Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Colleges

Florida Gators win relieves some pressure on coach Will Muschamp

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Sometimes, a team makes history.

Sometimes, it alters it. As it turns out, that can be better.

Ask Will Muschamp, who just won the most important game in his brief tenure at the University of Florida. Muschamp's football team changed everything Saturday afternoon: It won a game that might have been lost, and it broke the hearts of the league's new debutants, and most of all, it quieted the coming storm.

Along the way, it came from behind to beat Texas A&M and win its first SEC game of the season, which is never a bad thing in itself.

Ah, but can you imagine what this morning might have been like if the Gators had lost, which appeared like a very real possibility in the first half when the Florida defense kept backing up?

It would be loud, and it would be cruel, and it would be relentless. Such are the stakes at a place such as Florida, where a great many fans seem to expect their team to win three out of every two.

Even at halftime, after A&M had spent two quarters marching through the Gators as easily as plowing a field, you could almost feel the knives sharpening.

After all, A&M was the interloper, the new kid in the SEC neighborhood. Why, the Aggies were only 7-6 last year, and they had a new coach with a new system and a new quarterback, and they didn't even get a designated victim game last week because of Hurricane Isaac.

And yet, the Gators seemed lost as to how to slow them down. A&M went 66 yards with its first drive, and 71 with its second, and 79 with its third. The Aggies led 17-10, but the lead seemed a lot larger than that.

At halftime, however, Muschamp raised his voice and everyone listened. He threatened to "fire" his defensive line if it kept rushing recklessly ahead, leaving running lanes for A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

All in all, it might have been Muschamp's finest moment. One of the ways coaches are judged is how they can adjust on the fly, and this time, Muschamp fixed the problems. After 269 yards in the first half, A&M had only 65 in the second. It had three first downs. No points.

"Last year, I don't know, man," Muschamp said. "I don't know if we win that game."

It is not a home for the patient or the calm, the University of Florida. Last season, Muschamp won only three SEC games, and they were against Tennessee, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Aside from those games, Florida beat only Florida Atlantic, UAB and Furman. (And an unranked Ohio State team in the Gator Bowl). It wasn't exactly enough to get a Muschamp statue built.

The noise grew louder after last week's lackluster win over Bowling Green. The Gators won big, but not convincingly, and already, Muschamp was being compared to former coach Ron Zook. It wasn't exactly fair, since Muschamp has now coached in all of 15 games, but who promised fair?

"I got killed for last week," Muschamp said, a bit of irritation in his voice, "but there is a reason we did it. We needed to play that way to play that way this week in this ball game. It's a long season."

"When they start having one-game seasons, then we'll put everything we can into one game so we can win one game, and I'll be really, really happy then. But I like to look at it as a 12-week season, and we have to do what we have to do to improve our team to win football games."

Muschamp's voice was louder now. A bit later in his news conference, Muschamp talked about having to grind out victories and added: "I know no one wants to hear that, but that's the facts of life. Sometimes, you have to put your realistic glasses on and see who you are."

Not long after that, Muschamp was talking about patience on offense: "There is nothing wrong with ending a series with a punt. I know that's not allowed to be said at Florida."

In other words, yes, Muschamp is aware of the grumbling out there. So, yeah, he needed this win. So did the Gators, for that matter.

Can you imagine if the Gators didn't make a comeback?

"There would have been a lot of riffraff out there," guard James Wilson said.

"A lot of regret," said guard Jon Halapio. "A lot of loud regret."

For the time being, the Gators don't have to listen. That alone made this a big win.

This was supposed to be A&M's day, remember. This was their arrival game, and it was at home.

"(The SEC) wanted the glory story here with A&M," Muschamp said, "and they didn't get it."

On the other hand, Florida did. Muschamp had a good day, and new quarterback Jeff Driskel had a good day, and the Gators won. That should silence the critics. It should buy the coach some time.

Who knows? Maybe it will last all the way until this coming week's kickoff against Tennessee.

Then the expectations begin all over again.

Gary Shelton can be heard from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays on 98.7-FM The Fan.

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