Toughness Key as UF Extends Streak Over Vols

KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—With an offense predicated on rushing, it can take time for the Florida offense to break a game open. Saturday was no different. The Gators secured their second win in as many weekends while trailing at the half. The focus of the offseason program was key. Florida struggled as the games wore on in 2011. Through three games in 2012, the Gators are thriving in the second half.

"We have put a tremendous emphasis on winning the fourth quarter and the second half while wearing down an opponent," Will Muschamp said after Florida's 37-20 win. "It's something we've been able to do in the first three ball games. It's something our kids have bought into doing. We were in the locker room just now and the kids were talking about the fourth quarter."

The Gators learned about pushing through during their 2011 season. There was frustrating and plenty of heartbreak as the Gators sat speechless in the lockers rooms at Auburn, South Carolina, LSU and in Jacksonville after the loss to Georgia. Then there were the home losses when Alabama and Florida State came into The Swamp and won.

Those quiet moments pushed the offseason program. They fueled the Florida players to push through what Muschamp referred to as a noticeably harder offseason. They did it for moments like Saturday.

Tennessee went into the locker room with a 14-10 lead that felt much bigger than that. Despite the Volunteers holding the momentum and a sellout crowd of 102,455 at Neyland Stadium, the Gators ruined what was supposed to be a celebratory weekend for the home team. It's becoming a habit.

"We grew up a lot last year," Muschamp said. "You sit in (losing locker rooms in 2011)… it's tough. 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. These guys responded the right way."

It was a different Muschamp that took the podium in the south end zone of Neyland Stadium late Saturday night. In College Station, the Florida head coach spoke about the team overcoming a dismal first week performance in a win over Bowling Green. He talked about the importance of staying the course and building toughness.

After the win against Tennessee, the Florida head coach was more subdued. There were multiple points in the press conference where he threw out warnings that his team still had improvement left.

"Are we where we want to be? Heck no," Muschamp said. "Let's don't start celebrating. Let's be realistic of where we are. We've got a long way to go, but we've got guys that are bought into what we're trying to do. That's important to have."

That doesn't mean the patented Muschamp excitement wasn't there. After the clock ran out and Florida players celebrated, the team made its annual trip to the band to sign the alma mater. Muschamp was delayed by TV and radio interviews, but as he locked his eyes with the band and sea of orange and blue that took over the northeast corner of the stadium, the Florida head coach broke out in a grin.

He wanted that celebration. Muschamp broke out into a sprint, with the police officers that protect him struggling to keep up, as he ran to enjoy the moment. He stopped to hug a few players—Josh Evans and Pop Saunders—before acknowledging the band and the Florida fans that were still in the stadium.

After a few celebratory screams and excited clapping, Muschamp looked ready to jog to the locker room. But he wasn't done. Three exuberant fist pumps sent the Florida crowd into a frenzy.

Saturday night may have been a win over a team that didn't make a bowl game in 2011. But for Muschamp, it was about more.

"(Team's toughness is) Night and day for me," Muschamp said. "You've got to credit our players for the commitment level and being realistic. Looking at last season, we couldn't run the ball. We struggled to stop the running game in ones that we needed to win. We weren't tough enough."

Florida held Tennessee to 83 yards on the ground with 20 of those coming on the opening play of the game. The stats are good because they come in wins, but ultimately, Muschamp isn't concerned with them. He's concerned about the overall mentality of his team.

And for the second week in a row, Saturday was a big step in the right direction.

"We continue to play hard and develop our identity as a team and a program," Muschamp said. "We're not where we need to be but certainly better than we've been."

Saturday was a familiar place for Florida. After extending the winning streak to eight games and going into the year 3-0, Muschamp was reminded of his team last year. The Gators took out FAU and UAB before securing a win over Tennessee in Gainesville, and his team also held a 3-0 record.

Florida could close that season 4-6 and stumble into a bowl game. Muschamp doesn't expect that this season.

"This is a different 3-0," Muschamp said. "Better (opponents). Tennessee is a much improved football team defensively. They're a good-looking team standing across the field. Going on the road in two road environments, we're a much better football team than last year. Does that mean anything? No. It means we're 3-0."

But it's exactly where Muschamp wants to be.

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