Florida Gators Lean on Character to Finish Season Strong

Updated: Nov 9, 2019

Dan Mullen and players sing the alma mater after falling to Georgia—Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

Jon Greenard propped his right shoulder against the wall, leaning back to meet the eye of each reporter he spoke with and took sole blame for the defensive performance in No. 6 Florida Gators 24-17 loss to No. 8 Georgia Bulldogs.

“We gotta get to the quarterback. He was too comfortable back there. I was terrible. I was ass today. No excuse. Believe me. I’m going to get back right.”

One couldn’t help but be taken aback. The Gators defense 398 total yards to the Bulldogs and Jake Fromm went 20-20 for 279 yards and two touchdowns. But the performance wasn’t Greenard’s fault. He had a team leading nine tackles and more than once during the afternoon, he blitzed up the middle into Jake Fromm’s face. The Georgia quarterback just stood in the pocket and took the pressure, getting off gutsy passes at the last possible millisecond. There was little else Greenard could do in those moments. Yet here he was, shouldering a blame that wasn’t his.

Related: Third down tells the story as Gators fall to Bulldogs

But the BUCK linebacker who is in Gainesville for one season as a graduate transfer has taken on the role of a leader and that means taking the blame for a performance that took place largely behind him. It’s the attitude—the character—that head coach Dan Mullen is asking from his team following the loss to the hated rival.

“The adversity, to me, your character is tested. At this point we’ll see our character. Our character wasn’t really showing out there on the field. That doesn’t define what the character is. We’re going to come to play. We’re going to play hard for 60 minutes. We did that. We did some really good things. We made some mistakes. We all can work to get better. Your character is defined on what you’re doing in response to it.”

The Gators response following the 2018 loss was an embarrassing loss back at home to Missouri. Following that loss came a four game win streak (stretched to 10 total into 2019) that ended with a No. 7 ranking and New Years Six Peach Bowl win over Michigan. Now the question becomes, which character trait do we see in these Gators next Saturday back at home against Vanderbilt?

“We do have a lot to play for. We have to finish the season strong,” said quarterback Kyle Trask (21-33, 257 yards, 2 TD).

“This is going to be a big character moment for us to see how we finish. I have 100-percent belief we’re going to finish it the right way and continue to get better each and every week. There’s still a lot to play for, we still have a shot at this thing. We can only control what we can control. We have to do all we can do to finish the season the right way.”

Technically, and mathematically speaking, the Gators do still have “a shot at this thing," something of which they are aware. Asked Monday if he knew what it would take to make it to Atlanta, receiver Josh Hammond held up two fingers and said “they would have to lose two.” The “they” in question of course being Georgia. If the Gators run the table and Georgia falls twice, as Hammond said, it could sneak Florida into the SEC Championship. But it’s largely out of their hands now. They no longer “control their own destiny” to borrow a favorite coach speak answer. As such the division wasn’t clinched fully in Jacksonville on Saturday. That’s just one thing in the back of the Gators minds as they look towards their final three regular season games.

Says Mullen, “There’s an awful lot to still play for. A lot of football still left. We have three more games to go play and a bye week. We’ve qualified for a bowl game, so we’ll get that extra. How good that is, we’ll see. The East still hasn’t been decided. Like I said, a bunch of football.”

Whether or not the Gators manage to finagle their way into the SEC Championship game remains to be seen. But that’s a secondary concern now for the Top 10 who can’t let a season slip off the rails.

“We’re still a good team. I’m not letting this loss define us. We’re still a good team and can still be elite, just gotta focus on the little things as a team and once we do, we’ll be alright,” muses receiver Freddie Swain (8-91, 1TD).

Adds Greenard, “We just gotta get back to work. It’s a tough loss. We came in with high hopes of getting a W. it didn’t come out that way. They were a good team, a really great team. We just had to miss a couple things that we needed to get off the field on third downs. A lot of stuff that could have changed the game. We just have to execute. It hurts. We just have to bounce back.”

It started on Monday. Mullen said Monday afternoon that he needed to see the look in the players eyes when they arrived to practice that evening. That’s how he’d know what kind of character would be taking the field to prepare for Vanderbilt, something they need -- in a way — for survival admits Mullen. 

“Winning is an addiction. I like winning. I want to get back out there and I want to win more. That’s just me as a competitor. That’s what I want to see from our players. Hopefully, they have that same drive.”

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden is credited with saying, character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think of you are. Right now, the Florida Gators reputation has taken a hit. The loss to Georgia dulled the shine of what had been an impressive resume thus far. Their reputation after this game will make it hard to keep them in any playoff discussion and changes the narrative around the success of the season.

But their character, that’s what Dan Mullen and players are counting on carrying them through the final stretch of this season.

“If we would win this game, we celebrate tonight and tomorrow and then focus on the next game Monday. This is a loss, it hurts, it's a big game. So we gotta take a loss and feel the pain of it tonight and tomorrow,” explains center Nick Buchanan.

“Then on Monday morning, get the game plan and focus on Vanderbilt. It's a big game, so we gotta get off of this one. We got another opportunity to compete…we’re a team that's going to compete until the very end. We're built on grit and toughness. We're going to stay in the fight. We're not going to lay down for anybody."

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