The Gators allowed 151 yards on 32 plays in the first half. Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly threw for 129 yards while the Rebels gained 22 yards on 17 first-half rushes.
“It starts obviously with defense,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “Our defense played their tails off. They had a great plan, I thought the guys executed it. They communicated, and I’m gonna tell you something, they practiced that way Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, they had a perfect Thursday. They had a great walkthrough Friday and the routine and the detail of the weekend, they’re starting to understand the ‘why’ in some of that stuff. It was good to see.”
The defense totaled 11 tackles for a loss with four sacks, penetrating an overmatched Ole Miss offensive line to keep the running game at a minimum. The Gators forced the Rebels to be one-dimensional, both with their defensive play and the game’s score.
The motivation came in different ways. The Florida defense felt like it had a chance to make a statement against an Ole Miss offense that has received plenty of praise nationally since the start of the season. But the memories from last week’s game to Tennessee were fresh in their mind at practice. They remembered the missed tackles, which McElwain hinted were around 30.
“Coming off of (a game) that quite honestly was sloppy, and I think that they understood that,” McElwain said. “Here’s the key -- be proud of what you put on film. That’s what we talk about. Be proud of it. Own it. And understand that you’ve got to learn from all the things that happen, good or bad.
“I thought we did a good job of wrapping up. We were pretty good this week. We didn’t change anything we did other than they understand the importance of the why. Once you, in life, start to understand the importance of the why, you got a pretty good chance to be successful, and so far they’ve been decently successful.”
There was no bigger drive in the game for the Florida defense than the one to open the second half. Trailing 25-0, Ole Miss got the opening kickoff and went 19 plays for 70 yards, but the drive ended in a field goal despite Ole Miss getting to the Florida one-yard line for a first and goal.
The defense was up to the challenge, stuffing three Ole Miss runs and forcing Freeze to kick a field goal, which surprised McElwain.
“Boy was that a big stop,” McElwain said. “Big stop. I was a little surprised actually that they wanted to put points on us. Here’s the other good thing: The way they have scored if you look at the explosive plays, they’ve scored kind of through out the year leading up. I think we made them earn that drive. I don’t know the numbers were, but I mean it was a long drive, which you know that tells me that our guys’ eyes were right. They were in the right gaps, not trying to do something that they’re not trying supposed to do. Made them earn it.”
The Gators were 3-15 on third-down conversions last week against Tennessee, and those situations got plenty of focus in practice. Florida went 8-16 on third downs against Ole Miss. But it was about much more than just extra time in practice.
It was all about what happened on first and second downs. Last week, the Gators didn’t do much on those downs, creating third-and-long situations. However, the increased success on early downs Saturday helped Florida created third-and-short situations that were easier to convert against Ole Miss.
“I think we were in reachable distance,” McElwain said. “I think we did a better job on first and second, and conversely, our guys did a good job against them on first and 10 for the most part.”
TOWNSEND A WEAPON
When the Florida offense was forced to punt, Johnny Townsend was there to flip field position. He averaged 47 yards per punt on Saturday, hitting two punts 50+ yards and dropping two inside the Ole Miss 20-yard line with zero touchbacks.
“He’s been good,” McElwain said. “He can do that, he’s that kind of punter and we need to have that consistently every time. He did a great job flipping the field for us and yet that’s what punters are supposed to do, right? So, he did his job.”