JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Florida found two things on offense Saturday that it had long been missing: confidence and identity.
Maintaining both will be critical for the Gators down the stretch.
“A lot of our issues offensively have been confidence, have been timidity,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said following a 38-20 win against then-ninth-ranked Georgia on Saturday. “For whatever reason, whether it is one position, two positions, we got to have some success.
We needed to have some success.”
The Gators (4-3, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) spent the past two weeks finding ways to gain yards and minimize turnovers while getting freshman quarterback Treon Harris ready for his first career start. They settled on pounding the ball.
And they did against the Bulldogs (6-2, 4-2).
Kelvin Taylor carried 25 times for a career-high 197 yards and two touchdowns. Matt Jones added a career-best 192 yards on the ground and two scores on 25 attempts. As dominant as the duo was, Mike McNeely’s 21-yard run on a fake field goal in the second quarter may have been the biggest play of the game.
McNeely, a 5-foot-8 former walk-on who earned a scholarship in August and still bags groceries at a supermarket near campus every Sunday, went untouched around the right side for his first career touchdown. That tied the game at 7.
“I feel like that stole the momentum,” Florida defensive back Brian Poole said. “After that, they never got it back.”
Florida finished with 418 yards rushing, the program’s most since NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith was leading the way in 1989.
Taylor and Jones were so successful that Harris didn’t have to do much aside from hand off. The Gators ran 60 times and threw just six passes. Harris was 3-for-6 for 27 yards. He also ran for 37.
“We actually did have a plan to throw some passes in the game,” Muschamp said. “I know I’ll still disappoint a bunch of Florida fans with it, but why stop running the ball when you’re able to gain yards?”
Florida turned the ball over 15 times in its previous four games, including six in an embarrassing, 42-13 home loss to Missouri on homecoming. Many of those came on passing plays. Muschamp benched turnover-prone quarterback Jeff Driskel, and the switch seemed to invigorate the entire team.
“We knew what we needed to do,” center Max Garcia said. “We went with a game plan that we thought was going to be successful, and that was running the ball. We were able to do that. … I’m just glad that we stuck to it and we stuck to our word.”
The Gators have struggled to throw the ball for years, ever since Tim Tebow left following the 2009 season.
— Will Muschamp
They have been able to run it consistently, though, even against stacked lines of scrimmage.
“We’ve always been a blue-collar identity team, identity offense,” Muschamp said. “I think we have to continue to develop in the throwing game. We didn’t [Saturday] because we didn’t need to, but we’re going to have to down the road, there’s no question.”
The Gators play at Vanderbilt on Saturday, and then play host to South Carolina and Eastern Kentucky before finishing the regular season at in-state rival Florida State.
Florida needs two wins to become bowl eligible and maybe three to ensure Muschamp will be back for a fifth season. It’s even plausible to think the Gators could end up in Atlanta for the conference championship game if things fall the right way.
This much is certain: the Gators have an offensive identity and renewed confidence after weeks of uncertainty.
“We were way tougher than they were, first of all, and we just knocked the fight out of them,” left tackle D.J. Humphries said. “It was a huge boost and just what we needed with everything that’s been going on.”