When the potential game-winning field goal attempt landed short of the crossbar Saturday in Kentucky, Florida’s football players exhaled a collective sigh of relief. For the second consecutive week, they’d escaped with a win.
Defensive tackle Taven Bryan noted he’d rather be dominating games than relying on the opposing kicker’s lack of leg strength or a last-second pass to survive heart-stopping thrillers, but he, his teammates and his coach agreed that there’s just something about this team and its ability to find ways to win.
“Even after all that,” coach Jim McElwain said in reference to the penalties, missed tackles and other miscues that nearly cost No. 20 UF (2-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) its 30-year (now 31-year) winning streak over the Wildcats, “our guys hung in there and figured out how to win the game. Maybe it's crazy, but I'm a firm believer in you figure out how to win. That's what it's all about. Don't worry about anything else. I know our guys are doing that."
If it sounds like McElwain has shared similar sentiments before, it’s because he has. He noted it a week ago against Tennessee, as well as last season when his team stonewalled LSU at the goal line to clinch the SEC East title. He considers “finding a way to win” the most important marker of success. And with a home game against Vanderbilt (3-1, 0-1 SEC) coming up this Saturday, his team will take the field having forged that identity for itself early in 2017 — especially at quarterback.
Against Kentucky, starting quarterback Feleipe Franks was replaced early in the second half by redshirt junior Luke Del Rio. After throwing an interception and failing to convert a fourth down on his first two drives, Del Rio settled down and, as McElwain’s teams have done at Florida, found a way to win.
"You know, you never want to be in those situations,” Del Rio said, “but the fact that you can be in them and overcome them I think is big… This team fights. And we had the hardest training camp I've ever had in five years. Coach Mac said he was going to make it hard, and the benefit was what you saw tonight."
His promotion to starter and the success that followed throws UF’s quarterback position into flux. McElwain said he hasn’t decided who will start against the Commodores, noting it will depend on the film from the Kentucky game. But McElwain made it clear against the Wildcats that his motivation in choosing a quarterback has nothing to do with developing Franks, a redshirt freshman, into the quarterback of the future. It has everything to do with winning right now. That’s been a theme for McElwain at UF.
In his three-plus seasons at Florida, McElwain’s Gators have played in 10 one-possession games. They’ve won nine of them. That 90-percent mark is unmatched by any coach in recent UF history, with Steve Spurrier coming the closest at 59 percent.
But only 18 percent of Spurrier’s games at Florida were one-possession contests, meaning he won close games, but most of the time, he was blowing opponents out. In contrast, 33 percent of McElwain’s games have been one-possession contests.
Nevertheless, for now, his players are happy to notch any wins, close or not.
“We just had to preserver,” defensive end Jabari Zuniga said. “We just had to stay composed through adversity. We just had to come out with a win by any means necessary."