GAINESVILLE — It was one of those times where it takes a few moments in the postgame locker room with your teammates and coaches to realize that even though it was a struggle, the fact you won might reveal more about your team than just that you managed to score more points than your opponent.
Florida's first meeting with South Florida ended with a 38-14 victory Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for the No. 8 Gators, who were in a dogfight with the Bulls for nearly three quarters.
But the Gators (2-0) managed to find some semblance of an offensive rhythm that eluded them in the season opener, and they relied heavily on their defense that forced five turnovers to help jump-start a team that has struggled to find itself.
"We're starting to build a team," said Florida quarterback John Brantley, who was 18-of-31 for 172 yards and two touchdowns. "It (the way they won) was huge. It's a confidence booster, and we needed that. We're about to start SEC ball. Everyone knows it's very tough football, especially Rocky Top (Tennessee). We can't wait to work hard, get back at it this week and get ready to go to Knoxville."
The upstart Bulls (1-1) of the Big East came to play and wasted no time proving it to their SEC opponent. USF came out early and established the run, which it used often (39 for 244 yards). With top receiver Dontavia Bogan out after spraining an ankle early in the game, the Bulls ran all over Florida with 136 yards on 22 carries in the first half, with quarterback B.J. Daniels accounting for 63 of those yards.
USF led 7-0 at the end of the first quarter after mounting a 17-play, 96-yard opening drive that culminated with a 2-yard pass from Daniels to tight end Andrew Ketchel with 3:53 remaining in the quarter. In the first quarter, the Gators had the ball just 4:23 and had two first downs, 33 passing yards and minus-1 rushing yards.
But the Bulls were their own worst enemy, committing costly mistakes. Four of USF's turnovers led directly to Florida scores: an interception by safety Ahmad Black; USF running back Demetris Murray's fumble (which set up a 64-yard touchdown run by UF's Jeff Demps to give the Gators a 14-7 lead); Daniels' interception by defensive end Justin Trattou, who returned it 35 yards for a touchdown; and Daniels' interception with 11:17 left in the game by cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
"We want to be aggressive in all phases of defense, and the pass game is no different," Florida defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said.
"The one thing I told the secondary is, 'Hey, when the ball's in the air, it's as much ours as it is theirs.' "
The Gators defense, which began with a bend-don't-break mentality, finished strong. USF was 4-of-4 on third-down conversions in the first quarter but finished 5-of-12. The Bulls had 108 rushing yards in the second half (136 first half) and 86 total passing yards.
"B.J. Daniels is an extremely elusive guy, and I give him all the credit in the world," Trattou said. "He's a super-fast guy. But we just kept pushing all through the game and came back in the second half and showed we're a pretty tough team, too."
As USF's mistakes mounted, Florida's offense improved, led by Demps, who had 255 all-purpose yards, including a career-high 139 rushing — part of the Gators' 251 total rushing yards.
"The ability for us to be able to play some power football is going to be important," offensive coordinator Steve Addazio said. "Johnny can throw it and play a little power football, and play action and some different things. It was nice to see the demeanor of our team come out in the second half. That felt really good."
For a team that fell in the polls last week, Saturday's win might have signaled a key turning point. Maybe.
"No question, we did, no question," Meyer said when asked if his team grew up a bit Saturday. "I saw the sideline; I saw the locker room. There were a couple of tears in a couple of eyes in there because they wanted to win this one so bad, and that was kind of neat to see. It's still a work in progress."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.