GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Even amidst the dismal reality of what this season had become, Saturday was at least fun in The Swamp.
Even though the offense slumped through the first half against a Conference USA foe and quarterback Feleipe Franks delivered a very Franks-ian stat line for the game, at least there was Eddy Pineiro and his 4 first-half field goals providing an early boost until the running game took control.
Even though the narrative had already been written for this defense, the worst at Florida in longer than anyone can vividly remember (or 1971, to be exact), at least the unit beat up on a lesser opponent like it should — like many wondered if it even could at this point.
Even though this 36-7 win over UAB changes nothing for Florida’s season, at least it wasn’t the alternative. The Gators snapped their five-game losing streak Saturday and avoided reaching yet a new nadir.
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The fact that people who have watched and covered this team for a living thought Florida actually had a chance to lose Saturday to a UAB program that didn’t even field a football team the last two years says everything about how much this season had spiraled.
“I think it was a good win for our team. Our locker room’s happy. We’ve been down a lot,” Pineiro said. “This whole trouble with Coach Mac getting fired and all this stuff going on in our lives, I think this win was needed.”
The players were convincing this week in their comments. They wanted the fans to come out and show support, and for the first time in a while, they gave them a reason. They said they would play with purpose these final two games for the sake of their seniors, and they did.
Running back Mark Thompson spoke about playing with pride for what the front and back of the jersey each represented, and he followed through with one big run after another.
Safety Chauncey Gardner Jr. took to Twitter imploring fans to come out and cheer on the team’s veteran players, and he did his part with an interception and 42-yard return to set up the Gators’ first touchdown of the day, midway through the second quarter.
There’s no reason to overstate what Florida (4-6) did Saturday — it won a game that most every fan already put a W next to on the schedule back in the preseason before everything that could go wrong did. But there’s also no reason to not enjoy it for what it was, as the fans who filled up about half of The Swamp seemed to do.
It was refreshing to hear the roar of the crowd midway through the third quarter when Thompson broke a 17-yard run to the right side while looking like he could go for even more. And the further approval as Thompson lowered his shoulder to plow over a defender for a 16-yard run to the left side on the next play, followed by the appreciative cheers as tight end DeAndre Goolsby reappeared from some form of witness protection to cap the drive with a 13-yard touchdown catch from Franks.
Franks finished just 15-of-30 passing for 152 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, but he was also undermined by some dropped passes for potential big gains. Meanwhile, the rushing attack was relentless after halftime.
Lamical Perine closed the Gators’ next possession with a 15-yard touchdown run to make it a 33-0 lead at the end of the third quarter and let the fans enjoy the moment knowing they’d be celebrating a victory for the first time since Sept. 30.
There is excitement for the future of Florida football, but that had nothing to do with Saturday. It has to do with the ongoing coaching search that fans are hoping is nearing a conclusion and an agreement with a certain former Oregon and NFL coach. It has to do with a fresh start and a new direction, a chance to hit the reset button and officially close the book on this season.
But Saturday was fun. Nothing more, nothing less.
And with still no official coaching news to dominate the day, why not enjoy Pineiro’s 5 for 5 performance on field goals (the most by a Gator since the 1992 Sugar Bowl)?
Why not enjoy the Gators’ season-high 257 rushing yards (89 from freshman Adarius Lemons, 86 from Perine and 78 by Thompson)? Or a defensive performance that held UAB to 180 yards, with 74 of those yards coming on one big touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter?
“This is the one thing I always say is unique about Florida. No matter what happens, the fans are the fans are the fans. They going to support you no matter what because they are the fans, and this is the one place that I’ve been at that’s not a fickle fan (base) that go when you just win. They’re always going to be supporting,” interim coach Randy Shannon said. “I think the crowd tonight did a tremendous job, the student section and everybody who supported us and helped us.”
This time, at least, the Gators made it easy.
They played as if the pressure was off, and it was. Sure, a loss to UAB would have been a new stain on this season, but the chance to salvage anything post-Jim McElwain ended with the losses at Missouri and South Carolina.
That said, there’s no need to rehash everything that led to this point. Everybody knows, and soon enough all the focus will be on the new coach — whoever it is — and a new direction.
In the meantime, the Gators were at least entertaining Saturday … and that is more than could be said for this team in a while.