|Florida QB Jeff Driskel is sacked eight times, but completes 13 of 16 for 162 yards. (US Presswire)|
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Saturday wasn't just the day that the SEC welcomed its two newest programs to the conference with marquee matchups, we also may end up looking back at this sunny afternoon at Kyle Field as the first significant step Will Muschamp took in building Florida back into a powerhouse.
The 20-17 Florida win over an unranked Texas A&M team playing in its first game probably didn't wow anyone, but it showed the young Gators (2-0) are maturing as they did from the first half to the second Saturday in a very hostile setting.
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Muschamp called it a "statement game," adding that being able to come into such an environment and disappoint the other team's fan was "a lot of fun."
No doubt, he will relish it as part of his own team's process.
Muschamp's Gators, who put up a listless showing in a 27-14 win last week against Bowling Green, had a very shaky first half dealing with the upstart Aggies and their dynamic QB Johnny Manziel. The redshirt freshman had the Kyle Field crowd roaring, and the Gator D on its heels.
Keying a no-huddle, frenetic spread attack, Manziel and A&M ran off almost twice as many plays as UF (46-26) and outgained the Gators 269-101 en route to a 17-10 lead. Muschamp's Gators, as they've had a tendency to do, aided the opponent with a couple of penalties, including a head-scratcher that came after a third-and-17 play when DB Marcus Roberson swatted at an Aggie right in front of a referee. The personal foul extended A&M's opening drive and enabled Manziel to get into a rhythm.
In their opener last week, the Gators committed 14 penalties, more than any other FBS program. A year ago, in Muschamp's first season, UF ranked No. 114 in penalties. Meanwhile, the Gators offense looked tentative as its own young quarterback, Jeff Driskel, was sacked five times in the opening half.
The Gators, though, behind Driskel and running back Mike Gillislee (who was banged up earlier in the game) showed a lot of grit in battling back. Defensively, they bottled up Manziel while the UF ground attack cranked up. The Gators forced the Aggies to punt on all six of their drives in the second half, including four three-and-outs as UF squeezed A&M's offense.
The victory was Muschamp's first in a game where the Gators trailed at halftime. (In 2011, UF was 0-5 in such games.)
UF held A&M to a total of 65 yards in the second half.
"It was all correctable," Muschamp said in regard to A&M's first-half successes. "We have a very aggressive front and they had good plan with a quarterback with legs. They were inviting us to run up the field and they were gonna hit run creases. "I told 'em at halftime, I'm firing you if you run up the field again. Sit on the line of scrimmage, squeeze blocks and quit trying to run up the field. That's what they want you to do. Just sit on the line of scrimmage, get your hands on people and play thick on people. And if you'll do that, they won't have run lanes anymore. They didn't have any run lanes in the second half."
Better still for the Gators, UF didn't commit any penalties in the second half.
"We were composed at halftime," said Driskel. "No one hung their head. No one was pointing fingers. We just corrected the things we needed to correct. We knew we had another half to play. Only being down a touchdown is really nothing, especially with the defensive line playing the way they were."
The road win, especially in such a hostile environment, should do wonders for the confidence of the young team. It also ought to cool the skepticism in some corners surrounding the Gators' second-year head coach. At least it should, but that probably won't last too long if UF can't build off this performance and go beat rival Tennessee next Saturday night in Knoxville.
"This is who we are," said the Nick Saban disciple. "We are going to grind it out; we are going to win. That's our mentality as a football team. We are going to grow and mature throughout the year." For the Aggies, losing a second half lead has become an all too common theme. In 2011, A&M blew five. When new Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin took over the program, he vowed to remedy that. He spoke a lot about improving conditioning under his new strength coach Larry Jackson, but it comes down to more than just energy and effort.
It's focus, poise and confidence.
Asked about how losing his debut in such a familiar and stinging fashion may impact the team's psyche, Sumlin didn't shy away from the obvious.
"It is the elephant in the room," he said. "In any game like that, when you have a game that is that close, execution becomes key. We didn't make enough plays to win the game. Florida did."
Sumlin's players acknowledged their frustration in losing another game this way, but kept talking about how they are a different team from last year and this is a new season. The one constant was the raucous scene at the "Home of the 12th Man."
"Coming out, the energy level of the crowd was fantastic," Sumlin said. "It's the reason why I wanted to be here."
Said senior receiver Ryan Swope, "I feel like myself, this team let Kyle Field down today."
At least the Aggies gave their fans a lot to get excited about, starting with their talented young QB, who surely is going to give the SEC a lot of headaches over the next few seasons.