GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Jim McElwain heard it, and so did his players.
After Florida’s 31-10 loss at Arkansas last Saturday, the outside chatter began.
“You’re totally right about the noise,” UF quarterback Austin Appleby said.
It was doom and gloom all last week as the dark cloud known as bad offense hovered over Gainesville. A somber McElwain looked like he had just been hit with hail during his press conference Monday.
But as external criticism and negativity rained down on the Gators, they took shelter inside their football facilities and went to work.
“The one thing you realize is it is outside noise,” McElwain said. “We’re inside. Most all the day. Very rarely see it outside. It’s dark, there’s film on most of the time. But when we’re in that locker room, you don’t feel that at all.”
There was nothing to feel but rejoice after Florida’s 20-7 win over South Carolina. This wasn’t the UF offense of the last two weeks — literally.
With a new quarterback and three backup linemen in the starting lineup Saturday, the Gators somehow gained more yards in the first 15 minutes than they did in three of their previous four games.
“The noise piece, you can see it didn’t bother our guys,” McElwain said. “I mean, sheesh, we got guys dropping left and right and new guys go in there. I think we sold some extra programs because (fans) didn’t know the jersey numbers.”
“But I just know that these guys are working their tail off, and I thought we played better up front. … They took some pride in what they were doing.”
Florida had every reason to come into this game with zero confidence. The offense was coming off a 3-point performance at Arkansas and now relied on Appleby, who struggled mightily in his last start.
But Appleby’s unwavering enthusiasm helped drain out a week’s worth of skepticism.
“Our team had a decision to make early in the week,” Appleby said, “whether we were going to buy into it or we were going to block it all out, focus on us, go have a great week of practice, bring great energy and play the Gator way.
“I’m proud of the way that we played. We left a lot out there, and still with that it was a great team win.”
And it was a must-win game for the Gators. Had they lost to their former coach on Senior Day in The Swamp, the outside noise would have been deafening.
But on Saturday, they quieted the critics who pounced on them for flopping in Fayetteville, Ark.
“To us, it was just shake it off,” said wide receiver Ahmad Fulwood, who came up big against South Carolina. “I don’t hear any self-doubt from my ears. (Arkansas) was a game that we wanted to win and we played hard, but we weren’t clicking and we were having a lot of mistakes.
“That happens in the SEC. It’s a tough league to get a W. When stuff like that happens, you’ve got to pick yourself up.”
On a day when McElwain was measured against Muschamp, Florida’s ability to rebound from its deflating loss is a benchmark for the progress this program has made.
“There were times a year ago where if something went wrong, you’d have thought the sky was falling,” McElwain said. “I never saw that (last week). Guys understand what they’re doing. They understand when they don’t do it well all the time, it’s fixable. That’s the good thing.”
What’s not fixable are injuries. The Gators have lost nine starters in the last two weeks and now face back-to-back road games against LSU and FSU.
With a win over the Tigers, McElwain would become the first head coach in SEC history to reach the conference title game in his first two seasons. But UF hasn’t defeated an SEC West team on the road since 2012.
And if that losing streak doesn’t end next Saturday, Tennessee could regain first place in the East and the outside noise at Florida will crank back up.
“I got criticized my whole life. I mean, shoot, if you grow up in Montana and you don’t have thick skin, you’re in trouble,” McElwain said. “But I know the cards and what’s there and the direction we’re headed. I’m excited about it. I thought we had a little look into that (Saturday).
“We’ve still got some selfish guys. It’s going to happen. But they’ll find out there might be better places for them to go. … And when you do that, you don’t get the dissension piece, you don’t get the panic … it’s just not how it works. And building a program, that’s one of the base principles, foundations and fundamentals of being successful. I love it.”