While Florida prepares to usher in a new future, the roller-coaster nature of the Will Muschamp Era reared its head for the final time on a soggy Saturday at Legion Field in the Birmingham Bowl.
The Gators forced turnovers and played tremendous red-zone defense, but a sputtering offense, costly giveaways and an inability to consistently complete passes allowed a pesky East Carolina team to hang around.
It was the same old story as the past four years.
But holding on for a 28-20 win ensured that for once, the ending was different. For the first time since 2011, the Gators felt good at the completion of a season.
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Florida (7-5) didn’t collapse late and secured a winning record in 2014, as menacing defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. (three sacks, three hurries) and All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (game-sealing interception) preserved the victory with several late plays.
Hargreaves picked off ECU quarterback Shane Carden in the end zone with 1:20 left in the fourth quarter, and maligned UF quarterback Jeff Driskel, in relief of injured starter Treon Harris, iced the game with a 9-yard keeper.
It was a fitting end for the Muschamp Era.
“Words can’t describe how I feel about this team,” Florida interim coach D.J. Durkin said.
“I’m so happy for our players to get that win. … It was just a great feeling of pride and happiness after the game.”
Florida surrendered 536 yards, including 427 through the air, but a suffocating red-zone defense stymied the Pirates’ prolific air-raid attack.
ECU (8-5) scored touchdowns on just 2 of 7 chances inside the 20-yard line, with Florida forcing two crucial turnovers at the goal line.
Fowler spearheaded the Gators’ defense, which played 101 snaps.
The junior, who declared early for the NFL Draft in late November, could not be contained during his going-out party, playing with a relentless motor and showcasing why many consider him a high first-round pick.
“I wanted to put the defense on my back,” he said. “When [linebacker Antonio Morrison] got hurt, I told him I was going to hold it down and anchor everything. My job was to fight hard one last time for my brothers.”
UF trailed 7-0 early in the first quarter, but after Justin Hardy’s 2-yard touchdown reception and ensuing “Gator chomp” celebration, Florida scored 21 unanswered points.
Junior cornerback Brian Poole jump-started the momentum with a 29-yard interception he returned for a touchdown, and reserve tailbacks Adam Lane (2-yard rush) and Brandon Powell (13-yard reception) scored touchdowns thereafter.
Lane was named the bowl’s MVP, rushing 16 times for 109 yards and his first career score. The redshirt freshman had just eight carries for 78 yards all season.
After rarely seeing field and hustling on the scout team the past two years, Lane called the performance “rewarding.”
“It just built a bigger fire inside of me and just made me want to work harder,” Lane said. “I just wanted to take the opportunities that I did get and make the most of them.”
Lane was simply one several Florida underclassmen who offered a window into a potential future under new coach Jim McElwain.
Little-used sophomore wideout Ahmad Fulwood scored an 86-yard touchdown on a screen pass from Harris — UF’s longest offensive play since 2011.
On defense, freshman defensive lineman Gerald Willis forced a fumble at the goal line, and sophomore safety Marcus Maye recorded a team-leading seven tackles and two pass breakups.
“We had young guys making plays all over the place,” Durkin said. “There’s great talent here, and I think even more important is the amount of character on the team. This would’ve been an easy situation not to go out and compete and play like we did.”
But they didn’t, and Driskel’s late resiliency was emblematic of that.
Harris injured his elbow late in the third quarter on a 2-yard rush, finishing the game 5 of 11 for 123 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception.
So Driskel, playing in likely his final game at Florida, entered in relief and piloted UF to victory.
He was just 8 of 17 for 48 yards (the Gators dropped at least four passes), but Driskel avoided the costly mistakes that plagued him throughout his career and converted the game-winning first down.
Before the game, McElwain said Driskel has been granted his release from Florida. “We all have choices,” McElwain said. “I’m not going to hold him hostage.”
Driskel has graduated and can transfer immediately, and is reportedly interested in Duke or Louisiana Tech.