Get a Grip: Celebrate our (Moral) Victories

After the misery of October, it has been nice to get back to winning. Two of the past three weeks, the Gators got back in the (moral) victory column. The 20-23 win over Georgia was hardly an upset, the Bulldogs dealing with their own adversity this year and currently sitting at a mediocre 6-4. But last weekend’s huge 14-19 shocker over the Gamecocks was one no one saw coming and is something Gator Nation should be proud of.

You see, this is where we are right now. Moral victories are tangible. Much like the six and seven-year-olds I coach, the goal of each and every game is to work hard, try our best and if we do that, we might not actually win but we can be proud. This is all we have for the 2013 football season. As Will Muschamp has said, this is getting a grip.

Surely many of you disagree. It took me a while to figure it out and accept it. I first started kicking around the idea of changing my outlook after the Georgia game when I jokingly texted Sonny Beam that we had won 20-23. I was sort of kidding. I was playing off the fact that we looked so terrible against LSU, Missouri and in the first half of the Cocktail Party, the second half rally actually felt like a win. For the first time in a month, I wasn’t get-drunk-and-break-something angry after the game. It still sucked to lose to Georgia for a third straight year. It still sucked to be eliminated from the SEC East race. But after the absolute nadir reached after the Missouri Abomination (that performance really needs a name and capitalization) and the lost half against Georgia that saw a 23-3 deficit and no realistic hope of salvation, to claw back and have had a shot in the fourth quarter was nothing short of miraculous. Of course, the soul crushing penalty by Darius Cummings was really the only way for the game to end.

The Georgia game was the epitome of the Will Muschamp era for me: slow start (2011 season), fierce rally (2012 season), failure and disappointment (2013 season). And the fact that it was filled throughout with offensive ineptness and stupid penalties only solidified that personification. So I couldn’t at that point commit fully to feeling good about a loss.

Then came the Vanderbilt game and my god.

It seemed as if the entire program was on the brink of collapse. To make matters worse, the fourth-string third-string quarterback was going to step in for his first start, looking into the eyes of Jadeveon Clowney for 60 or so snaps with a rag-tag collection of offensive line scraps the only thing between living and dying.

As the weekend approached, there wasn’t a sane person alive predicting anything other than a South Carolina blowout. And so hours before kickoff, I reached my breaking point as a Florida fan. I had read Carlos Alvarez’s plea on Friday night. I had thought about what kind of a person I wanted to be in the final three weeks of this season. College football seasons come and go fast, especially as you pack the years on your odometer. They are rare and precious things, and if you are lucky you get to experience and enjoy somewhere around 70 of them in a lifetime. I’m about halfway through the ride.

I honestly assessed where the Gators were and went into the game that night expecting a blowout and knowing if it happened, I was going to be OK with it. I had another thought as well. If the Gators kept it close and had a chance in the second half, I was going to consider it a success regardless of the final outcome. Well that’s exactly what happened.

The criticism of Muschamp and Brent Pease hasn’t abated with the performance though. Many are outraged we played so conservatively on offense, some even suggesting we didn’t play to win. That’s really stupid for many reasons: 1) the way the offense had performed for the past month, 2) a redshirt freshman taking his first snaps at quarterback, 3) backups of backups on the offensive line against Clowney and company and 4) homefield advantage with a fired up crowd with a shot at the SEC title game berth on the line. For those reasons and more, the only (slim) chance the Gators had in the game was to not turn it over, control the clock and hope the defense could not only slow Mike Davis and Connor Shaw but also force a turnover or two. For three quarters, it was working.

The Cocks eventually pushed ahead and forced Muschamp and Pease to come out of their shell and we saw the results: a horrendously executed fake punt pass (that was horribly drawn up to go to defensive tackle Leon Orr) and the game-clinching interception on the only play of the game where Skyler Mornhinweg had to try to make a play. That last pass was all the evidence you needed that Muschamp and Pease were right not to put him in a position where he could make a mistake all night. If they had, that game would have certainly been a laugher a la the Vanderbilt game.

Even with the moral victory, I’ll concede there are legitimate gripes about the game. The aforementioned fake punt pass couldn’t have been drawn up to go to a LB or TE, someone who at least practices catching balls on a regular basis? Why was Austin Hardin reinstated as kicker? Were they blown assignments or were there run plays drawn up that called for Clowney to be unblocked? But those are nitpicking what to me again was a huge upset and moral victory.

The real frustration lies in seeing last week’s game and extrapolating to Vandy. If Murphy was that hurt, why did he play? Why didn’t they institute this ultra-conservative attack for that game, knowing that Vanderbilt’s offense was going to do the same with their backup freshman quarterback? And knowing that Vanderbilt’s defense was susceptible to the run? The South Carolina game plan enacted and effectively executed against Vandy would have led to a real win and with it, a .500 record and a bowl game.

We shall see what the game plan looks like against Georgia Southern on Saturday. I have a feeling it is going to feature much of what we saw against South Carolina, perhaps with a few more screens and short, quick throws mixed in. Assuming the defense figures out the triple option after the inevitable first drive success and score for Georgia Southern, the offense simply has to not turn it over to win the game. And a real win will feel really good no matter the competition.

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