ARLINGTON, Texas— In a clash of willful subterfuge that included concealed rosters and starting-quarterback secrecy, Florida saved its biggest surprise for game day.
Unbeknownst to many, the Gators did their darnedest to turn a well-worn mantra on its head and prove the best offense might be a productive defense.
It worked for a half, but alas, the philosophy was impractical for four quarters. At some point, the Gators needed their offense to show up.
The only one that did bore an eerie resemblance to 2016.
Unable to complement two defensive touchdowns with any sort of offensive rhythm, the No. 17 Gators fell to No. 11 Michigan 33-17 Saturday before an announced AT&T Stadium crowd of 75,802. Had the Gators merely been outscored, perhaps the loss — their first in a season opener since 1989 — might have been easier to swallow.
But they also got outmuscled.
"Their guys were bigger and stronger," Coach Jim McElwain said. "They whupped us, plain and simple."
McElwain insisted the absence of 10 suspended players, including last year's top receiver (Antonio Callaway) and rusher (Jordan Scarlett), had no bearing on the grim outcome. To his point, no starter on the offensive line — projected as a strength — was among the suspended group.
Yet UF managed 11 rushing yards and 192 total and gave up six sacks. Aside from his first collegiate pass, a 34-yard downfield strike to Josh Hammond, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks never found a rhythm or footing (he stumbled twice in the backfield). Neither did Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire, who relieved Franks midway through the third quarter.
"They physically took it to us, give them their due," McElwain said.
"They beat us every which way they could up front, and we never had an answer. The quarterbacks obviously didn't play great; you usually don't play great when you're playing off your back foot, so we've got to do some things that way to help."
The Gators got a 46-yard Eddy Pineiro field goal on their opening drive, then failed to score another offensive point.
In what served as a harbinger for the whole afternoon, Michigan gained 84 rushing yards to Florida's 8 in the first quarter, and it used the steady stream of handoffs to set up Wilton Speight's play-action, 46-yard touchdown pass to Tarik Black for a 10-3 lead.
Then, as Gators fans kept waiting for their offense to show up, their defense arrived.
On third and 9, Gators senior cornerback Duke Dawson snagged a deflected Speight pass and returned it 48 yards to the end zone, tying the score at 10 with 12:19 to play in the first half. Eighty-nine seconds later, freshman CJ Henderson stepped in front of a Speight throw to the left flat and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown.
The pair of pick-sixes propelled the Gators to a 17-13 halftime lead, though Michigan had outgained the Gators 203-91 to that point.
"(The energy) was through the roof," Dawson said. "We thought we were gonna bury 'em from there."
But any momentum gained from the first half remained stowed in the bowels of Jerry World.
Michigan engineered a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to open the second, then turned two Gators turnovers — fumbles by kick returner Tyrie Cleveland and Franks — into field goals for a 26-17 lead.
Meantime, Florida changed quarterbacks. It used an assortment of running backs, including freshman Malik Davis out of Jesuit High. It tried rollouts, reverses, everything short of reinstating Callaway.
The Gators couldn't stay on the field (2 of 13 on third down), and the defense eventually tired. Michigan totaled 433 yards with striking run-pass balance (215 rush, 218 pass) and controlled the ball more than 34 minutes.
"I don't feel like (the defense was) that physically dominated," defensive end CeCe Jefferson said. "We just made a few mistakes.
"As a good team does, they capitalized off of it."
As a result, the Gators are 0-1 for the first time since the George Bush administration.
The first George Bush administration.
"I thought we prepared hard," McElwain said. "We had a tough camp. Guys were ready to play.
"Their strength overtook us."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
First downs 19 9
Rushes-yards 49-215 27-11
Passing 218 181
Comp-Att-Int 12-26-2 14-26-0
Return Yards 40 71
Punts-Avg. 2-35.0 6-44.66
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 5-3
Penalties-Yards 7-55 5-45
Time of Possession 34:13 25:47
Michigan 10 3 13 7— 33
Florida 3 14 0 0— 17
FLA—FG Pineiro 46, 12:32 MICH—FG Nordin 25, 5:27
MICH—Black 46 pass from W.Speight (Nordin kick), 3:01
FLA—Dawson 48 interception return (Pineiro kick), 12:19
FLA—Henderson 41 interception return (Pineiro kick), 10:50
MICH—FG Nordin 55, 4:20
MICH—Higdon 3 run (Nordin kick), 11:53
MICH—FG Nordin 30, 11:05
MICH—FG Nordin 50, 9:00
MICH—Furbush 0 fumble return (Nordin kick), 1:37
RUSHING—Michigan, Isaac 11-114, Evans 22-78, Higdon 7-28, K.Hill 2-5, McDoom 1-4, O'Korn 2-(minus 5), W.Speight 4-(minus 9). Florida, Thompson 5-13, M.Davis 1-8, Perine 7-8, Franks 5-7, Cleveland 1-4, Ivey 0-0, Zaire 8-(minus 29).
PASSING—Michigan, O'Korn 1-1-0-37, W.Speight 11-25-2-181. Florida, Franks 5-9-0-75, Zaire 9-17-0-106.
RECEIVING—Michigan, G.Perry 4-46, McKeon 3-25, Black 2-83, Eubanks 2-61, Crawford 1-3. Florida, Cleveland 4-56, Hammond 3-71, Toney 2-27, Lewis 2-17, B.Powell 2-8, Massey 1-2.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Michigan, Nordin 52, Nordin 32. Florida, Pineiro 47.