By BUDDY MARTIN
On an improbable Saturday in an improbable way, old school collided with new school and the Florida Gators re-entered the Heavyweight Arena for College Football. They shed their perceived cloak of mediocrity after bouncing No. 7 Auburn, 24-13, in the first round of a rigorous schedule.
Long live The Swamp!
Now surely these Gators must finally be taken seriously as an SEC contender, because they have found “The Juice” -- The Swamp’s magic elixir which is almost as real as Gatorade. Or will they ever be taken seriously?
Up next, the place they call “Death Valley,” home field of the No. 5 undefeated LSU Tigers, who have been installed as a two-touchdown favorite. Another week of being the Rodney Dangerfield underdog.
We must remember that “Juice” cannot be bottled and transported on the road to Baton Rouge – or even to nearby Jacksonville.
So maybe not – maybe they Gators have not achieved that status yet. Maybe that 6-0 resume looks very average to others and not good enough to vault them into the Top Five. And maybe what’s ahead the next few weeks looks too imposing: One down, but two more Top Ten opponents to go for the next three Saturdays. But none of them at The Swamp.
It’s puzzling as to why this 7th ranked team hasn’t caught the eye of many critics, but maybe it’s because there’s too much other eye candy. While the SEC’s beasts cannibalize each other, teams like Florida must sit on the sideline picking carcasses until their time comes to shine. Maybe that time is now.
There’s a reason Florida is starting to be noticed, though, and that ESPN Game Day is showing up again:
“Biggest game last week … biggest game this week. That’s the reason people come to Florida,” said Mullen – to play in these kind of big games against the glamorous teams with a hot quarterback like Joe Burrow. In an iconic settingwhich some people think is the toughest place to play in college football.
The good news is that this Gator team is reenergized by The Swamp. Especially Dan Mullen.
When at home in The Swamp, right before his team comes out for the kickoff, Mullen will poke his head from the doors of the South end zone and drink in the moment. Just as he did vs. Auburn. And when the voices from “Two Bits” or “The Boys From Old Florida” or “Don’t Back Down” ripple from the loudspeakers it damn near sets Dan Mullen’s hair on fire.
“I get into it,” Mullen confessed. “I love the energy. I love the crowd. That excites me. When you open those doors and walk out of the tunnel and hear that deafening noise in The Swamp, that gets you juiced. That gets you excited. I love it. After the game running around high fiving everybody for being here, that’s what it’s all about. It’s an unbelievable adrenaline rush.”
The bad news is that the Gators don’t return to The Swamp again until Nov. 9 to play Vanderbilt.
#Resiliency is when your starting quarterback gets knocked out on what appears to be a possible season-ending injury – the second time in four weeks. As Kyle Trask lay there writhing in pain, his fingers covering his eyes, no doubt his whole career flashing before those eyes. And the dreams of Gator fans feeling like they’ve been dashed.
On Trask’s injury, Mullen said: “I didn’t see the play. I saw part of it and then I saw the replay. In that moment, our trainers are out there to do their job. I’m trying to make sure, ‘Hey, let’s get organized. We still have to go play the next play We still have to keep playing.’ Trainers are going to take care of him, and we’ll get out there, then when it’s appropriate, find out what’s going on and make sure he’s okay. It’s happened to us once already this year.”
Not to worry, however, as red-shirt freshman Emory Jones came in for a few series and held Trask’s place, driving his team downfield 51 yards for a field goal and proving to be a worthy backup and someday a starter.
“We trust Emory,” said Mullen.
The trainers came back out and said, “Hey, it wasn’t bad. He can come back in.”
Then Trask made a Willis Reed 1972-like return to the game to help seal the victory. As loud as it was down on Steve Spurrier-Florida Field, the crowd didn’t seem get all that lathered up, probably because it seemed to catch them off-guard and they didn’t know how badly Trask was hurt, or if he could return. After warming up, the junior quarterback was told by Mullen to wait a series. Trask played the whole second half – played it well -- even catching a 4-yard pass from his tight end Lucas Krull for a game-ending first down.
#Resiliency is when the Gator defense keeps showing up with huge drive-thwarting plays, proving to the world why it is one of the Top Five in America. And shutting down Auburn’s running game down and forcing promising young true freshman Bo Nix into critical misreads and mistakes. Feasting on three interceptions – including a one-handed tip&pick by safety Shawn Davis.
