ARLINGTON, Texas — Any observer with a base-level understanding of Florida’s recent football narrative may have found themselves trapped in an overplayed and all-too-familiar plot Saturday.
The defense built the No. 17 Gators a wave of momentum with 2 interception returns for touchdowns in the span of 1 minute, 29 seconds, and the offense brought it all to a crashing halt with porous offensive line play and few glimmers of hope after a strong start.
The message from the Florida players who spoke with reporters afterward was consistent, though. They don’t believe the 33-17 loss to No. 11 Michigan will dictate or define their season, nor do they feel all preseason optimism for an offensive breakout was left on the turf at AT&T Stadium on Saturday.
“When we were in the locker room, there wasn’t any pointing fingers or blaming,” defensive end CeCe Jefferson said. “Everybody was mature about this loss, and everybody knows that we just have to move on and get ready for next week.
“Those guys (on offense) know what they’ve got to do. We’re just here to support them in every way that we can. We’re not a team that … when things go bad, we don’t point fingers at each other. We’re one team, so those guys know what they have to get accomplished.”
In another part of the room, speaking at the same time, cornerback Duke Dawson was offering the same sentiments.
“You can’t point no fingers at the offense. We’re one team. We’ve just got to watch the film on Monday, put it behind us and move on to the next team,” he said.
That’s what they should say.
But the Gators were still humbled Saturday.
They went through two quarterbacks on the way to scoring 3 offensive points, which came on their opening drive. They watched a 17-10 lead in the second quarter — built by those back-to-back pick-6s from Dawson (48 yards) and freshman C.J. Henderson (41 yards) — get erased with 23 unanswered points from the Wolverines.
Coach Jim McElwain had told a pep rally crowd in Gainesville, Fla., a couple weeks ago that Florida was coming to Dallas to “beat the heck out of Michigan.”
Instead, it was the other way around.
The Wolverines combined 215 rushing yards with 218 passing yards and dominated defensively with 6 sacks while holding the Gators to 2 of 13 on third downs. That’s what it looks like when one team beats the heck out of the other.
The defense wore down a bit while carrying the weight of the team on its shoulders — yet again — and the game hadn’t even finished before Twitter started calling for offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s job. Again.
From the cloud of the 10 preseason suspensions to the sting of a lopsided opening loss, it’s easy to forget how much optimism existed for this team not long ago.
Within the locker room, the players insist none of that has changed.
“Not at all, man, because like I said, it’s just the first game of the season. We’re going to get it together,” defensive tackle Khairi Clark said. “We’re going to practice hard, we’re going to game plan, we’re going to have that preparation to come out and be great this season. It’s just the first game.”
Said defensive end Jordan Sherit: “I think all of our goals are still attainable. Obviously, it hurts, but you can’t dwell on the past. You’ve got to move forward.”
And Dawson: “It don’t affect none of that. We’ve just got to come out and work. We don’t look at this game as anything that’s going to hinder us going down the road. We’ve got a lot of big SEC games ahead of us so that’s what we focus on. Game by game.”
And that’s all perfectly fair.
The Gators’ goals start with a return to the SEC Championship Game. That quest hasn’t even begun yet.
A win over Michigan on Saturday would have been validating for the preseason optimism, would have vaulted the national perception of the team. It could have been a springboard. Instead, Florida simply has to start over next week.
The Gators host Northern Colorado next Saturday night in The Swamp, an opponent more in line with the program’s traditional season starters.
It’s a prime opportunity to rebuild confidence and ready for the upcoming SEC slate that will ultimately determine the fate of their season.
The Gators still get to write the script to their season, and they might as well throw this first draft away and start over. It was dull, uninspired and didn’t advance the narrative at all.
Surely, they can do better.
“It’s going to hurt, and if it doesn’t, something’s wrong. It should hurt. You know what, there were some guys that played their tails off that were hurting in that locker room,” McElwain said. “But with that, this opening game, it is what it is. We have a bunch more to play. I like this team, guys. I like the guys on this team. I think we have an opportunity to grow, to be a really, really good team. That’s what we’re planning to do.”
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