A win should make you happy. Not content or relieved, but happy. Actually, we’d take content or relieved at this point. Those are acceptable emotions after the roller coaster the Florida Gators have been on during the 2011 season. What isn’t acceptable is a feeling of “what just happened?”
After one quarter of what many might try to define as football, although it was hard to call it that, the Gators found themselves down 22-7 to the Furman Paladins and Florida fans found themselves looking frantically for the basketball schedule (and resume templates for head coach Will Muschamp so he could update his). A 20-point second quarter eased the pain for only a moment until we all realized the Gators were up by only five. Another quarter and 10 more points for each team found Florida up 37-32 with one frame to go. Any other season and we’d need to be talked off the ledge, but this one brought nothing more the a sigh. A familiar sigh that has replaced any anger or discomfort in wondering what could possibly happen next. But then there would be the fourth and final quarter. Far from perfect, a close contest became a 22-point game. The Gators would win for only the second time since September while we would begrudgingly move forward to the FSU Seminoles.
Before we move on though, we look at the victory over the Paladins. We look because we are determined to learn. Our curiosity is what overwhelms our ability to go quietly ahead into the night. We can’t do it because it’s not within our nature. Instead our nature says we must evaluate and over-analyze everything that has happened from every different angle. It’s sadistic in a way, but it’s what we do. We praise the good and attack the bad. And here we go…
Games such as those against Furman aren’t winnable for Florida. Beat the Paladins and you were supposed to. Lose to them, or play like the Gators did for much of the game, and there are far more headaches than worth the warm-up for a matchup with a rival. It’s better to avoid games like these all together, and one day a nine-game SEC schedule may solve the problem for us, but until them we stomach what was supposed to go down without the need for an antacid.
No one told the Paladins that they were supposed to roll over and die and for their effort, we have to give applause. Good for Furman for staying in the game. Kudos for taking advantage of a situation and disrupting an afternoon. In the end, it wasn’t enough, but in some strange way it was. By gaining 446 yards, the Paladins exposed the Gators’ defense. In recent weeks, we’ve labeled the defense the rock of the Florida squad. It was the unit we saw marked improvement in. We looked forward to 2012 and the further progression of the defense. After Saturday, we wonder if another step, or leap, was taken back. You don’t give up 446 yards to an FCS team. Maybe you do, but you shouldn’t. Not in game 11, and not in The Swamp, and not with a defensive head coach even if he is in his first year. But if you are weathering through a record of 9-10 over the last 19 games you’ve played as a team, maybe you do. Pick sixes by De’Ante “Pop” Saunders and Jelani Jenkins were highlights, but little else was. Taking a step back in game 11 is like taking a step back for 2012 and, yes, that has us worried.
We find bright spots on the offensive side of the ball because in any 22-point win, you have to find them somewhere. There was John Brantley’s career day; we’ll start there. If the Gators’ 2011 season has been a roller coaster, Brantley’s career has been the fastest, scariest one there is. Brantley’s 329 passing yards? A career high. His four touchdown passes? Another one. We try not to celebrate the FCS wins as much, but we can celebrate Brantley. If this is what the offense was supposed to look like when Muschamp hired offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, then it came too late. Too late to make an impact on the season and realistically too late to change the fortunes of Brantley’s career. But just in time to allow us to enjoy what the quarterback was expected to be able to do. A 64-yard touchdown pass to Andre Debose in the third quarter was only overshadowed by an 80-yarder one quarter earlier. Years from now, when we look back at the career of John Brantley, we may do so with mixed emotions. A game we’ll have to recall was this one. One game where it looked like it was supposed to. One game that gave us hope for the regular season finale.
We can go ahead and classify this as a win; for Brantley, for Debose, and if only because the standings dictate it. Although we’re still not sure to think of what happened (Andy Hutchins of Alligator Army may have summed it up best with words like “worst” and “weirdest”), it’s technically a victory. A victory that is only the Gators’ sixth of the season and one that keeps the hopes of eight alive. It’s not often you dream of an eight-win season, but it has come to that. There are 120 minutes of football left for Florida and two outcomes to be discovered. Confidence in what those two outcomes may be isn’t high, but now the Gators play for something. Maybe state pride, maybe to go out on a winning note, maybe just to shut the door on 2011.