OK, so maybe Florida hadn’t played indoors in Atlanta for a couple of years, their fortunes on the wane with Jim McElwain. But the Gators looked plenty comfortable and at home beneath the metallic petals of Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, easily stepping over what once was a sizable maize-and-blue stumbling block.
Playing like they were mad about the various past miseries dealt it by Michigan, the Gators decided to take it no longer, beating the Wolverines 41-15 at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Thus, the book of 2018 closed on two high-profile 10-win teams, their epilogues written in starkly contrasting tones.
For Michigan, now 1-3 in bowl games under Jim Harbaugh, it must reflect upon how a team that once boasted the No. 1-ranked defense in the country gave up 103 points in its last two games (62 of those to Ohio State). It must digest another season that began with great promise yet ended on the wrong side of a physical mismatch.
“It was a very good season. It would have been a great season had we won this game. Didn’t get that done,” Harbaugh (10-3 this season) said. “My feeling about the team is we’re right there to the top, but we have to put it over the top. Especially in the big games at the end of the year.”
For the Gators, also 10-3, the Peach Bowl gave the Dan Mullen Revival another significant cardiac jolt. Since taking over for McElwain this season, Mullen prodded a team that won four games in 2017 to the double-digit-win plateau with Saturday’s victory. Theirs was a strong finish since losing on back-to-back weeks to Georgia and Missouri, winning the last four. Michigan was the third ranked pelt Florida mounted on its wall, the second inside the top 10.
Yoked to an oppressive history when playing Michigan – oh-and-four they were versus the Wolverines, including 16- and 34-point losses against Harbaugh creations – the Gators emphatically broke free Saturday.
“A lot of people thought they were just going to come out, punch us in the mouth, push us around because they’re bigger than us,” Gators defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson said. “We showed a lot of heart and a lot of fight and treated it like a regular week.”
“I don’t know how they prepared,” Gardner-Johnson said, referring to Michigan, “but I don’t think they prepared too well. We definitely came out there and won the game on both sides of the ball.”
That pretty well summed it up, but rather than cut short the story, there are a few other points to consider.
With his two interceptions, one returned 30 yards for Florida’s final score, Gardner-Johnson was voted the Peach Bowl’s defensive MVP. His decision to play in the bowl game rather than to leave early to prepare for the NFL draft was amply rewarded, as he was spotted on the sideline at game’s end in tears of happiness as encircling teammates chanted “M-V-P.”
Offensive MVP went to Florida sophomore quarterback Feleipe Franks, who threw for 173 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 74 yards and another score. Franks, too, was emotional at the close of the business day because, he said, of how far both he and his team has come this season under the new regime.
There was no shortage of candidates for either award on the Gators side. Junior running back Lamical Perine rushed for 76 yards on only six carries, including a touchdown. He also had a TD reception. Cornerback C.J. Henderson was all over the lot, making eight tackles, two of them for a loss.
Michigan took a 7-3 lead in the first quarter, finishing off a 75-yard drive with a 9-yard pass from Shea Patterson to Donovan Peoples-Jones. With that, the Wolverines would visit the end zone no more this day.
Meanwhile, emphasizing the imprint the offensively minded new coach has made, the Gators showed themselves capable of scoring in myriad, imaginative ways. It seemed as if one guy’s playbook was in color and the other’s in black and white.
First, Florida took the lead near the end of the half when Franks looked over a defense spread to cover Florida’s five-wide alignment and called for a quarterback draw. He slithered inside for a 20-yard touchdown run.
A 44-yard third-quarter touchdown drive, set up by Gardner-Johnson’s first interception, was kept alive on a fourth-and-1 jet sweep by wideout Kadarius Toney that gained 30 yards. The Gators scored two plays later on a tunnel screen to Perine.
When a trick throw-back to Franks flopped in the fourth quarter, leaving the Gators third-and-20, Florida went quite vanilla. And even that worked wonders, Perine turning a simple inside handoff into a 53-yard touchdown run.
All this left Florida feeling pretty proud of their season. “It’s really special for me,” Mullen said, “that these guys all bought in and believed. We finished a 10-win season and as a top-10 team in the country. That’s pretty special.”
And even those who are planning to throw their fate to the NFL were feeling very bullish about Florida’s future. While the Gators haven’t yet shown they’ve closed the gap on teams such as Georgia and Alabama in its own conference, the departing Gardner-Johnson felt it necessary to inform everyone that Florida had eyes on returning to Mercedes-Benz Stadium maybe a couple times next year.
“We told them all week, the playoff’s going to be here (a Peach Bowl semifinal, not to mention the SEC Championship game beforehand),” he said. “Like coach Mullen said, the playoff’s going to be here, so if you act like a big-time team, perform like a big-time team, you’ll be here next year on a bigger stage.”
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