TAMPA — In the days leading to Saturday's Outback Bowl, Florida coach Urban Meyer talked often about how he hoped his young Gators would follow the lead of Florida's senior veterans and play hard for each other, and their coaches, one last time.
In a season filled with turmoil and more regular season losses than they've suffered in any season for two decades, Meyer wanted to see them put up a good fight.
On Saturday afternoon he got his wish.
His beleaguered Gators fell behind, then rallied with an emotion that has largely been missing this season, and big plays that changed the game's momentum, for a 37-24 victory over Penn State in the 25th anniversary of the Outback Bowl.
The win in front of 60,574 at Raymond James Stadium eased the pain of a disappointing season for the Gators (8-5). And while Meyer, who has had health issues and wants to spend more time with his family, did his best to keep his emotions in check, his players weren't shy about expressing theirs.
"Coach Meyer has done a lot for us and we just knew we had to give it back to him," senior kicker Chas Henry said."
"All you can see around here is guys with smiles on their face because they know they finished well and we accomplished what we did," said senior LB Brandon Hicks, who had his first career interception. "You can see it on Coach Meyer's face as well. That's something that he really wanted to have (the victory). … Now we can all say we parted ways on good terms."
Early on, it didn't look like the storybook ending was meant to be. As had been the case all season, the Florida offense struggled and sputtered. At the end of the first quarter, the Gators had 8 rushing yards on nine carries and not a single first down. By halftime, Florida had 86 total yards. There was an interception by quarterback John Brantley on the UF's first play, quarterback Trey Burton fumbled at the 3 attempting to score and then on a third drive a snap sailed past quarterback Jordan Reed for a loss of 18 yards.
Still, the Gators trailed just 17-14 at halftime thanks to an interception by Cody Riggs that led to a 16-yard touchdown run by Omarius Hines and a blocked punt by freshman Solomon Patton that was returned 27 yards by Lerentee McCray for a touchdown.
"Our defense was hanging in there the whole game," Meyer said. "We were awful in the first half on offense, but we came back with special teams. The second half our offense played very good."
Florida largely ditched its three-quarterback system in the second half, focusing on Reed, who steadied the offense. He was 8-of-13 for 60 yards and rushed 24 times for 68 yards.
Ultimately, Florida gained just 101 passing yards, 178 rushing, but the Gators used stellar special teams and kicking game performances (including three field goals by Henry) and capitalized on five interceptions by Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin to help secure the victory.
"We turned the ball over too many times," said Penn State coach Joe Paterno, whose team finished 7-6. "You have to give Florida credit, their kids made some really big-league plays on a couple of balls. We hoped to be a little better, but that's about the way we've played most of the year. We'd have good spots then we'd kind of let up a little bit."
Florida senior Ahmad Black had two interceptions and was named the bowl MVP. Within an hour after the game's end, Meyer walked away from the dais and his highly successful six-year tenure at Florida, and insisted he's just fine with that.
"I'm at full peace because I saw a bunch of smiles in that locker room," Meyer said. "Locker rooms really aren't very much fun when you're not smiling, and pain in your stomach and chest and everything else. There was a lot of fun in there. … It was also great to see the smiles on those seniors when they walked out. That group of seniors, I know this year was not a good year, however those guys will leave here as one of the best groups of seniors to ever play at Florida."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.