Florida Gators defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson knew exactly where Shea Patterson was going.
The Michigan quarterback was looking for receiver Nico Collins deep down the field in the third quarter. The pass went straight into the open hands of the safety, who returned it 53 yards to the Michigan 44-yard line for his first of two interceptions on the day (the second was a fourth-quarter pick-six.)
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From there, No. 10 Florida took almost complete control of what had been a close battle at Mercedes-Benz Stadium up to that point.
The Gators downed No. 7 Michigan 41-15 on Saturday in the Chick-fil- A Peach Bowl for their first win over the Wolverines in the fifth meeting between the two programs. And it brought the Gators 2018 season record to 10-3.
“You ask what a successful season is, and it’s you got better every single day,” coach Dan Mullen said. “I would call this season a success … The whole team and those guys bought in to believing what we’re trying to build and to get that Gator standard back.”
Both teams were almost evenly matched to start Saturday’s contest. Michigan had 132 passing yards to the Gators’ 100 after two quarters. The Gators converted four of eight third-down attempts, and the Wolverines were 4-of-9.
Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks completed 7-of-13 passes in the first half, 57% for the game. But his most impressive stat was his rushing.
The Gators’ first touchdown drive featured three Franks rushes of 30 yards, 15 yards and a 20-yard touchdown run to give Florida its first lead of the game, a 13-10 lead that the Gators took into the half.
Franks made some bad reads early in the first quarter, but he settled in and made the Michigan pass defense account for him as a dual threat.
The redshirt sophomore accounted for 74 of Florida’s 257 yards on the ground.
He also had a five-yard touchdown pass to tailback Lamical Perine, which was set up by Gardner-Johnson’s first interception.
It was one of two touchdowns on the day for Perine, who led the Gators with 76 rushing yards in addition to 22 receiving yards.
His second came in the fourth quarter after a poorly executed trick play left the Gators facing a third and 20. The junior gashed the Michigan defense for a 53-yard touchdown run.
“Ever since Coach Mullen got here, he put me in the position to make plays and he do that for everybody on the offense,” Perine said. “ … Every time he had something to say to me, I just listen to him, man, because he -- he’s a great offensive coach, man, and he seen I can catch out of the backfield and he can put me in the slot. He can put me out wide and do whatever, man.
“So he did that, and I did that.”
Florida knew the tough challenge it would face in Michigan’s No.1 ranked defense coming into the game. Mullen got creative in his play calling to give his offense a chance against a fast-flying Wolverines defense.
Michigan entered the game surrendering points over 90% of the time when it allowed its opponent to get in the red zone. And Florida was 5-5 in the red zone on Saturday. The Gators accumulated 427 yards of total offense against a Wolverines defense that only gave up 262 yards per game during the regular season.
And it was Florida’s defense that began to suffocate the Wolverines’ offense down the stretch.
The Gators sacked Patterson five times, a couple of them coming off timely blitz calls by defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
The first call came in the first quarter where Grantham sent sophomore defensive back CJ Henderson over the left end on a corner blitz to slam Patterson to the ground.
And midway through the third quarter, the Wolverines found themselves down 10 points and facing a third and 10 when freshman Amari Burney came flying at Patterson on a safety blitz.
Florida’s No. 10-ranked pass defense held Patterson and the Michigan offense to 137 yards during the second half.
Florida had outgained Michigan 110-8 in the third quarter before the Wolverines put together their first scoring drive of the second half, a 26-yard field goal. It would have been a touchdown catch by Tarik Black if not for Henderson, who got his hand in between Black’s hand and the ball to keep the receiver from coming down with it on third down.
Henderson finished the game tied with defensive back Jeawon Taylor for a team-high eight tackles, a sack and 1.5 tackles-for-loss.
And after the game clock reached zero, multiple Florida players could be seen crouching to their knees, shaking their heads in relief with tears running down their faces.
And Franks summed up the emotions of the win in just a few words.
“It’s just a great feeling, tears of joy, that I’ve always wanted to be in the middle of confetti falling down on me, winning championships” he said. “Coach Mullen’s bringing that back to Florida.”