UF's success starts on the ground
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp, who played at Georgia and worked as defensive coordinator at LSU and Auburn before replacing Urban Meyer as the Gators' coach, knows a thing or two about playing and coaching in the SEC.
And after the Gators went 7-6 in his first season as a head coach in 2011, Muschamp knew his program needed an attitude adjustment.
"I do know a little bit about this league," Muschamp said Saturday night. "You can't win in this league if you can't run the football."
Tell that to Tennessee.
The No. 18 Gators ran for 336 yards, including 250 in the second half, to run away with a 37-20 victory over the No. 23 Volunteers in front of a sold-out crowd of 102,455 fans at Neyland Stadium. It was Florida's eighth consecutive victory over the Volunteers and 16th in their last 21 meetings.
Going into the game, the Volunteers were slight favorites to win because they were playing at home, had the more experienced quarterback in junior Tyler Bray and more dangerous big-play receivers in Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson.
But Florida had a better running game and defense, which is what you need most in the SEC.
"As the game wore on, I felt like we won at the line of scrimmage," Muschamp said. "You look at our yardage, around 330-something rushing, when you do that you're going to win games."
Just like in last week's 20-17 victory at Texas A&M, the Gators came from behind and wore down UT with their bruising running game and suffocating defense. Florida gained 379 of its 555 yards of offense in the second half and scored the game's final 24 points after falling behind midway through the third quarter.
"We have put a tremendous emphasis on winning the fourth quarter and winning the second half and wearing down our opponent," Muschamp said. "That's something that we've been able to do in the first three games. Again, that's something that our kids have bought into. In the locker room just now, a bunch of the guys were talking about the fourth quarter. They believe that."
If the Gators keep running the ball and playing stingy defense, they might be good enough to contend with No. 7 Georgia and No. 8 South Carolina in the SEC East. After winning back-to-back road games and defeating a ranked opponent for the first time in Muschamp's tenure, the Gators play only one more road game outside the state of Florida (at Vanderbilt on Oct. 13).
More than anything else, Florida's running game has taken pressure off sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel, who has already won in two hostile environments and is beating opponents with his arms and legs. Against Tennessee, Driskel completed 14 of 20 passes for 219 yards with two touchdowns and ran eight times for 81 yards.
"It's awesome knowing we can run the ball on any down and get four or five yards or get a big play," Driskel said. "It's taking pressure off me and kills any momentum they have."
Driskel is also getting plenty of help from the Gators' once-maligned skill players. Flanker Trey Burton, who does a little bit of everything for Florida's offense, tied the score at 20 with an 80-yard touchdown run out of a Wildcat formation. Tight end Jordan Reed, another former quarterback, caught a 23-yard touchdown pass, and receiver Frankie Hammond Jr. turned a short pass into a 75-yard touchdown.
"We grew up a lot last year," Muschamp said. "You sit in the locker room at Auburn and South Carolina and [against Georgia] in Jacksonville, it's tough and it's hard. These guys have a lot of pride. We're the University of Florida. These guys didn't come here to go 7-6."
Now the Gators are 3-0 because they bought into Muschamp's offseason message: Quit being soft and get tougher.
"It's night and day," Muschamp said. "Last year, we struggled to run the ball and struggled to stop the run mightily. We weren't tough enough."
And the Gators weren't physically or mentally tough enough to finish games, either. In their five SEC losses, they were outscored 48-6 in the fourth quarter and lost each of the five games in which they trailed at the half.
This season, Florida hasn't allowed a point in the fourth quarter in any of its first three games. Last week, the Gators trailed the Aggies 17-10 before rallying for a victory.
"Just like last week, Tennessee had the momentum," Driskel said. "But no one hung their head [in the locker room]. We knew we weren't out of it. We knew we were going to make some adjustments and get it done."
The Gators have become the comeback kids in Muschamp's second season.
"I feel very confident and comfortable with this football team," Muschamp said. "But you never know until you get in these situations. You really don't. You don't ever know. You get in there and you're down at halftime, and everybody is circling and it's not good. When I walk into the locker room at halftime, there's not any finger pointing and there's not any complaining or asking what's going on out there. Last year, to be quite honest, we had some of that."
Muschamp know his job is far from over, though.
"Are we where we want to be? Heck no," Muschamp said. "Let's not start celebrating here. Let's be realistic where we are. We've got a long way to go, but we've got guys who bought into what we're trying to do, and that's what you need to have."