By: Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
Lake Mary, Fla. -- Thanks to two consecutive wins over Southeastern Conference opponents on the road, the Florida Gators are off to a perfect 3-0 start to the 2012 season and have ascended to a No. 14 ranking in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Florida’s fast start in conference play is that the Gators have done something in each of their two SEC victories that they were not able to do once in 2011: Overcome a second half deficit. In Will Muschamp’s first year at the helm in Gainesville, Florida trailed at halftime five times and lost all five of those games.
Only three weeks into the 2012 season, the Gators have already improved from a season ago, and they are proving it in hostile environments (87, 114 fans at A&M and 102, 455 inside Neyland Stadium).
Playing in front of a sold out crowd at Kyle Field in Texas A&M’s SEC debut on Sept. 8, Florida was exploited for 269 yards and 17 points in the first half. A week later in Knoxville, the Gators trailed heading into the locker room once again after Tyler Bray tossed two touchdown passes in the first 30 minutes for Tennessee.
But despite less-than-stellar first halves of each respective contest, Muschamp finds his team sitting at 2-0 in the SEC with a leg up in the Eastern division. What the Gators have lacked in the first half, they have compensated for with great adjustments at the break and superior execution down the stretch.
The UF defense was at a disadvantage going into College Station after Hurricane Irene – the storm that forced Texas A&M’s season-opening game at Louisiana Tech to be postponed – taking away a chance for the Gators to study week 1 of game film. As a result, Dan Quinn’s defense didn’t see Kevin Sumlin’s air raid attack in action until game time. Florida had to weather “the storm” in the first half, adjust to what it saw at the break, and that’s exactly what they did.
After allowing Texas A&M 5.8 yards per play in the opening half en route to a 17-10 deficit, the Gator defense tweaked its strategy and shut the door on the Aggies. Florida stopped sending extra rushers after the break and stymied the A&M offense as a result, surrendering only 65 total yards (2.8 yards per play) and holding the Aggies scoreless in the final two quarters.
UF followed a similar blueprint against Tennessee; the Gator D clamped down on the Vols in the second half and allowed the offense to operate without having to trade scores. After Bray’s two touchdown passes gave Tennessee a 14-10 lead at half, the Volunteers opened the third quarter with an 81-yard scoring drive. After that, however, it was all Gators - Tennessee was denied on its final six drives, punting five times and committing a turnover down the home stretch.
Offensively, the maturation of sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel has been vital to the Gators’ success in crunch time.
After getting sacked five times in the second quarter alone against the Aggies, Driskel was decisive and efficient in the second half. He completed 70 percent of his passes after the break and played turnover free football while leaning on veteran running back Mike Gillislee, who ran for 48 yards and a score in the final two quarters of Florida’s 20-17 win.
On Rocky Top, Driskel took another step forward when he led the Gators to a 27-point second half in a 37-20 triumph. Driskel amassed 129 of his 219 passing yards and both of his passing touchdowns after the half, while also making several crucial plays with his legs.
Just as they did in College Station, the Gators gashed the Tennessee defense repeatedly in the third and fourth quarters, with Gillislee hitting on runs of 45 and 23 yards. Driskel added fuel to the fire with two runs of 10-plus yards and an 8-yard run to convert a late fourth down.
Brent Pease and the UF coaches cued up perhaps the biggest play of the game for Trey Burton in the third quarter, an 80-yard touchdown run off the right side of the line. Florida used almost the same play on a Burton TD in the first half, motioning wide-out Andre Debose across the formation to clear out the short side of the field for Burton on a direct snap.
As efficient as Driskel was through the air in the second halves at TAMU and UT (13-for-18, 209 yards and two TDs combined), the rushing attack was even bigger during that span. Gillislee carried the ball a total of 15 times for 149 yards (9.9 per tote) and Driskel racked up 80 yards of his own. The Gators’ success on the ground is evidence that Muschamp’s emphasis on the trenches is paying dividends.
The season is still young, and Florida has a long way to go in its quest to win the Eastern division crown. While a promising sign for the Gators, a 2-0 start in conference play does not guarantee a trip to Atlanta in early December – after all, successfully navigating through an eight-game SEC schedule has proven to be a long and arduous task.
But two traits that certainly lend well to success in that task are resiliency and a will to win, and the Gators are showing both in Muschamp’s second year in Gainesville.