Gator Bowl win pushes Gators in right direction

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — His first bowl win was in the books. The Gatorade shower had been delivered. The shiny silver bowl trophy was in safe hands. And during an on-the-field ceremony after the game, the fans were properly thanked for their support on Monday and for their patience during his first season.

Finally, it was time for Florida coach Will Muschamp to address the Gators after their 24-17 victory Monday afternoon over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl gave the orange-and-blue faithful a much-needed shot of hope.

The Gators did the slaying on a sunny and cool afternoon at EverBank Field, constantly pressuring Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller in a defensive performance reminiscent of some of those Muschamp made his name on as defensive coordinator at LSU, Auburn and Texas.

The Gators played fast and physical. They won more line-of-scrimmage battles. They made momentum-changing plays when they needed them — on offense, defense and special teams.

Most importantly, they won and avoid the stigma of the having the program’s first losing season since 1979.

Now, the talk is about how the Gators extended the program’s streak of consecutive winning seasons to 24. The 7-6 finish extended the program’s streak of consecutive non-losing seasons to 32.

Muschamp offered his thanks to those who helped most, the ones standing around him inside Florida’s locker room.

“Our coaching staff did a great job, and our players did a great job persevering through a tough season,” Muschamp said as he stood on a stool still with wet hair from the Gatorade bath. “Seniors . . . thank you so much. We bought in, we pulled together, we didn’t end with many [players], but we ended with some tough sons of guns.

“Now, I don’t want you to forget one thing about this season. I don’t want you to forget about the tough times. I don’t want you to forget about the frustrations. I don’t want you to forget about any of those times as moments.”

As Muschamp’s voice continued to rise, he delivered his ultimate message. One that had so much more impact after a win — against former Gators coach Urban Meyer’s future team no less — than if the Gators had fallen to the Buckeyes.

Florida’s season opener next season is Sept. 1 against Bowling Green. But Muschamp said next season starts in seven days when he holds a team meeting on Jan. 9.

“We will refocus our program,” he told the players. “We are not a 7-6 program. Does everybody understand that? You didn’t come here, and I didn’t come here for that.”

The Gators’ win Monday serves as the biggest of Muschamp’s young career. It was a victory that came with a trophy and a bonus for beating the program Meyer is taking over — ensuring Ohio State’s first losing season in 23 years.

It also provided relief from what has been a difficult season. But things came together nicely in Florida’s seventh Gator Bowl win in nine trips to Jacksonville.

The Gators scored early on senior quarterback John Brantley’s touchdown pass to fellow senior Deonte Thompson, his first touchdown reception of the season. They got big plays on special teams from Andre Debose (99-yard kickoff return) and Chris Rainey (blocked punt). They got a big defensive performance that included a season-high six sacks and 12 tackles-for-loss.

Muschamp Ball had arrived. Some run, some pass and a whole lot of defense.

Before he could step down from that stool, Muschamp was presented a game ball for his first career bowl by his former Georgia teammate and current Gators director of football operations George Wynn.

The players and coaches applauded in what was undoubtedly a special moment for Muschamp.

“It was a great game, a lot of fun,” said Muschamp’s father, Larry, shortly after his son walked by toward the locker room. “First win of the year.”

More than just another bowl win — Florida’s school-record fourth in a row — this victory provided something more valuable than another trophy. It provided a program, a coaching staff and a team a moment to remember.

“You feel better about yourself for eight months,” Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. “It builds momentum for recruiting. People talk about bowls and these games are very important for programs that are trying to build. I’ve said this many times — Urban’s first year [in 2005] — we went to the Outback and won that game, and boom, we took off!

“Bowl games have a huge impact on building momentum.”

Muschamp and the Gators were ready for a shove forward. The Gators lost six of their final eight games after injuries, and SEC opponents started to pile up. This was his first feel-good moment since a 4-0 start three months ago.

As he finished a radio interview inside a nearly empty locker room, Muschamp’s wife, Carol, waited for him. They planned to return to the team hotel for a quiet night with the family. Maybe a nice glass of wine, some dinner and family time with their two sons.

A night to relax and celebrate for a change.

“Bowl week for everyone other than the coaches is a lot of fun. We work the whole week. We’re always on the go,” he said. “I’m worn out. I’m always worn out after a game. I’m just going to enjoy spending some time with my wife and kids and enjoy the win.”

“I’m really happy for our players. Our players have been through a lot this season. They never blinked. They never questioned what we were trying to do and how we were trying to do it. When you are 4-0, it’s OK, but when you lose four in a row and are 4-4, it’s very easy to question what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to do it. I never heard any of that. I’m very appreciative of that.”

The players showed their appreciation by coming up with their biggest win of the season Monday.

One that Muschamp, the Gators, and their fans hope is just the beginning of Muschamp’s program, not simply a feel-good moment to cap his first season.

“We won the ballgame,” defensive end Ronald Powell said. “The only way is up. Starting from now, that’s the direction we’re going in.”

That’s the plan. The Gators are meeting in seven days to discuss it.