TAMPA — The Urban Meyer era came to an end on Saturday afternoon as the Florida Gators beat the Penn State Nittany Lions 37-24 in the 2011 Outback Bowl. Although Florida sputtered in the beginning and trailed 17-14 at half, the Gators came alive in the second half and outscored Penn State 23-7 to finish the game. Here is my ten-point breakdown of the victory at Raymond James Stadium.
1. Urban Meyer said it best after the game; Ahmad Black is the best safety in college football, period. He has been the team MVP this season, and finished his illustrious career at Florida by gaining the Outback Bowl MVP award. The NFL can knock his measurables all they want, but the bottom line is he is always in position to make plays. He is the leader of the defense and is the most consistent tackler on the team. Black finished with six tackles, one tackle-for-loss, two interceptions, and two pass break-ups. His final interception was returned 80 yards for a touchdown and sealed the win for the Gators.
[quote]“We were up six points before I got the interception and they were driving down the field and I’m thinking ‘we need a play, we need a play, we need a stop’” Black said. “That was similar to the (2008) national championship game. They were running the ball, getting first down after first down. We had to come up with some way to get a stop.”[/quote]
2. Chas Henry may not have had his best day punting the ball (35.2 average on six punts) but two of his punts were inside the 20 yard-line and his three field goals (30, 47 and 20) kept the Gators in the game. The 47-yard field goal was big, especially after PSU had just scored a touchdown and was ahead 24-17. If he misses that, Penn State would have possession of the ball in great field position with a chance to add to their lead. Henry, the Ray Guy award winner, should go down as the best punter in Florida history.
3. Earlier in the season, I wondered why Florida would burn freshman Solomon Patton’s redshirt. After today’s game, it all made sense. He is just too good on special teams to keep off the field. His blocked punt that was returned 27 yards for a touchdown by Lerentee McCray was one of the biggest plays of the day. It certainly changed the momentum of the game. He also replaced Andre Debose returning kicks and had three returns for 82 yards including a 48-yard return. In very limited action at receiver this season, Patton accounted for four catches for only 27 yards. His speed and athleticism is evident and he has a big future ahead of him.
4. Florida’s offense struggled mightily in the first half, accounting for only 86 yards at the break. The Gators were able to wear down the PSU defense in the second half and finish with 279 yards of total offense. Florida was led by redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan Reed, who accounted for 68 yards on 24 carries. Chris Rainey also amassed 66 yards on only six carries including a 51-yard run on the first play of the second half.
5. The defensive secondary, as a unit, played its best game of the season. All-American Janoris Jenkins was sidelined with a shoulder injury but the young secondary stepped up in his place and accounted for five interceptions, tying an Outback Bowl record. Matt Elam, Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins all went down at some point during the game with injuries, but Riggs and Watkins were able to return. Jeremy Brown, Josh Evans, and Moses Jenkins also played well. Although Jenkins dropped a sure interception earlier in the game, he came down with the game clinching pick late in the contest. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin managed only 211 passing yards on 17-of-41 attempts and had the five interceptions.
6. The freshmen played very well today. As mentioned earlier, Patton had a very productive day, Sharrif Floyd had a nice tackle-for-loss in the first half, and Cody Riggs got the first interception of his career. Ronald Powell, Dominique Easley, Jaylen Watkins and Matt Elam all made contributions in the victory.
7. The offensive line didn’t dominate the Penn State defense, but did have a strong effort. With Maurice Hurt out with an injury, Jonotthan Harrison saw his first extensive action of the year and filled in admirably. In his final game as a Gator, center Mike Pouncey had a great game…blocking. Pouncey still had trouble snapping the ball, but overall he played very well.
8. If Charlie Weis is named as the new offensive coordinator as expected, then Saturday may be the last of the 101 yard passing days for a while. The passing game took only one or two chances longer than 15 yards downfield and neither was successful. The lack of a vertical passing game has been the Achilles heel for the Gators and Saturday afternoon was no different. When there is no threat for a deep pass, teams can load the box to stop the run. Without the special teams touchdown and the interception return for a touchdown, the Gators may have lost the game.
9. With the two national championships and several other big wins, it was great to see Urban Meyer go out a winner at Florida. Though Florida was already a top program, he helped take the Gators to a whole new level. Through all the turmoil this season, the players played hard and came through with the big victory in Meyer’s last game as the Florida coach.
10. Now comes the transition. New head coach Will Muschamp was in attendance in Tampa and the players who are returning next season were making a first impression. This game proved they are a resilient team and could win in a hard fought, physical game. Cody Riggs said after the game that the returning players will miss coach Meyer but they are also very optimistic about coach Muschamp taking over.
“At first we were sad about (Meyer leaving), because we didn’t know who the new head coach would be, and you don’t know if he is going to be anything comparable to coach Meyer,” Riggs said. “But when we found out it was coach Muschamp, we were excited about that.”