Gators Stake Claim to SEC East Crown

| October 4, 2015

TD-UM-DL

GAINESVILLE – Jim McElwain made his way to the northeast corner of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium late Saturday night as the band played and thousands of fans remained in the stands, still celebrating Florida’s 38-10 dismantling of No. 3-ranked Ole Miss.

The Gators dominated from the beginning, racing to a 25-0 halftime lead in their most impressive start-to-finish home win against a ranked team since at least 2012. Some would say longer.

The Swamp, packed with the largest crowd (90,585) in three years, rocked from start to finish, too.

“For a kid from Montana, I’ve got to tell you, that was pretty cool,’’ McElwain said.

As soon as the band stopped playing and the players began to scatter, McElwain recharged the scene with his most enthusiastic Gator Chomps yet in his 10 months at UF.

The fans erupted as they did over and over Saturday in a stunning performance from the Gators, who are certain to climb significantly in the national rankings from the No. 25 spot they occupied prior to routing the Rebels.

But Saturday felt like more than just a breakout victory. It felt like the program turned a corner back to relevance.

If last week’s come-from-behind victory over Tennessee offered promise of better days ahead, the thumping of Ole Miss revealed those days may have already arrived.

Few gave the Gators a chance at home against an Ole Miss team that already won at Alabama and was averaging more than 54 points a game. Even Tim Tebow picked against his alma mater on “SEC Nation.”

But the Gators looked like a team that could have beaten anybody on Saturday.

“When we play all four quarters, you better watch out,’’ linebacker Jarrad Davis said.

Once those four quarters ended Saturday, the Gators walked off Florida Field all alone atop the SEC East standings. The Gators are 5-0, 3-0 in the conference, and took over first place in the division thanks to Georgia (4-1, 2-1) losing at home to Alabama earlier in the day.

Suddenly, a team the league’s media picked to finish fifth in the East appears to be a real contender for the division title.

“It’s the way it should be,’’ McElwain said. “Every opportunity you have in life, go take advantage of it.”

The flu-bitten Gators – McElwain said more than 20 players were quarantined this week as the virus made its way around the roster – made Ole Miss fans sick to their stomachs after going quietly on their first drive.

It started as soon as the Rebels offense took the field for its opening series. The Florida defense attacked like a swarm of bees. Davis sacked Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly for an 8-yard loss on second down and Ole Miss went three-and-out.

Florida quarterback Will Grier, who missed Thursday’s practice with the flu, went 3-for-3 on the Gators’ second drive – all three completions to junior receive Demarcus Robinson – to put Florida up 7-0.

Grier’s final throw of the drive was on a 36-yard post pattern he floated up under heavy pressure from Rebels defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche. Robinson raced under the ball and snatched it from the air for a touchdown.

Grier finished the first half 17 of 20 for 229 yards and four touchdowns, the first Florida quarterback to throw for four touchdowns in a half since Chris Leak a decade ago. He finished the game 24 of 29 for 271 yards as the defense gave the Rebels little opportunity to spoil the raucous orange-and-blue party.

Preparation was the key according to Grier, who credited McElwain and the coaching staff for responding to the challenge of running practice with players in and out due to sickness.

“Every single one of us is behind Coach Mac and what he’s doing. He’s done a great job,” Grier said. “We’ve come together as a family, all the way around. And that starts from the top.”

While fans fretted whether Grier would be able to play after reports surfaced Friday he was one of the players battling the flu, his teammates were not concerned.

“Will had a great game. We expected him to do that, but he definitely showed everybody else what he can do,’’ defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. said. “We didn’t have any doubts at all [whether he would play].”

A senior leader, tight end Jake McGee was more direct: “That’s what he is supposed to do. I don’t really care if he’s sick or not. If he’s in there, his job is to throw the ball and hand the ball off. He can cough when he gets home.”

McElwain was pleased at Grier’s play and the offense overall. But he spent more time pumping up the defense during his postgame press conference.

Ole Miss didn’t score until a Gary Wunderlich 22-yard field goal with 5:25 remaining in the third quarter. Wunderlich’s kick came after Ole Miss had a first-and-goal at the Gators’ 1 but failed to reach the end zone.

“Boy, was that a big stop. What a great stand,’’ McElwain said. “We made them earn that drive.”

Much like they did last week after the dramatic win over Tennessee, the Gators will face questions about handling success and staying level-headed as they begin to garner more national attention.

McElwain knows the drill. He won two national titles as Alabama’s offensive coordinator and understands how perception can change following a big win such as Saturday’s.

“We’ll find out,’’ he said. “It’s new, and yet, I’m kind of excited about it. That’s a good thing. Yippee.”

The Gators are back in the national polls. They are back on top of the SEC East. They are back in the national conversation.

The season isn’t even halfway over, so they still have a lot of unfinished business if they intend to stay on top in the division.

On Saturday night at the Swamp, that possibility seemed much more realistic than a month ago.

“The present and the future is what we’ve had in our mind,” McGee said. “We have the talent to do it. It’s our job to get it done. We aren’t really worried about what’s happened before. Things change. And this thing is headed in the right direction.”

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