 8-yard dart at the end zone that put UF up by four.
The Canes running back DeeJay Dallas went 50-yards past the Gators secondary for a touchdown. Gators receiver Freddie Swain tipped a pass that landed in the hands of UM’s Amari Carter who returned it for 25 yards. Diaz’s group tried a fake field goal on that drive and Jon Greenard knocked the kicker Bubba Baxa out of bounds. A UF penalty gave the Canes a fresh set of downs that faltered and Baxa—possibly still shook up—missed the 27-yard chip shot.
Franks took the field for the first time since the interception and threw a 65-yard bomb into the sure hands of Josh Hammond. Three plays later he pushed 3-yards into the end zone for a lead the Gators wouldn’t relinquish.
Miami did nothing on their ensuing drive but on the Gators first play that was set up to run out the clock, Franks was laid out while throwing up a ball that was easily intercepted.
“The last interception, he gets hit and, you know, I'm trying to think that shows what we're trying to do. I'm putting the game in his hands,” explains Mullen.
“I thought we had something there. We didn't. He gets hit. He was trying to throw it away. He gets hit. The ball kind of floats and gets picked. That's on me.
“You know, one of the things I kept seeing from him is, even if things didn't go right, if we made a mistake, he came right back firing. There wasn't a hesitation. There wasn't concern or lack of confidence in him in what he was going to do. And I was really pleased in that.”
Adds Franks, “Obviously things don't go sometimes, our way that we expect them to go. I think these guys can attest to that. Obviously, I didn't go out there and try to throw a pick. That's not what I planned to do. But things happen throughout the course of the game that you don't plan, and that's what adversity is. It's all about just trying to persevere through those kinds of things and that's what we did tonight and just got a great team win.”
So, those are all facts concerning plays that are tangibly explained albeit happened within a cloud of bizarre football. Then came a Miami drive that should have ended three times, required the Gators to win the game three times as Mullen said, and was kept alive with a bevy of UF penalties.
As the great O.B. Keeler once said following an Auburn-Georgia slugfest, “I am not going to try a detailed description of that [drive]. There may be experts who are expert enough to do it, but I am not one of them. I thought I knew something about football, before that game. I still think I know something about football. But not that kind.”
Suffice to say, at end of a 10-play, 4:08 drive, Miami had gone for a net total of 14-yards and were forced to walk their offense off the field in defeat as linebacker Jeremiah Moon celebrated his final sack of the evening. A quick victory formation from Franks and the quarterback—and former punter—punted the ball into the stands in celebration.
“I really loved the way that our guys continued to battle, continued to compete, continued to try to find a way to win for the entire four quarters,” bragged Mullen.
“I mean, we go back and we talk about our plan to win and how we want to win games. And we certainly didn't do that tonight with turning the ball over, with not scoring touchdowns when we get down on the red zone, some critical penalties at critical times.
“We had some missed tackles. But I'm going to tell you what. Our guys compete. They competed and they competed and they kept competing and kept battling. It seemed like we had to win the game about four different times, but we continued to do that. And so I'm really proud of that.”