"That was a heck of a game for us," said McElwain after the bowl win. "I think it speaks volumes for our guys and their approach to what they were willing to do to get ready to go win a bowl game in January. Just so proud of them."
It's no secret UF was missing a lot of key pieces heading into this game.
"Well-documented, obviously, how beat up we were, and yet we never once all year used that as an excuse in any way, shape or form. It was next man up."
Before kickoff, the Gators were without: linebackers Jarrad Davis, Alex Anzalone, Jeremiah Moon and David Reese, defensive linemen Jordan Sherit, Bryan Cox, Antonneous Clayton and Justus Reed and defensive backs, Marcus Maye, C.J. McWilliams, Quincy Lenton, Nick Washington and Jeawon Taylor - and these are simply injuries on the defensive side of the ball. Offensively McElwain also were missing four players, including two starting offensive linemen. According to the Florida head coach, he praises each of his veterans, including those sidelined, for helping the younger talent prepare for the big stage in Tampa.
"Good players follow good players," said McElwain. "The credit should be given to those older guys for what they did to help these guys understand and indoctrinate them into the way that they go about their business. Now, the important thing is they're going to have to pass that torch, and that's going to happen with a whole new group of recruits that are going to all be starting next year. But that's okay, because they're going to be eager, and they're going to be excited to do it right. With these guys' leadership now, I'm looking forward to this off-season.
His young defensive line stepped up in a big way in the second quarter. Iowa facing fourth-and-goal in the second quarter had the opportunity to go ahead, however, the Gators denied the Hawkeyes after Marcell Harris made the stop. According to McElwain, that stop was big turning point in the match up.
"That was huge, coming up big at the goal line again, it was Hippo Diamond Stick again, same call, hadn't changed, and the guys penetrated and were able to get that," said McElwain. "That was huge. I think some other big plays, obviously, in the game, the turnovers -- for us to give up two interceptions early in the game like that and hang in there, that says a lot for our resolve, and then to be able to get a couple there late in the game, I think that was really good."
Although the Florida offense struggled early on, the Gators ended the game amassing 331 yards of total offense, which is only the second time in seven weeks UF has managed over 300 yards offensively. But credit does go to the defense for allowing the offense to settle down. Randy Shannon's men only allowed three points in Iowa's three red-zone attempts, forced three turnovers and only allowed 171 yards rushing [the Hawkeyes had two 1000-yard rushers on the roster.
"I mean, great defenses help you win, and they really help you win championships, and we'll continue to build that way. But one thing I will tell you, going through this off-season, we'll become a lot more physical up front than we were this year, and I'm looking forward to getting Swamp Life going."
The defense will certainly look different next season. McElwain and his staff will meet with those players hoping or considering the NFL draft on Tuesday.
"We sit down, we've got all the reports from all the NFL stuff, all the general managers, all their ranks, all the insurance that they can have, all that kind of stuff," said McElwain. "We'll meet with them tomorrow and see where we're at."
Although the Gators will lose several key starters to the draft including: Davis, Maye and potentially starting cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, the win over Iowa on Monday demonstrates, the future looks bright for the Florida program.
"We've got a lot of really good recruits that are excited to be Gators, and that's a good thing," said McElwain. "We had a heck of a year. Two straight SEC East championships, new facilities. We'll look for the commitment that we get from the administration moving forward, see where that's at, and I know this, we've got a lot of good young players that would have played a lot of football for us this year, and they'll teach the guys that are coming in next year the same thing.
"You know, this was a -- and still is a heck of a building process," McElwain added. "We're headed to building it, but we're building it right."