Dan Mullen was offering neither excuses nor apologies at his post game press conference Saturday night in the South End Zone of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Nobody is more keenly aware than Mullen that Florida's 45-0 win over the UT-Martin Skyhawks didn't measure up to what was wanted or expected, but there will be time to dissect how his team played in the next 24 hours before the Gators begin putting on their Kentucky game faces on Monday. For Saturday night, the only important measure was the Gators walked away with a win and winning means you never have to say you're sorry.
Florida should have won the game and did by the 40-some points the Vegas oddsmakers said they would. The Gators had superior talent and depth at every single position. While numerous mistakes were made, none of them were the stupid kind that allow a team from D1AA to do an Appalachian State and score an impossible dream win on the road in an iconic stadium. The Gators were never threatened even if their performance was – with a couple of notable exceptions – average, at best. A brilliant performance would have been nice, but on this night even a little below average was all that was necessary to score an easy victory.
As for the Skyhawks, their main goals were (1) don't embarrass themselves; (2) don't get anyone seriously hurt, not with an Ohio Valley Conference schedule on the horizon; and (3) go home with a $500,000 paycheck that will help balance an athletic budget that supports 16 other sports than football. When it comes to meeting their goals, the Skyhawks went 3-for-3 Saturday night and along the way offered up more than token resistance against the Gators. Their base defense was a 3-3-5 but they were determined to take Florida's vertical game away so they spent the night dropping eight into coverage. That forced Feleipe Franks to spend a good portion of the night dinking and dunking away with easy completions in the flats. Franks completed his first 15 passes and finished the night completing 25 of 27 passes, most of which were the five and eight-yard variety but still good enough for 270 yards and two touchdowns.
There weren't all that many downfield shots available but when Franks got the chance he delivered – a 69-yard touchdown pass to Van Jefferson and a 35-yard scoring throw to Tyrie Cleveland. On the Jefferson TD, the Skyhawks were in a three-deep on the back end that was designed to take the deep ball away but Franks had so much time to throw that when Jefferson reversed his pattern he found himself wide open heading toward the East sideline. It was an easy pitch and catch. The Cleveland TD was another easy throw, made possible by all the dinks and dunks that loosened up the coverage.
Defensively, the Gators came away with a shutout and those are difficult to come by no matter the opponent. On the Skyhawks' only real threat of the game, freshman corner Kaiir Elam got great position in the corner of the end zone and made a leaping interception to keep the shutout intact.
Mullen felt the Gators cleaned up some of the blatant issues from the win over Miami a couple of weeks ago. They didn't turn the ball over. They eliminated 70 yards of penalties (only three for 30 yards against UT-Martin), particularly pass interference and stupid personal fouls. They did a better job protecting Franks (only one sack allowed for -1 yard) and ran the ball better, particularly as the game moved along. They cut in half the number of missed tackles, a major sore spot in the Miami game.
So, yes, there were a lot of good things that happened against UT-Martin, but shouldn't there have been? Considering they escaped with a first game win in Orlando, shouldn't the Gators have played at a higher, more intense level from start to finish at home? Shouldn't they have gone into the locker room at halftime with more than a 17-0 lead and without needing Mullen to chew a few butts?
Said Jefferson, who had four catches for 94 yards, “We’re playing UT Martin, I mean not knocking them or anything, but he [Mullen] wanted to see us execute better and just see us play better. So he came in there and he gave us a good talk and we came out in the second half and were stronger.”
A good talk?
In Mullen's words, “I don't know that it was a super friendly halftime to be honest with you.”
Perhaps the halftime demeanor had something to do with the improved effort after intermission because the Gators had six possessions, scored touchdowns on four of them, only had to punt one time and then ran out the clock at the end. The Gators finished the game with 312 yards passing and 231 rushing while holding UT-Martin to 140 passing yards and only 54 rushing.
Mullen didn't seem too impressed with the statistical advantage.
“As the game went on, you look, I guess if you look statistically, a pretty solid night for us,” Mullen said.
Solid might be the best way to describe the win. Mullen would have preferred spectacular, but what he got was another upcoming Monday filled with teaching moments. “We have a lot to clean up from this game,” he said. Cleaning up almost sounds too simple when you consider next week the Gators open Southeastern Conference play in Lexington against a Kentucky team that lost its fear of the Gators in 2018 when they won at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Mullen walked away from his press conference Saturday night well aware that this week in practice the intensity has to “crank up about 10 notches.” He knows fully well the Gators should have played better, but the important thing is they won the game and wins, no matter the opponent, aren't easy to come by.
“It's hard to win,” he said. “Don't ever take it for granted.”
If you don't believe that, try having a rational conversation today with a Florida State or Tennessee fan.