The offense was putrid, gaining just 258 yards and struggling to do much in the second half. The defense was dominant as usual, but even they gave up a 71-yard touchdown run late in the first half that almost was enough to make Florida lose.
Florida coach Jim McElwain pulled no punches when the game ended. The Gators won a game they had no business winning.
“You steal one,” McElwain said. “And let’s face it, we stole it. (McElwain points to his personal security guard) He’s probably going to arrest me for stealing. And I don’t blame him. It’s not like I’m excited about the performance.”
But what McElwain was excited about came in the final outcome. The Gators beat Vanderbilt 9-7, keyed by Austin Hardin’s 43-yard field goal with 2:22 remaining in the game, to clinch the SEC East and lock up a trip to the SEC Championship next month.
Along the course of a championship season, games like Saturday happen. McElwain has seen it during his title runs at Alabama. The first-year Florida coach even admitted that the game was a “tough one to sit through” for four quarters. There are always games where the team simply doesn’t play well against a lesser opponent and has to find a way to pull out a victory. On Saturday, that’s exactly what the Gators did.
“When you’re on a championship run -- and let’s call it what it is, we are on a championship run -- sometimes there are games like this,” McElwain said. “And champions figure out ways to win. These guys are the SEC East champs. They figured out a way to win. I can’t tell you how proud I am of those players and how excited I am for Gators everywhere, as we keep moving forward on this journey.
“Now we can talk and talk and talk about all the mistakes, all the what-ifs and all the whys, but at the end of the day there was a group of guys in that locker room that gave everything they had for this university and the state of Florida to win that ballgame. That tells you something about how they are. I can’t tell you how proud I am of them.”
For the players, the celebration in the locker room buried in the bowels of the south end zone was a new feeling. The older players on this team have played in a BCS bowl during the 2012 season when they lost to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. But for a majority of the Florida roster, this is the first taste of success.
It’s why the Florida players called the postgame celebration “remarkable” because they expected this when they signed to play college football in Gainesville. Losses became over the norm over the past two seasons, but McElwain has the Gators believing and buying into the program. No one predicted an 8-1 record with the division locked up before the Gators play their final SEC game, and that makes the trip to Atlanta even more special for the Florida players.
“It means everything, especially with a team that hasn’t been able to do this in a while,” defensive end Bryan Cox, Jr. said. “We definitely feel good about that.”
Florida quarterback Treon Harris added, “Everybody keeps saying Atlanta, we’re trying to get past Atlanta. We’re trying to get to the national championship game.”
When McElwain entered the locker room following the game, he saw a group that was excited but still subdued since they knew it wasn’t their best game. He made sure the players understood the importance of their accomplishment and truly celebrated what they’ve done so far this season.
“It’s a great feeling,” defensive end Jonathan Bullard said. “We’re going to celebrate tonight with the fellas, but we’re going to come in Monday. It’s no good to just get that one win. That was the goal, we got it. But we still got games to finish. We want to be in the conversation for the other, big stuff.”