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Gators' 21-point second half puts Vandy away

1041 days ago
Florida Athletics
Photo: Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - When it was over, they held a brief team meeting on the field, then spread out across the turf near the locker room and promptly celebrated a workmanlike win in lunch-pail fashion.

The place was empty besides stadium personnel, UF's traveling party and around 125 family members who made the trip.

As a few players talked to family in the stands, most of the Gators chomped on chicken sandwiches.

"Different atmosphere,'' UF head coach Dan Mullen said.

It was that type of day Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium. Sixth-ranked Florida's 38-17 win over the Commodores is one the Gators probably won't forget anytime soon. Not so much from what transpired on the field - actually, their ears might still be ringing from the loud music that played throughout the game - but more because of the unusual setting Mullen alluded to.

The Gators knew Saturday was going to be unique long before they landed here on Friday afternoon and checked into their team hotel. Even by the strange standards of 2020.

They knew the game started at 11 a.m. local time. They knew the stadium would be less-crowded than most of their high school games due to strict COVID-19 restrictions locally. They knew coming off emotional wins over SEC East rival Georgia two weeks ago and ex-teammate Feleipe Franks last week, facing the winless Commodores in front of a few hundred fans wasn't exactly a recruiting pitch they remembered Mullen and Co. tossing their way.

And at first, it showed.

Vanderbilt marched down the field on its opening drive and took a 7-0 lead. Quarterback Ken Seals, only the third SEC quarterback in history to start his team's season opener as a true freshman, went 5-for-5 for 61 yards to introduce himself to UF's defense. The Gators answered with a scoring drive of their own as receiver Kadarius Toney finished it off by taking a pass from Kyle Trask and darting into the end zone for a 27-yard score.

Vanderbilt regained the lead later in the quarter on a field goal. That's when Trask started to put up Heisman numbers and the Gators began to take control, scoring 24 consecutive points to basically to remove any serious doubt about the outcome.

Mullen called it a "ho-hum performance," which sounds about right. Of course, ho-hum outings for the Gators sure are easier to digest than some of their ho-hummers last decade. Florida rolled up 586 yards of offense, Trask threw for 383 yards, and UF rushed for 173.

It's a win that was already getting nit-picked by the social media quarterbacks before the chicken sandwiches ever arrived. But it's a victory nonetheless, Florida's fourth in a row, and keeps them on pace for their first trip to the SEC Championship Game since 2016.

That was the mission when they left Gainesville and they accomplished it on a beautiful middle Tennessee afternoon.

"Coach Mullen tells us all the time, you have to enjoy a win, winning is hard to come by,'' cornerback Kaiir Elam said. "No one's going to lay down and just because you're high-ranked and them not ranked."

Trask starred once again, completing 25 of 36 passes and throwing three more touchdowns, giving him 31 in seven games. Considering all seven games have come against SEC opponents, Trask set a league record for most touchdown passes in a single season in conference games.

He did nothing to hurt his Heisman bid and neither did the Gators. Perhaps they lacked the style points fans wanted to see against the overmatched Commodores, but they got the job done and were in no mood to apologize for how it may have looked.

"We stubbed our toe along the way and we still come out with a 21-point victory,'' Mullen said.

They happily packed the win for the trip home.

"There wasn't a lot of energy in the stadium since there wasn't a lot of fans,'' Trask said. "I just think we got to do a better job of bringing energy within the team and making sure we're ready to play when that foot hits the ball."

The Gators get that opportunity in seven days when Kentucky visits The Swamp. The Wildcats got mauled by Alabama on Saturday, losing 63-3 in Tuscaloosa. With anticipation building toward a potential matchup against the Crimson Tide in Atlanta next month - and possibly a battle for the Heisman between Trask and Alabama's Mac Jones - fans will want to see the Gators handle the Wildcats in similar fashion.

Perhaps they will. Perhaps not.

It really doesn't matter as long as they win. Still, they would prefer more than another ho-hummer.

"We have to go show where we want to go and that's to win an SEC championship and in order to do that, we have to dominate the team's we're supposed to and beat the teams we're not favored over,'' Elam said. "So, I think it's just something we have to continue to get better on, and our leadership, I think that starts with practice."

Mullen pointed out that he saw signs in practice last week that the Gators might not be their sharpest on Saturday. They had a good day, then a bad day.

On Saturday, they had a good drive, then a bad drive. That won't be enough as the stakes get higher. But on Saturday, against a winless team in a lifeless environment, it was enough.

The goal now is to get back on the practice field and tune up for the home stretch.

"If you're going to be a great team, you win as a team,'' Mullen said. "Not on offense, not just on defense or kicking game, you win as an entire team."