With those memories still too fresh in their minds, Gator fans were hoping to see a sign that the bad old days were indeed a thing of the past and they got it in the form of a drive that consumed the first 7:42 of the final period. Florida came away with a field goal to give the Gators a 16-7 lead over the Tennessee Vols, just nine points and a lead many Tennessee teams in the past have overcome, but on this night, nine could have just as easily been nine thousand. There would be no fourth quarter fade this night. There would be no walking off the field in a fog wondering how and where the collapse had begun.
If Urban Meyer accomplished one thing Saturday night, it was restoring confidence that the football program is the kind that can compete and win when the going gets tough. Oh, sure, he had raised Gator Nation expectations during the spring and summer when he was a knockout on the barbeque and beer circuit, and yes, he had taken the Gators to wins over Wyoming and Louisiana Tech, but let's face it: no one, but no one, expected the Gators to fade in the fourth quarter against Wyoming or Louisiana Tech.
Tennessee was the first watermark of the 2005 season and also of Urban Meyer's brief tenure as the Gators head coach. Florida won a tough, physical game and in the fourth quarter, rather than fade as they had in the past, Florida actually got stronger. At the end of the game, the Gators were still fresh, still standing and still making plays. Florida finished the job it started and that's the sign of a well-coached, totally prepared football team.
The knock on the Florida program, even in the final three or four years of the Steve Spurrier era, was that the Gators lacked toughness. We're not just talking physical toughness here, but mental toughness. Fans point to the 2001 season when the Gators were as talented as any in the nation but they had a pair of unexplainable losses, one at Auburn and the other in the final game of the regular season in The Swamp against Tennessee. In the Auburn game, the Gators were missing the mental edge and against Tennessee, it was the physical play of the Vols that left the bad imprint on the collective minds of Gator Nation.
Of the 15 losses in the Ron Zook era, more than half were decided in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. There were the go figure final quarter losses to Ole Miss (twice) and Mississippi State and who could ever forget the 28 unanswered points in the fourth quarter by Miami in 2003? Throw in a pair of zebra-gate losses to Florida State (2003) and Tennessee (2004) and it's no wonder that Florida fans learned to loathe the fourth quarter.
Along came Urban Meyer back in January preaching toughness and finishing the job. It all sounded good, especially to fans grown weary of soft teams finding creative ways to blow completely winnable games, but until Saturday night there was nothing to prove that things had truly changed.
The first signal that things were different Saturday night came in the second quarter when Meyer ordered his team to go for it on fourth and inches at their own 44 yard line with the score tied at 7-7 the result of a very impressive Tennessee scoring drive. Conventional wisdom says punt the ball away, but Meyer sent in extra blockers and the Gators went for it. In Zook-think it would have been a no-brainer: punt the ball and send the defense back on the field.
Meyer said after the game, "You know what … what the hell, let's go block 'em and get three inches. This is the University of Florida. We're going to correct that the next week in practice and you know what, next week we're going to do it again. That's who we are."
The Gators didn't get the three inches but they did send a starburst flare into the air that this isn't your Gator team of the past. This is an aggressive team with an aggressive coach running the show, a coach who not only was willing to take a chance in a tough situation, but also a coach who essentially told his defensive team "I'm going for it because I don't think these guys (Tennessee) are tough enough to beat you."
Tennessee came close to capitalizing when the Gators didn't convert, but the defense came through and special teams delivered a chop to the larynx when Dee Webb blocked the Vols attempt at a go-ahead field goal. From that moment on, Tennessee never mounted another serious offensive threat. In the second half, the closest the Vols came to the Florida goal line was the Gator 48. For the night, Tennessee finished with just seven points and 213 yards.
"When our defense held them and blocked that field goal, that was the checkmate of the game," said Meyer, noting that the defensive intensity and the fan intensity went on and stayed on the increase from that moment forward.
So after the fans sang and swayed at the end of the third quarter, there was no game-winning rally by the Vols or fourth quarter swoon by the Gators. Instead, Florida's defense got more physical, finishing off what was left of the Vols running game and locking down the passing game with lights out coverage in the secondary. Instead of going soft at the end, the Gators got mean and nasty. They were tough.
"Toughness is something you earn and our team is earning it," said Meyer in his Sunday morning media conference call. "How do they earn it? I think they out-toughed our opponent last night in the fourth quarter."
The toughness had its start in the pre-spring practice mat drills and the offseason workouts directed by strength and conditioning coaches Mickey Marotti and Matt Balis. Meyer gave those two game balls Saturday night because the Gators were the dominant, more physical team in the fourth quarter.
"You heard a lot about our mat drills… you hear about our offseason programs … everybody bench presses, everybody squats but how many teams train like we do where you are accountable to your teammate?" Meyer said. "You don't finish the drill and the whole team has to do something … there's as much mental training in the weight room as well as physical.
"I think the reason our defense played so well and our offense … we put together an eight minute drive in the fourth quarter … to me that was a team that refused to give in."
Practice sessions were intense and tough last week in preparation for the Tennessee game, the kind of sessions that bring out the toughness in the team on game day. Meyer said there will be no let-up this week even though the opponent is a less than scary 1-2 Kentucky team in Lexington.
"Tuesday's practice will be as intense as it was for Tennessee and that's why teams get better," said Meyer. "If you're asking if we lose focus for Kentucky? No chance."
WIDE RECEIVER SHUFFLE: With Bubba Caldwell out for the season after Sunday morning surgery to repair a broken leg suffered on the opening kickoff of the third quarter Saturday night, Jemalle Cornelius will see his role in the offense expanded. Expect Gavin Dickey to be given a real shot at stepping in to the slot Cornelius has been playing.
"I think that Jemalle Cornelius --- and he made some great plays yesterday --- but his role in the offense just doubled, maybe tripled," said Meyer, who added that tight end Tate Casey will likely see the field more with chances to catch the ball and that Dickey also will see an expanded role.
"He [Dickey] doesn't have the speed of a Bubba Caldwell but he also has got some quickness," said Meyer. "When we put him in the game, he could also play quarterback as well so I see his role expanding."
PRAISE FOR THE FANS: Meyer took a moment to give Florida fans credit for their intensity, especially after the Gators blocked Tennessee's field goal attempt in the second quarter.
"I take our hat off to student body and the Gator Nation," said Meyer. "They helped us win. From that point on it was hard for them to get a play off. You always have to have those game changes and that was game-changing."
FIXING THE OFFENSE: Although Meyer was disappointed in the offensive production against Tennessee Saturday night, he is not ready to scrap the spread option for a more conventional offense.
"I'm disappointed," he said. "We wanted second year production out of our first year offense and we're not getting it. I think it's to the point where we need to re-evaluate and make sure we're doing the right stuff. I don't want to panic.
"The number one thing is we had the ball for 35 minutes and we had zero turnovers which is how we won that game. The real fact is that we had basically two drives in the game. We're certainly not going to panic and we believe we have enough talent to get this thing going."
To get the offense jump-started Meyer said there has already been one change on the offensive line at left guard where Steven Rissler stepped in Saturday night to replace Tavares Washington who was beaten consistently by Tennessee's Jesse Mahelona.
"We made a change at the left guard position during the game," he said. "We're going to keep evaluating … I'm not happy at all with the way our offensive line is playing."