Jordan McPherson/SEC Country
Florida linebacker David Reese (33) celebrates with teammates after an interception Saturday against Tennessee.

Column: Gators didn’t solve all their woes Saturday, but they notch the win they had to have

Ryan Young

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Jim McElwain might have had the lowest heart rate in the room during his postgame press conference Saturday night.

He didn’t really deliver any passionate statements about what this win, this dramatic 26-20 win over rival Tennessee, meant to him and his program. He wasn’t hoarse from celebrating or emotionally drained from one of the most exciting victories in this tenure with the Gators.

Mostly, he acted like a coach who knows his team still has to get a lot better. Actually, he pretty much said exactly that.

“We’ve got a lot of things we’ve got to do, to continue to do to grow and get ready to go play a really good football team on the road,” he said.

And that’s fair. Florida is far from arrived, anything but a finished product.

But the Gators have also earned the right to bask in this one just a little bit, because while McElwain won’t say so, others will.

The Gators simply had to win this game.

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The alternative was an 0-2 start, a second straight collapse against the rival Vols after this time leading by 10 points in the fourth quarter. The alternative was even more scrutiny on the Gators’ offensive shortcomings and perhaps some questions about whether redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks is really ready for this. The alternative was risking not only whatever remaining outside confidence and optimism evaporating, but the players within the locker room feeling the weight of the significant suspensions that still hang over them, the gloom of an 0-2 start and all the doubt that can creep in when teams are at their lowest.

Not now, though. Not this week, at least.

No. 24 Florida had to win Saturday against No. 23 Tennessee, and it found a way. That’s the bottom line.

“They’ve been through some things, and you know what, they just keep going. It obviously was not pretty, but sometimes as you go through this business, it’s about figuring out a way to win. And our guys figured out a way to win,” McElwain said.

All true.

Florida didn’t score an offensive touchdown — its first of the season, that is — until 5 minutes, 13 seconds remained in the fourth quarter. The Gators had a potential 73-yard touchdown run from exciting freshman Malik Davis negated when he fumbled just before the goal line, resulting instead in a touchback. They nearly squandered a defensive performance that produced 3 interceptions, multiple big third-down stops and a pick 6. And they had Franks throwing a tough interception in the latter minutes of the fourth quarter, which gave Tennessee possession at the Gators’ 40 and set up the Vols’ eventual game-tying field goal.

At that point, Franks was 16-of-26 passing for 146 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. Hardly a reassuring performance.

And then everything changed. For Franks, for the Gators and for McElwain, whether he wants to admit it or not.

With 9 seconds on the clock, Franks thought about how many yards he needed to put the Gators in field goal range, for a moment he scrambled out of the pocket to his right and thought about running and then he saw Tyrie Cleveland streaking down the middle of the field.

The redshirt freshman quarterback stopped, planted his feet and unfurled a beautiful 63-yard touchdown pass to the emerging sophomore wide receiver. Game over.

For the moment, for this week, for however long the Gators can stretch it out, they now have something to build upon moving forward.

Make no mistake, there will still be questions and deserved criticisms directed at the offense. There is still plenty to prove if this team hopes to get back to a third straight SEC Championship Game. There is no doubt still a long way to go.

But unlike when this game started, and unlike how it could have been with an alternate ending, the Gators at least have a starting point from which to move forward.

“I just enjoyed watching the guys. I just enjoyed seeing them, their excitement. Because I know how hard they’ve worked. I know what they’ve put into it,” McElwain said. “So, for me, it was just seeing the people and the organization enjoying the moment. And, you know, sometimes things like that are really special. I’ve got some burned images in my mind that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.”

But what did it mean for the program, he was asked.

“I wouldn’t say for the program. What it’s great for is it’s great for these players and it’s great for the people and the city of Gainesville. And all the Florida fans. That’s what it’s great for,” McElwain said.

And also the program.

This season could have slipped away quickly with a loss, especially a loss after leading almost the entire game. Instead, the focus is now on taking the next step.

So, what is that next step?

It’s getting to the point where the Gators don’t need their defense carrying the entire load for three quarters until wearing down. Getting to the point where playmakers such as Kadarius Toney (4 catches for 40 yards) and Davis (4 rushes for 94 yards) have even more chances to leave their imprint on the game. Getting to the point where the biggest plays on offense don’t come out of desperation.

McElwain joked that he hopes Franks starts the game next week at Kentucky the way he finished it Saturday night. Maybe he didn’t mean hurling 60-plus-yard bombs downfield, but simply playing with the confidence knowing that he can.

That’s the mindset he wants to see from the offense as a whole, for that matter.

“Just again, playing with some consistency. Playing with some energy and playing with, you know, get to the line (and) go,” McElwain said. “You know, when they do that, they go play pretty good. And yet, it’s almost like, I talk to them, sometimes in life, it’s not about being afraid to be wrong, but rather think what it is to be right. And we just wait to shoot ourselves. And [we’re] afraid to make a mistake instead of just cutting it loose and going. It doesn’t matter the play, just go play it fast and don’t be afraid to make a mistake.

“We’ll get there. But we’ve got a lot of work to do. But I will say this: I like this football team and I like these guys in that locker room. And, I’ll say again, what they’ve been through, it was great to see the joy on their face.”

McElwain may not have been letting the joy show through so much on his face because he knows what’s still ahead for this team, but he had to enjoy this one even if just for the night.

Moving forward, there are still major issues for this team, from the aforementioned remaining offensive hurdles to the suspensions of star players Jordan Scarlett, Antonio Callaway and more that have seemingly no end in sight.

Brad Nessler, the play-by-play announcer for the game, reportedly relayed on air a comment McElwain made to him about those suspensions and how they’ve “really hurt the locker room.”

McElwain said after the game his words were probably misconstrued.

“I wouldn’t say in the locker room. I think they probably took it out of context,” he said. “… I do think when you lose some guys you’re close to, that’s human nature. But I will say this: This was a pretty good remedy for that.”

Indeed. For the time being, at least.