Phil Fulmer, at one point in the third quarter in last night, raised his fatty arms above his jowly head and slammed his clipboard holding copies of new offensive coordinators' resumes and Ryan's Family Steakhouse coupons to the turf. CBS played the replay as we sat drinking double vodka tonics in the Brewhouse, and on the third replay cutting out to a commercial in the fourth, we watched the last slow-motion bounce of the clipboard and the ripply jiggling of Fulmer's midsection and thought: Meyer's worth...every...goddamn...penny.
Demons be gone!
Minutes before the game, we told our friend BJ in NY--who was busy frantically placing quinella bets on Miami Jai-Alai and doubling down on Mountain West teaser combos via his offshore online casino--that we'd believe the de-Zookification of the team when we saw it live and in living color. No fourth quarter collapses. No gutless rollups in the face of adversity. No loose zones on defense crumbling beneath a barrage of 15-yard in routes. No bizarre lapses at crippling moments.
In short, we wanted to see a team that would punch the other team in the throat until one of them died in the effort.
As Zook's Illini ran out to a lead over Cal and slowly watched their coach cluelessly fritter away a lead to the tune of 21 fourth quarter points, Meyer completed the exorcism with a drunken street brawl of a game: two soused thugs missing with haymakers for what seemed like forever until it ended in an ugly chokehold on the pavement. A brutal dawn to the new era of Florida football, but a new beginning on a winning note nonetheless. This team may not be anything close to complete now, but it is now fully Meyer's after Saturday night. Tell the priest to go home--this demon's gone.
Before the ass-patting begins--oh, and we're into a little ass-patting, especially over a defeat of EDSBS' Most Despised Rival®--that whole "brutal" take needs a little expansion here. Matt Zemek of College Football News in his Instant Analysis summed the overall key of the game as well as anyone:
It was, frankly, an aesthetically dull and displeasing contest, a relic of old-time 1960s SEC football, featuring field position, headknocking, and little else.
Obviously not a Florida fan, but true enough. Those anticipating a blossoming of Meyer's "Run, then Shoot" spread option in the SEC were instead treated to a game straight out of the Woody Hayes primer: three yards, the requisite cloud of dust, and a willingness to punt and play field position with a ferocious defense and timely special teams. Scary, but with the Vols calling themselves out of the game offensively and the Gators just clinging to life on their possessions, field goals became something unheard of in Gator football: important
The recipe for a 16-7 game between two national powers powers works something like this:
1. Three parts Urban Meyer obstinacy. Meyer believed that the way to defeat Tennessee was to run the ball and let Chris Leak make the calls at the line, torpedoes be damned. Even if it looked ugly in the second quarter, even if the offense spent most of the night watching Deshawn Wynn pick himself out of a pile two yards from the line of scrimmage--square peg Leak was going to fit in the round hole of a spread option qb in front of a national television audience. Meyer wanted this offense to become a butterfly in a night and he was going to get it if he had to staple wings to an earthworm.
And when it counted, particularly in the fourth quarter, Meyer got his lepidoptera: Leak emerged in the fourth as the offense held the ball for a punishing 12 minutes in the quarter as Leak completed precision third down passes and finally made a big play running the ball, channeling Alex Smith as he juked ( Our Chris? Showing shimmy?) a Vol defender for a critical first down on the game-clinching field goal drive. A butterfly? Not exactly--more like a hardy moth than anything else. But if it's the beginning of a gradual transformation to a ferocious Mothra-like creature, you can trace its birth to the fourth quarter of the Tennessee game, when Chris Leak finally began to get the feel of the spread option and helped put the Vols in a submission hold Royce Gracie would be proud of.
2. Two parts unchained defense. If, for one reason or another, we'd seen the Gators fall into a soft zone in the fourth, we might have enjoyed the hospitality of the Fulton County Jail for the night on Saturday--the soft zone being the "winner's way to lose" under Zook. Offenses simply ran into it or threw in-cuts until the Gators found themselves watching the winning field goal zip past their heads in another close loss.
