<
>

Gators can't escape 'soft' label

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp stood in front of his team after its 21-7 loss to Florida State on Saturday night and delivered the worst insult a football player can hear.

He called his players soft.

He said they were not mentally or physically tough.

He said the leadership wasn't that great, either.

And then he blamed himself.

"Hard to say it," Muschamp said. "I've been called a lot of things in my life, and soft is not one of them, and we are, and that's my fault.

"Self-evaluation is hard, and it starts with me, and it falls on my shoulders, and I'm responsible. But at the end of the day, you are what you are."

The Gators are a .500 football team (6-6) that struggles to run the ball against better-than-average teams. Their offensive line can't create space and spends a lot of time helping quarterbacks up after a sack. The running backs can't run between the tackles.

The defensive line gets manhandled by elite offensive lines. The defense doesn't create turnovers or make big plays.

The Gators commit stupid penalties and are one of the nation's most-penalized teams.

Those are facts, not opinions or suppositions, and they make it hard for anyone to argue that the Gators aren't what their head coach said they are. UF's players didn't even try.

"I agree with him 100 percent," defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. "I feel like we've got to get together, and we've got to get tougher mentally and physically. I take some of the responsibility on myself as a leader of the team. And I know a lot of other older guys do, too -- not pushing the younger guys and not pushing ourselves hard."

Linebacker Jelani Jenkins agreed, too, even though that's the worst possible insult for a football player. They'd rather be called stupid or lazy. But getting called soft cuts right to the core of what they are as a football player.

"You don't want to be considered soft," Jenkins said. "[We have to] get better."

Especially on offense, which was painfully on display against the Seminoles (8-4) in front of 90,798 at Florida Field. The Gators gained only 184 yards of total offense, including just 54 yards rushing, and threw four interceptions. John Brantley threw three in the first half -- two of which led to 14 FSU points -- before he had to leave the game late in the second quarter after getting sandwiched between two defensive linemen.

Backup Jacoby Brissett threw an interception early in the fourth quarter that was taken back for a touchdown to put Florida State up 21-0.

The running game never got going, because the Gators couldn't make anything happen between the tackles and instead tried to run laterally against the Seminoles. The biggest gain of the day was a 23-yard run by fullback Hunter Joyer. Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps combined for 34 yards on 19 carries.

That, Muschamp said, is the biggest example of the team's lack of toughness.

"You can't run laterally in this league," Muschamp said. "The defenses are too good. We've tried running the ball inside. We just haven't been very effective. We don't get much movement. We've tried to run the zone-read series. We've tried different things.

"We're doing all we can do with what we've got right now. We've got to find some better answers, obviously. We've gone to wildcat. We've gotten in the I. We've gotten in the pistol. We've got in a lot of different stuff. We're trying."

Florida played its best defensive game of the season against Florida State, holding the Seminoles to 95 total yards and 30 yards rushing. But the Gators again committed costly penalties that helped FSU continue drives.

Defensive end Ronald Powell committed a personal foul after Florida State had been stopped at the 1-yard line on third-and-goal. That gave the Seminoles a first down, and Devonta Freeman scored on the next play for a 7-0 lead.

Linebacker Jon Bostic committed a personal foul that negated a 12-yard loss by FSU running back Jermaine Thomas, and safety Matt Elam committed another after Thomas' 10-yard catch from E.J. Manuel converted a fourth-and-1. That one was negated by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on FSU's Greg Reid.

All those are examples of a lack of mental toughness.

"More players on our football team need to take ownership of the team," Muschamp said. "I think we've made tremendous strides in that area, but we've got a long way to go."

Maybe longer than he realizes. On Friday night, Elam tweeted criticism of several seniors who spoke to the team, as is tradition the night before their final home game: "Only speeches I respected was Jeff [Demps] & DT [Deonte Thompson], the rest was FAKE ...!"

That was a shot at Brantley, defensive tackle Jaye Howard and Rainey -- all of whom likely spoke to the team.

Then again, that could just be the frustration of another disappointing season. But Muschamp said everyone should blame him instead.

"It's a very frustrating time right now to be a Florida Gator, and I understand that," he said. "It falls on my shoulders. And there's nobody else you need to look at. You don't need to blame the offensive coaches, the defensive coaches, or the special teams coach, or whoever's recruiting or who was here before. It falls on one guy's shoulders and that's mine.

"I know everybody's frustrated. I get that. I do. I'm frustrated, too. I guarantee you more than you guys are, more than anybody sitting in that stadium. But it's going to get fixed."

It's going to take a lot of hard work to stop being soft.

Michael DiRocco covers University of Florida sports for GatorNation. He can be reached at espndirocco@gmail.com or on Twitter @ESPNdirocco.