University of Florida

Gators embracing underdog mentality to close out regular season

Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio, left, tries to pass the ball before being sacked by Georgia defensive back Maurice Smith during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Sat., Oct. 29, 2016, in Jacksonville, Fla. Del Rio was ruled down on the play.
Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio, left, tries to pass the ball before being sacked by Georgia defensive back Maurice Smith during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Sat., Oct. 29, 2016, in Jacksonville, Fla. Del Rio was ruled down on the play. AP

Jim McElwain stood behind a lectern inside EverBank Field on Saturday and answered questions that would be expected after a loss.

There were questions about his inconsistent quarterback, questions about the offense as a whole having trouble moving the ball and questions about if his team’s reliance on the defense can carry the Gators through the rest of their schedule.

The only thing wrong with this scenario was that the Gators gutted out a 24-10 win against Georgia that afternoon and improved to 6-1 on the year (4-1 in Southeastern Conference play).

“Did we win?” McElwain asked. “OK. Good. All right. Just wanna make sure.”

Even with the record and the No. 10 ranking in this week’s Associated Press poll, McElwain’s team is still being picked apart, each minor nuance a point of criticism for those outside the program.

That’s fine with McElwain, he said, because that gives his team more incentive to prove that the wins will keep coming.

“I think that’s natural because I don’t think going into it anybody thought much of us anyway,” McElwain said Monday. “And as I told our guys, it’s just a matter of going out and proving it each week. You know if you take care of business on Saturdays, people are going to take notice, and that’s really what we have to do.”

Florida, the defending SEC East champs, entered the year ranked 25th and projected to finish third in its own division. Fast forward nine weeks into the college football season, and UF is two SEC wins away from holding onto its crown.

The Gators breezed through their first three games — home contests against Massachusetts, Kentucky and North Texas — before dropping its only game of the season thus far, the 38-28 defeat to Tennessee in which Florida gave up a 21-3 halftime lead and brought a bevy of questions about the team’s potential back to the surface.

“We learned the hard way you can’t talk yourself up to be a great team,” quarterback Luke Del Rio said. “So we’ve kind of shut up and let our play do the talking.”

That has resulted in a three-game win streak where UF is outscoring opponents 73-30 and has held opponents to an average of just 264 yards.

But because the offense was erratic and the opponents weren’t necessarily the strongest (Vanderbilt, Missouri and Georgia have a combined 10-14 record), the success has gone largely unnoticed.

“I feel like people always love to hate the Gators,” defensive lineman Bryan Cox Jr., said. “They don’t ever want to give us our respect or props, so we have to kind of go and take it ourselves. We’re still a very hungry team. “

That hunger will drive them through their final four-game stretch, a month-long journey that includes three road trips, two ranked opponents and one home game against Florida’s former head coach Will Muschamp.

McElwain said he doesn’t plan to change too much up during the final four games. If Florida wants to win, it needs to play to its strengths, and right now, that’s suffocating defense and enough offense to put points on the board.

“You’ve got to adjust as coaches to give your team, whatever team that is that given year, the best opportunity to win. And that’s kind of what we’re doing.”

It may not be how others want Florida to win, but for the Gators, winning is winning, regardless of the style points.

“Let the haters hate. Let everybody doubt,” center Cam Dillard said. “We’ll go out there Saturday and do what we need to do to take care of the job.”

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