Saturday, January 3, 2015

Gators Win Birmingham Bowl

The Florida Gator football team capped off its mediocre 2014 season with a 28-20 victory over the Eastern Carolina Pirates in the Birmingham Bowl. This was another typical Gator game that was painful to watch as the offense disappeared in the second half. As has been customary all year, the defense carried the Gators to victory.

I'll start with the defense because they were the reason Florida won this game. In total, Florida's defense gave up a ton of yards as ECU out-gained the Gators 536 to 339. They especially had trouble stopping ECU wide receiver Justin Hardy, who had 11 catches for 160 yards and a touchdown. However, the spectacular play of Hardy and all of ECU's offensive yards would not be enough to beat the Gators as the Florida defense was stingy all game long and forced three turnovers.

Junior safety Brian Poole put the Gators on the board when he picked off a pass over the middle and took it back for a touchdown. This helped knot the game at 7-7. The next big turnover came from freshman defensive lineman Gerald Willis. With ECU on the 1-yard line and threatening to tie the game, Willis poked the ball loose from backup quarterback Kurt Benkert. Brian Poole would fall on it and prevent the ECU score.

The turnover bug would strike ECU again in crunch time. Down 28-20 with less than two minutes in the game, ECU was in the red zone looking to tie the game. On 2nd down and 10, ECU decided to run the ball and Brian Poole stripped the ball from ECU running back Isaiah Jones. At this point, I jumped up to celebrate the victory as I saw UF defensive lineman Joey Ivie running to recover the fumble.

However, my celebration would turn out to be premature as the ball hit off Ivie and was recovered by ECU. I was LIVID. With a fresh set of downs, it looked like ECU was going to score and then be in position to tie the game with a two-point conversion. Then, VH3 struck.

Vernon Hargreaves III, who I said in my "Top 5 Florida Gator Cornerbacks" article would play well in this game, intercepted ECU on first and goal to seal the game. Without these three turnovers and the defense making ECU settle for field goals, Florida would not have won today.

In addition to Poole and VH3, some other Gator defensive players stepped it up today. Playing in his last collegiate game, Dante Fowler Jr. balled out as he had three sacks and two quarterback hurries. He solidified his status as a first rounder in this upcoming NFL Draft and showed us all that he is going to be a threat to QB's in the NFL for many years to come. The only other Gator to record a sack was junior defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard.

The tackling leaders for Florida in today's game were defensive backs Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal with eight a piece. Maye also led the secondary with two broken up passes.

I will say that I loved watching the defense play today and with a majority of these guys coming back for 2015, this defense can still remain great!

Now on to the offense. For the last time ever (hopefully), I had to endure another pitiful offensive performance from the Florida Gators. The first half went well as the Gators scored 21 points. After that, they would score just one more touchdown before shutting down for the rest of the game.

True freshman quarterback Treon Harris did alright as he completed 5 of 11 passes for 123 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. Harris also used his legs as he rushed 10 times for 48 yards. This would ultimately be his undoing as Harris injured his knee after a run in the third quarter.

With Treon down, it would come down to the one and only Jeffery Driskel. After finding out the news that Jeff had been released from the team, I was curious to see how he would play in his final game as a Gator. Honestly, Jeff played pretty poorly as he completed 8 of 17 passes for just 48 yards. He led the Gators on no scoring drives whatsoever and the team had three three-and-outs with him on the field.

Despite playing poorly, Jeff found a way to close this game out. After VH3's interception, the Gators were facing 3rd and 4 on their own 26. ECU had one timeout left and would get one last chance if they could stop the Gators. Jeff hiked the ball and faked the handoff to Adam Lane. With the entire ECU defense fooled, Jeff ran past the first down line to clinch the game.

This had to be the most ironic/fitting moment of the season as Jeff Driskel, who could never properly run the read option, finally ran the play correctly to secure the bowl victory. Personally, I will not miss Jeff and I want to forget most of what happened here during his time at QB. As incompetent as he looked on the field, Jeff did ultimately close out the game and for that I will always have some sort of respect for him.

As questions surround who will be the starting QB next year, a big statement was made as to who should be the starting tailback. Redshirt freshman Adam Lane, who sported Gator legend Emmitt Smith's No. 22, had a heck of a game today. He rushed 16 times for 109 yards and his first career touchdown. He did fumble the ball once, but I can ultimately overlook that because the Gators pulled out the victory.

Lane's performance prompts me to ask why he was barely used at all this year. Then I remember that Will Muschamp was the head coach and a lot of bad decisions were made this year regarding personnel and play calling decisions. With that in mind, I'll let that question go and just revel in the fact that UF has a solid option at running back returning for 2015.

While Lane carried the load, Florida sprinkled some other running backs in the mix. Mack Brown saw action in this game simply because he was a redshirt senior playing his final college game. He had eight rushes for 21 yards.

Sophomore Kelvin Taylor saw action in the first half and was unable to do anything with zero yards on four rushes. I had heard rumor of Taylor transferring earlier this season after the LSU game and I wonder if he will pursue that option with Lane emerging as the favorite to win the job entering spring camp.

The final back, Matt Jones, did not receive a single carry. That is right, the redshirt junior who is entering the NFL Draft after this season did not play a single down in this game. I do not know why he did not play. Maybe he broke team rules, maybe he was hurt, maybe Durkin and he had a private altercation, I just do not know. It is a shame Jones did not get to play and I hope that he gets an opportunity to play for an NFL team somewhere.

The last phase of offense that is usually hit or miss were the receivers. Today they were above average as two of Florida's three offensive touchdowns came through the air. Sophomore Demarcus Robinson led all receivers in receptions with six catches for 36 yards. The only other receiver to have more than a single catch was running back Brandon Powell. He had three catches for 20 yards and a touchdown.

The biggest play on offense came in the form of a screen pass to Ahmad Fulwood on 3rd and 6 in the third quarter. Fulwood caught the pass at his own 14-yard line and outran all of ECU's defenders for an 86-yard Gator touchdown. This was the longest play in Birmingham Bowl history and the last time the Gators would score all game. This was also Fulwood's only reception of the contest.

In the special teams realm, senior punter Kyle Christy balled in his last collegiate game. He had eight punts for 343 yards with his longest punt being 54 yards. He averaged 42.9 yards per put and was able to put one ball inside the 20. In my opinion, he will most definitely be punting for a team in the NFL.

As a whole, this game sums up the Gators' 2014 season and the mantra of the Muschamp Era. The offense was inept and the defense was able to hold the lead and end it with late game heroics. The Gators finish at 1-0 under interim head coach D.J. Durkin who already has a better winning percentage than Will Muschamp.

I give Durkin a ton of credit for sticking it out and coaching the team despite knowing he would not return in 2015. His coaching style puzzled me, however, when he continued to keep throwing the ball deep into the fourth quarter with Jeff Drisekl as opposed to just running it with Lane.

Regardless, Florida won and the Gators have won their first bowl game since the 2011 season. It is also worth mentioning that Durkin has also won as many bowl games as Muschamp after today's game. The Gators finish 7-5, which is by no means spectacular, but is much better than 4-8.

Now Birmingham Bowl Champions, the Florida Gator football team will enter this offseason with much optimism as Jim McElwain takes over as the new head coach. McElwain has already brought in new offensive and defensive coordinators, and will look to purge the rest of a subpar coaching staff built by his predecessor. The future looks bright in Gainesville. To the football team: Thank you guys for giving it your all game in and game out this 2014 season and for ending it on a high note with a 2015 Birmingham Bowl victory! Go Gators!

*All stats accredited to