No such pantywaisting now. Florida's D blitzed, blitzed, and blitzed some more, mixing in packages and coverages like Jim Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles was calling the plays. The blitzing was necessitated by the loss of Ray McDonald at defensive end, but the injury actually seemed to free up the defensive play-calling (note: this does NOT mean the loss of McDonald was a good thing no no no much bad NOT GOOD.) Florida blitzed man-to-man out of the nickel, zone from the 4-3, and tossed some kitchen-sink blitzes straight from Jerry Glanville's back pages at the Vols. Ainge was spinning like a top by the fourth quarter.
Tennessee's Dada-esque game plan is to credit--see next ingredient--but Florida's defense is ranked second in the nation after its first SEC matchup. Let the cooing ensue.
3. Four parts absurdist, Dada-esque gameplan from Tennessee. The Tennessee band was told to prepare the bandstand for Rick Clausen to conduct the band in "Rocky Top" for the victory--and that may be all anyone has to know about why the Volunteers went from bruising jiu-jitsu master in the second quarter to hapless, slap-fighting Rex Kwon Do student in the second half.
Randy Sanders' game plan against Florida was positively dada-esque. It also totally sucked.
Randy Sanders--who've we've suggested in the past has the Sega Genesis calling his plays at random for him up in the booth--backed off a run game that had juggernaut Gerald Riggs getting 8 yards on first down in the first half and went to a pass-wacky attack placing the onus squarely on the bony shoulders of the talented but streaky Eric Ainge. Riggs, the best back in the SEC running behind the biggest line in the SEC, got 17 carries in the biggest game of the year. We'll type that again just to wrench the shoulder muscles of Vol fans into spastic knots of misery: Riggs had just 17 carries in the biggest game of the year.
Why? Because Randy Sanders, and we suppose Phil Fulmer, have fallen in love with their golden boy quarterback and wanted to force the gameplan through him no matter what happened. The rationale was this: Florida has short corners. We have tall receivers. Go Vols. The game plan ended up yielding a pitiful 213 yards and a single touchdown when the Gators demon midget corners played shutdown defense on those taller wideouts. Stay humble and run the ball 35 times with Riggs, and you win the game. Think about getting the qb on the bandstand before the game, and you soil yourself in public as the Vols did on Saturday.
It may be the worst game plan we've ever seen. UT's final four possessions yielded 17 passes and just 4 runs. That's the play calling of a team down by 21, not three or six points, as the case in this game was. Game ball, UT offensive coaching staff.
4. Three parts instant replay and special teams. THE critical moment: Vols driving in the second quarter, playing to their strength and doin' some Kingston bareknuckle boxing with the Florida defensive line by shoving them down the field and interspersing some nifty short passes in there.
A play in three parts here:
a. Florida's d, which had been on skates, tightens up and finally stops Tennessee on two vital downs. Gator fans jaws drop to their jean shorts as we actually stop the Vols in the red zone.
b. A trapped reception is overruled from the booth, taking away Tennessee Ball at the Florida 1 yard line and keeping UT to a field goal. Remind EDSBS to tongue-kiss Mike Slive for instant replay when we see him next.
c. In an event unheard of since the mid-nineties, special teams actually matter at Florida, as a potentially game tying field goal is blocked by Dee Webb. Someone call Jack Jackson.
In a tight game, nanometers and field goals matter. Florida stole one from deep in the jaws of potential defeat here on this series.
The final dish? Well, not exactly prize bouillabaise here--the offense is still a ballet-dancer's brawl, with the qb still unsure of his role, a collared pass game, and an offensive line unsure of whose chest to put a helmet into at the snap of the ball. We'd call it an outright train wreck save for one overlooked detail: they didn't have a single turnover on Saturday night. Taking care of the ball prevents us from making that cliched proclamation. We'll call it a classic I-285 slowdown for the moment, with Leak playing the part of the traffic cop just barely getting the clot of cars moving on the connector.
The macro picture is a little better: Urban Meyer paced the sidelines in the fourth quarter like the bastard child of Woody Hayes, fist-pumping, signalling frantically, watching his formerly finessey Florida team muscle up on the definitive SEC honky-tonk bullies. With the defense breaking out the pipes on Ainge in the final two series, Meyer and the coaching staff were the ones leading the cheering. The head coach was leading the cheering for his defense like a green, wide-eyed grad assistant--and for one glorious night, the Gator Nation was all too happy to follow.