‘That was exhausting’: Football is back and Florida survives

NCAAF

ORLANDO, Fla. — Given all the off-the-wall moments Florida and Miami delivered in their season opener on Saturday night, how do you begin to choose the weirdest of all?

Was it Florida going 2-of-10 on third down but 4-of-4 on fourth down? Was it the interception Feleipe Franks threw immediately after the Gators defense made what appeared to be a game-saving stop?

Was it a Florida pass interference on fourth-and-34 to give Miami another shot at the victory? Maybe it was the other Florida pass interference, on a separate third down on the same drive?

Was it Miami managing 10 plays and just 14 yards in 4 minutes, 8 seconds on its final series, ending in no points and no win?

We waited 230 days for college football to return, and when it did, we got an ugly, wild, train wreck of a game — complete with five lead changes and a still-hard-to-fathom fourth quarter that featured both teams trying to outblunder the other.

It was hard to watch at times, but it was beautiful to watch all the same. No. 8 Florida eventually won 24-20, surviving its own ineptitude in key moments, but it was far from a definitive victory for a top-10 team that was a touchdown favorite to win.

Nobody on the Gators side was much in the mood to dissect the sheer sloppiness, nor the way they seemed to get outcoached and outplayed during vast swaths of the game. Coach Dan Mullen arrived for his postgame news conference, sat in his chair and said simply, “That was exhausting.”

It was for us all. But just imagine what Mullen must have been thinking on the sideline during the final four minutes, when it appeared his team had pulled ahead for good only to give the ball (and possibly the game) back to the Hurricanes?

Mullen took the blame for the interception Franks threw with 4:30 to play, a questionable playcall considering all Florida needed to do was hold onto the ball and run some clock. Franks got hit on the throw and it sailed, leaving Romeo Finley to get the easy interception. That was just one mistake in a game filled with them, on both sides.

The teams combined for 23 penalties for 218 yards. Florida had four turnovers. Miami muffed a punt deep in its own territory. The Hurricanes started two freshmen on the offensive line and they could not keep up against the relentless Florida pass rush, giving up 10 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. Both teams forgot how to tackle at times, leading to long scores — one for Florida and one for Miami.

All this could be excused as the chaos and dysfunction we all expect in season openers. Mistakes are par for the course. But the final four minutes were an exercise in how not to win a game. For both teams. After Finley’s interception, Miami racked up 30 yards in penalties. What should have been a possession starting on the Florida 25 moved back to the Miami 45.

But Florida had to one-up the Hurricanes with multiple pass-interference penalties a few plays later, keeping the drive alive.

“Honestly, my life clock was going probably at about a thousand times faster,” Mullen said. “I mean, every second was probably like a thousand minutes or days. I don’t know. The last five minutes of the game I think I aged like 10 years.”

It might go that way the rest of the season if Florida does not fix its various issues beyond the inexcusable penalties and missed tackles over the next several weeks. The young offensive line did not fare particularly well, notably in the run game, where the Gators managed just 1.9 yards per carry.

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Dan Mullen says Florida made a lot of mistakes but it found a way to win.

Bigger than that, Feleipe Franks looked exactly like the Feleipe Franks we have come to expect over his three seasons as a starter: capable of throwing an inexplicable interception on one drive, dropping a 65-yard dime on the very next series. The changed Franks that Mullen promised all offseason didn’t look a whole lot different for most of the game. Florida essentially put together one good drive. The rest of it was pretty uninspired.

“Obviously, things don’t go our way that we expect them to go,” Franks said. “I didn’t go out there and try to throw a pick. That’s not what I planned to do. That was not in our game plan. But things happen throughout the course of the game that you don’t plan, and that’s what adversity is. It’s all about just trying to persevere through those kinds of things and that’s what we did and just got a great team win.”

As for Miami, the missed tackles are going to sit with coach Manny Diaz for a while, especially since they directly resulted in Florida’s first touchdown of the game. Though he did not want to point the finger entirely at the young offensive line for its many breakdowns, there is no question the entire unit has to get better.

If there’s a bright spot to build off, it’s the way Jarren Williams played despite all the pressure he faced. It became fairly obvious early in the game why he won the starting quarterback job. The redshirt freshman made good decisions, good throws and had Miami in position to win the game, going 19-of-30 for 214 yards with a touchdown.

“Jarren never really blinked,” Diaz said. “A lot of times he didn’t have a lot of time and I thought he just played with courage, made some plays with his feet, scrambled to throw to keep this some things alive.”

Both teams now have an extra bye week before we see them again. But there will be more questions directed at Florida, and perhaps some revised expectations for this season after an ugly win that came down to the wire.

“If teams want to take us lightly and take this game and think we’re going to apply this the rest of the year, then they’re going to find out real soon that was a mistake,” Florida linebacker Jonathan Greenard said.

Yes, it was weird and wild, but that is why we keep tuning in to watch.

“I hope everybody remembers — it’s a fun game to be a part of,” Mullen said. “It’s a wild game to be a part of. We’re certainly reminded college football is back and it looks like we’re in for another exciting season. After 150 years, it hasn’t dulled at all.”

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