And #Resiliency is a senior running back who has struggled behind a struggling offensive line for four weeks, suddenly breaking off an 88-yard touchdown run, the longest since a guy named Emmitt Smith did the same in 1988 -- Emmitt watching Lamical Perine’s gamebreaker from the sideline. (Mullen: “It was the biggest play of the game.”) It closed out the Tigers.
Perine, a Mobile, Ala. native who was rejected by Auburn because he was allegedly too slow, was on a mission. There was no way anybody is an Auburn uniform was and going to catch him today as every step was fueled by redemption and #Swamp Juice.
“Yeah, that was pretty cool. That was kind of neat,” Mullen said of the Perine-Emmitt symmetry: I don’t think Lamical knew that and I don’t think Emmitt knew that either that it was going to be the longest run since his. So, but I’m going to tell you, it came at a great opportunity for us, at a great time in the game and it couldn’t have happened at a better time.”
And there is even a littler #Resiliency in good fortune, when a 6-5, 318-pound rumblin’, stumblin’ behemoth like Auburn’s DL Derrick Brown picks up a fumble and starts downfield with blocking escorts and a clear shot to the end zone – but trips over a blade of grass and falls down.
It was more about execution and grit and intelligence than it was Derrick Brown’s misfortune, however … like Donovan Stiner stepping in front of a receiver in the end zone with an interception of what could have been Auburn’s go-ahead touchdown at the end of the third quarter.
Those are some of the reasons Florida’s Red Zone Defense is leading the nation in conversions. They know how to line up and execute when a big play is needed.
And isn’t it about time Todd Grantham gets a nod for his brilliant schemes and his staff’s superb coaching? And the defensive game plan.
Mullen is impressed whether anybody else is or not: “Defensively, amazing job. Todd, his staff, the defensive guys grinding, training, getting to the football as hard as they can every play. That’s the type of defense we expect to play around here. I’m really proud of those guys. They gave up one score, and that was on me. We don’t fake a punt and they probably don’t score a touchdown. So I end up causing the only fault with our defense.”
Mullen also lauded the defense for stopping Auburn’s running game and creating so many three-and-outs.
“The discipline showed of our guys, their focus, the execution and how they executed the game plan that Todd and the staff put in was great," said Mullen.
Grantham’s defense is a very big reason the Gators have won 10 straight and 16 out of 19 – 10 straight being the longest since the national championship 1998 team won 22 in a row.
At the same time, there is the danger of over-valuing the win over Auburn, who was a 2-point favorite, and getting your doors blown off in Tiger Stadium under the lights, whereas Orgeron likes to say, “Dreams go to die.” But don’t let facts stand in the way of rhetoric.
Florida has a winning record in Tiger Stadium, 17-16, and leads the series overall 33-29-3.
Burrow, the transfer from Ohio State – doesn’t it seem like a bunch of winning teams have one? – poses a big challenge for Grantham’s D because of his legs, passing accuracy and quick release.
"He'll be the best quarterback, obviously, we've seen so far this year,” said Mullen. “He can make all the throws. He's got experience; he's been out there on the field. Playing in big games, that's not new for him; he's played in a bunch of big games. He's got great skill players around him; you can see his trust in those guys to go make plays out there. And I think he's just deceptively, really athletic. He can extend plays happen in the run game. If you're going to give it to him, he's going to take it. He'll be the best quarterback we've faced so far this year and be a good challenge for our defense."
So for now it’s goodbye to The Swamp and all its good spirits. And Perine leaving behind the memory of his dream play. His coach admired Perine’s #Resliency. “Look at what he’s been able to do so far this year, maybe not put up the numbers that people thought he might put up to this point in the year. But certainly, hasn’t changed his approach, hasn’t changed how he’s play, hasn’t changed his playmaking ability. And really made the biggest play in the game on Saturday. When he was ready for that moment. When he hit the crease, he had to break a tackle, make a guy miss. He was fast enough to get to the end zone.”
What better way to illustrate the “Don’t Back Down” advice of Tom Petty against the No. 7 team in the nation, even when their quarterback was looking like he was kayoed on the ground. They never blinked or fell behind against Auburn on Homecoming Saturday. The Spirit of The Swamp was definitely felt. We will find out just how transportable all that is when they return to Gainesville for Vanderbilt.