Saturday, October 6, 2012
Soft no more
By Michael DiRocco GatorNation
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida running back Mike Gillislee strolled into the postgame interview session wearing a black T-shirt that read, "Damn I'm Good."
Wonder if they make it in XXXL, because the Gators' offensive linemen should be wearing them, too.
Florida's line, criticized and insulted last season by head coach Will Muschamp, turned in a damn good performance on Saturday against LSU. The Gators pounded the Tigers' NFL-bound defensive line for 176 yards rushing, more than double what LSU had been allowing entering the game (86.0 yards per game), in a 14-6 victory in front of 90,824 at Florida Field.
"We were trying to be bullies up front," left guard James Wilson said. "It was awesome."
His numbers may not wow you, but RB Mike Gillislee has been vital to Florida's success this season.
It was proof that the Gators' offensive line is stronger and tougher this year. Muschamp, offensive coordinator Brent Pease and the players -- even defensive linemen -- have been saying it since spring practice began. But Saturday's game, against one of the nation's top rush defenses, was finally the linemen's chance to prove it.
And boy, did they.
The 10th-ranked Gators (5-0, 4-0 SEC) did more than bully the fourth-ranked Tigers (5-1, 1-1). They embarrassed them. UF ran for 160 yards in the second half, including 97 yards in the third quarter. It closed the game with 24 consecutive running plays (not counting the final kneel down), including a pair of 12-yard touchdown runs by Gillislee.
Gillislee finished with 146 yards on 34 carries, both career-highs, including 22 carries for 112 yards in the second half.
The Gators' go-ahead touchdown came at the end of an 85-yard drive. Eight of the drive's nine plays were runs, and it was helped by a 15-yard grabbing the face mask penalty on LSU's Ronald Martin. Gillislee's 12-yard touchdown run with 3:44 remaining in the third quarter started the streak of 24 consecutive running plays.
By that point, LSU's defensive line was reeling, and the Gators could sense it.
"There was one point in the game when I was looking in the eyes of No. 77 [LSU defensive tackle Josh Downs] and he was dead tired," right guard Jon Halapio said. "That's a great feeling. That's what you look for in a game. When you see that, it gives you the intensity and motivation to just go ahead and finish them off."
UF's offensive line didn't see many defensive players with that look last year. The Gators struggled to run the ball during their October gantlet of Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia. UF ran for 175 yards and averaged just 1.5 yards per carry last season against those four teams. That, plus gaining just 54 yards on the ground against Florida State, is what prompted Muschamp to call his team "soft" in the locker room -- and in postgame interviews -- immediately after the 21-0 loss to the Seminoles.
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When Mickey Marotti left to become the strength and conditioning coordinator at Ohio State under Urban Meyer, Muschamp hired Jeff Dillman, with whom he had worked at LSU, and Dillman immediately put the Gators on an Olympic lifting program. Muschamp also hired Tim Davis as the Gators' new offensive line coach.
The difference those two have made was on display on Saturday.
"We used that as motivation," center Jon Harrison said of Muschamp's insult. "We kept saying that nobody believed in us. We were going to use that as motivation.
"[Saturday's performance] shows that the coaches and the players have trust and faith in what we can do."
Of course, it helps to have Gillislee, too. The 5-foot-11, 201-pound senior has finally gotten his chance in the Gators' pro-style offense and he has responded with 548 yards and seven touchdowns in five games. Saturday may have been his best performance. He kept pounding away and pounding away at LSU's front between the tackles, slowly but surely wearing the Tigers down.
"I had my faith in my offensive linemen, knowing that they were just going to keep on doing their thing and I was going to keep on finding the opening," Gillislee said. "I knew I wasn't going to let my team down. I just knew I was going to keeping pounding it up there."