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Saturday, November 24, 2012
Updated: November 25, 11:33 AM ET
Toughness no longer in question

By Michael DiRocco
GatorNation

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- People are wrong if they believe the turning point in Florida's 37-26 victory over Florida State was Antonio Morrison's jarring hit that caused FSU quarterback EJ Manuel to fumble.

Or Mike Gillislee's 37-yard touchdown run on the next play, a score that put the Gators ahead 23-20 four minutes into the fourth quarter.

Those were important moments, for sure. But Saturday's game at Doak Campbell Stadium was really won nearly a year ago: Nov. 26, 2011. That's when UF coach Will Muschamp stood in the locker room following a 21-7 loss to Florida State in Gainesville and called his team soft.

Jeff Driskel
Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel was able to run the ball against FSU despite suffering an ankle injury two weeks earlier.
That's the worst insult football players can hear. It turned out to be the best motivation they could get.

"That was a turning point for our football program when he said that," DT Omar Hunter said. "I'm glad he said it. I'm glad guys really took it to heart and got better from it."

UF's players didn't just take it to heart. They immersed themselves in it. And 363 days later, it's apparent it no longer applies.

The fourth-ranked Gators (11-1) aren't soft now. Not after what they did to the 10th-ranked Noles in front of 83,429. Not after the way they did it. Not after scoring 24 points in the fourth quarter to wipe out a seven-point deficit because the defense uncharacteristically allowed 17 points in the third quarter. Not after dominating the nation's No. 1 rushing defense by running for 244 yards. Not after forcing five turnovers.

"Very proud of how we played the game -- the mental toughness that we played with, and I think that's something when I first came to Florida there was a little bit of a question mark," Muschamp said. "The last time we were in this stadium it was a 31-7 game. And it wasn't tonight, so that football team showed you their resolve and their fight and their oneness and their togetherness."

That was missing from last year's team, Muschamp's first in Gainesville. The Gators were terrible at forcing turnovers (14), turned it over way too much (16), and wilted late in games, getting outscored 72-22 in the fourth quarter of SEC games. The offensive and defensive lines were pushed around on a regular basis, too, which was really the main reason for Muschamp's soft comments.

But that changed in 2012. Hiring new strength and conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman had a lot to do with it, but so did something the Gators didn't seem to have a lot of last season: pride. Going 7-6 is unacceptable at the University of Florida. And the only way that was going to change, the players knew, was to face what their coach said and do something about it.

"Last year kind of took me by surprise when he said it," Hunter said. "But I see what he was talking about now."

So does FSU. The Seminoles (10-2) had the Gators reeling by erasing a 13-0 deficit by scoring 17 points in the third quarter. Manuel hit TE Nick O'Leary for a 6-yard touchdown pass with 10:27 remaining to cut UF's lead to 13-10. UF turned the ball over on the next offensive snap when QB Jeff Driskel and RB Mike Gillislee blew the read-option handoff and DE Bjoern Werner recovered the fumble at the UF 17-yard line.

Two plays later, Manuel scored on a 1-yard run and FSU led 17-13. Dustin Hopkins kicked a 53-yard field goal for a 20-7 lead with 4:24 remaining to up it to 20-13.

That's when the Gators showed just how far they have come from last November. UF put together a 13-play, 64-yard drive that ended with Caleb Sturgis' 32-yard field goal with 13:27 remaining in the game.

Morrison ended FSU's next possession when he blasted Manuel to cause a fumble and knock Manuel out of the game. Gillislee followed with his touchdown, the defense forced a three-and-out, and the Gators got a 50-yard punt return from Marcus Roberson to set up QB Jeff Driskel's TD pass to WR Quinton Dunbar.

Ballgame: 30-20 Gators, but for good measure, backup RB Matt Jones scored on a 32-yard run with 2:33 to play.

By the time the fourth quarter was over, Gillislee had rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns and the Gators had 244 yards on the ground (FSU had been allowing 70.64 per game). UF's 37 points were the most FSU has given up all season (Clemson also had 37) and the 24 fourth-quarter points the Gators scored were more points than the Seminoles had allowed in 10 games.

That 24-0 advantage upped the Gators' edge in fourth-quarter points to 115-29 this season.

Soft isn't in Muschamp's vocabulary any longer, unless he's talking about pillows.

"Our guys understand it's about 60 minutes, and it's about how you continue to play and perform," Muschamp said. "And we've really challenged our football team on winning the fourth quarter and getting in those games and those situations and performing well when the game's on the line. We didn't do that well a year ago, and we've done it pretty good this year.

"We're getting there, but again it's a work in progress. It's a 365-day job a year and you've got to continue to chop the wood every single day at it, and we have made tremendous progress."

It's enough progress that the Gators are headed for a BCS bowl one year after narrowly avoiding the program's first losing season since 1979.