COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS -- The University of Florida’s win against Texas A&M in the Aggies’ first taste of the Southeastern Conference wasn’t pretty. And it almost didn’t happen. But second-year coach Will Muschamp said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
After being dominated in the first half by a fast-paced Aggies (0-1, 0-1 SEC) attack, the 24th-ranked Gators (2-0, 1-0 SEC) turned it around completely in the second half to squeeze out a 20-17 win in front of 87,114 at Kyle Field.
“We did what we had to do to win the game,” Muschamp said. “We’re going to have a lot of games like this now. That’s just who we are. We’re going to grind out and we’re going to win.”
The two halves of football on Saturday couldn’t have been more different.
In the first two quarters Texas A&M had its way with the Florida defense, racking up 269 yards of total offense, 18 first downs and 17 points. The Aggies were 4 of 8 on third-down conversions and didn’t have to use their punter, seemingly cruising to an impressive win in their SEC debut.
Then it all changed. In the last two quarters, the Aggies accrued just 65 yards of total offense, three first downs and zero points. They punted six times, were penalized five times and failed to convert on six third-down opportunities.
“We did a better job in the second half of controlling the line of scrimmage,” Muschamp said. “That was the difference. There was no magic potion. We came in and told the guys just to squeeze blocks, play thicker on blocks. Quit running up the field. You get an illusion that these guys are a passing football team and really they’re not right now with [quarterback] Johnny [Manziel]. They’re a running football team.”
Manziel, a redshirt freshman making his first career start, torched the Gators with both his arm and legs in the first half, completing 16 of 20 passes for 141 yards and rushing for 55 yards on nine carries. Texas A&M ran 46 offensive plays in the first half compared to just 26 for Florida, but the halftime adjustment proved key, as Manziel and the Aggies were shut down after halftime.
“We all settled down and started playing football the way we want to play it,” linebacker Jon Bostic said. “On the defensive side of the ball, we want the game to be like that. We want to go win it in the fourth quarter, give the ball back to the offense and let them grind it out. ”
Although much of the pre-game chatter about Saturday’s game revolved around sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel making his first true start, the result came down to running the football. Muschamp said that’s the team’s identity, whether fans like it or not. After what some perceived to be an unimpressive win against Bowling Green last week in which Florida ran the ball twice as much as it passed it, Muschamp let his frustration with the criticism be heard.
“I got killed for last week but there’s a reason why we did it,” he said, his voice growing louder and angrier throughout the ensuing rant. “We had a superior football team than Bowling Green. Nothing against those guys, but we needed to play that way in order to play that way this week in this ball game. It’s a long season. And when they start having one-game seasons, then we’ll start doing everything we can do and put everything we can into one game so we can win one game and I’ll be really, really happy at the end. But I like to look at it as a 12-week season and we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to improve our football team to win football games.”
Florida again was unbalanced with 48 rushes for 142 yards and just 17 passes for 165 yards, but the offense — in particular, the rushing attack — controlled the game in the second half. Led again by senior Mike Gillislee, who had 83 yards on 14 carries with two touchdowns, the Gators had success on the ground throughout, especially when it mattered.
Leading 20-17 with 3:13 left to play, Florida took over possession at its own 14-yard line and rushed on eight consecutive plays to run out the clock.
“Happiest moment in Florida history, for me,” Muschamp said.
The Gators picked up four first downs on the series, forcing Texas A&M to burn its times out. Driskel deserves credit as well for running the offense without major mistakes. He was accurate and poised in the pocket for much of the game, completing 13 of 16 passes. But Driskel was also sacked eight times and held onto the ball too long in several instances.
Still, it was enough to secure a win on the road in the SEC opener, and Muschamp couldn’t have been more pleased.
“Last year? I don’t know, man. I don’t know if we win this ball game,” he said, adding that Saturday’s win was a statement victory. “I told our team I’m not big into those sorts of things, but … everybody wanted the glory story here with A&M and they didn’t get it.”