The Gators put an exclamation point on their 2018 turnaround season by dominating Michigan in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
The Florida Gators didn't look like they belonged on the same field as the Michigan Wolverines in a 2017 season-opening loss in Arlington, Texas.
In that one, a 16-point loss that wasn't as close as the score indicated, Florida's offense failed to score a touchdown and quarterback Feleipe Franks was benched in the second half of his first career start after going just 5-for-9 for 75 yards.
What a difference a year – and a new coaching staff – makes.
On Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the 10th-ranked Gators (10-3) turned the tables on No. 7 Michigan (10-3) with a 41-15 thumping in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl before a pro-Florida crowd of 74,006.
A sweaty and smiling Franks, named the game's Offensive MVP, relished in the moment as the Gators celebrated for a half-hour on the field afterward.
"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," Franks said. "Coach Mullen's bringing that back to Florida."
The victory was UF's first in program history against Michigan in five attempts as well as its first win in three tries in the Peach Bowl. The win gave the Gators their 15th 10-win season in school history, their first victory in a New Year's Six bowl since the 2009 campaign and a top-10 finish in the final rankings.
Dan Mullen became the first UF head coach in history to win 10 games and a bowl game in his inaugural season. He's just the third coach ever to win 10 games in his first season at a Power Five school after inheriting a team that won fewer than five games the year prior.
Mullen added energy and hope after the Gators finished 4-7 a year ago. He credited the players with believing in the program he installed.
"It started with the seniors," Mullen said. "Those guys believed from day one. Nobody questioned, nobody resisted, everybody tried to do whatever we asked them to do. And you see, and I told everybody, you know, we wanted to peak today. That's what you want to do, peak on the final game of the season.
"They didn't have to buy in. They didn't have to believe. I told them, 'I didn't recruit you. You didn't come here to play for me, but you did come here to be a Florida Gator. And there's a certain standard that's expected if you're going to do that.' So, it's really special for me that these guys all bought in and believed in that."
In the 2016 Citrus Bowl and 2017 AdvoCare Classic matchups, Michigan whooped Florida on both lines of scrimmage. This time, the Gators won the battle in the trenches. Convincingly.
"A lot of guys stepped up," junior defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson said. "We already knew what was expected from us. A lot of people thought they were just going to come out, punch us in the mouth, push us around because they're bigger than us. We showed a lot of heart and a lot of fight and treated it like a regular week. Definitely came out there and won the game on both sides of the ball."
The Gators ran for 257 yards on 40 carries (6.4 average per rush) against a defense that entered the day yielding just 116.6 yards per game. Those 257 yards were the second most ever by UF in a bowl game. The Gators rolled up 427 total yards against the No. 1 ranked defense in the country.
Conversely, Michigan rushed for just 77 yards on 30 attempts, an average of 2.6 per carry. Florida sacked Wolverines quarterback Shea Patterson five times, while UM got to Franks just three times.
"They knew what we were in and how to manipulate it," Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich said. "Hats off to Coach Mullen and their coaching staff. They did a great job, and they outplayed us."
Franks more than atoned for his sluggish performance against Michigan a year ago. He completed 13 of 23 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown and added 74 yards and a score on the ground, adding to his late-season surge.
"Grew up, matured and really understood the offense, understood the game plan coming in today," Mullen said. "You saw, I don't think at any point during the game we got conservative in what we were doing because we just trusted he'd make good decisions and get the win for us."
On defense, Gardner-Johnson, who's already announced his intention to enter the NFL Draft, intercepted two passes, including a 30-yard pick-6, to take home the Defensive MVP honors. His 83 interception return yards were the most in Peach Bowl history.
The game followed a similar script to the Gators' 41-14 win at Florida State in the regular season finale. Miscues and lack of execution in the red zone in the first half kept the Wolverines within striking distance. Then, in the second half, the Gators blew it open with big plays.
Michigan appeared to have a 46-yard touchdown run by Christian Turner on its opening possession, but replays showed that he stepped out at the UF 38-yard line, a yard shy of a first down. The Gators' defense stood tall on the next two runs, forcing a turnover-on-downs and establishing the early tone.
After the teams took turns punting, Florida went 71 yards on 10 plays and took the lead on a 21-yard field goal by Evan McPherson. The key play on the march was a 41-yard pass from Franks to Van Jefferson on a go-route to set the Gators up at the 3-yard line. However, Franks didn't see a wide-open Kadarius Toney in the end zone while scrambling to his right on third-and-goal, causing the Gators to settle for three points.
On the ensuing drive, Patterson picked on UF freshman cornerback Trey Dean, finishing the drive with a 9-yard touchdown to Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Franks answered with a 31-yard completion to Josh Hammond on a post route to the UM 44. On third-and-7 from the 14, Mullen called a quarterback draw. Michigan had no linebackers in the box, so the play should've worked. Instead, left guard Tyler Jordan missed his block, and Florida had to settle for a 26-yard McPherson field goal.
After Michigan blocked a Tommy Townsend punt minutes later, the Florida defense forced the Wolverines into a third-and-14. Jachai Polite came around the edge and hit Patterson's arm as he released the ball, causing a fumble. However, Polite thought it was an incomplete pass and started celebrating rather than trying to recover the ball. Turner picked it up and advanced it to the Gators' 30, allowing Jake Moody to kick a 48-yard field goal, which he made to extend the lead to 10-6.
Franks took over on the next drive, rushing four times for 56 yards and a 20-yard touchdown.
The teams went into their respective locker rooms at halftime with Florida leading 13-10. Then the second half came, and the floodgates opened.
The second half started much the same way as the first, with an illegal shift penalty negating a first-down grab by Trevon Grimes and causing a three-and-out.
Next came the sequence that essentially iced the game. On first down from the Gators' 39, UM offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton decided to take a deep shot. Patterson took the snap, and Gardner-Johnson acted as though he was taking the underneath route. Instead, Gardner-Johnson baited Patterson into an interception, which he returned 53 yards.
"We wanted the shots," Gardner-Johnson said. "They went after our freshmen early because they knew they could pick on them. We said, 'Hold your ground. Somebody's going to be over the top.' It was a one-high with me and the safety exchanging. He read it as the safety would sit there. We rolled, and I just speed turned, ball came right to me. And, I mean, dang."
Facing a fourth-and-1 from the Michigan 35 on the ensuing possession, quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson told Mullen to call a jet sweep to Toney.
"[Johnson] said, 'Call the jet,' " Mullen said. "We looked at the look. We had another play called. We didn't like the look, so we took a timeout."
Johnson's play call worked to perfection, with Toney racing around the left side for 30 yards. Franks found running back Lamical Perine on a slant for a 5-yard score two plays later to extend the lead to 20-10.
Florida tacked on a 1-yard score by Jordan Scarlett (nine rushes, 59 yards), a 53-yarder by Perine (six carries, 76 yards) and the pick-6 by Gardner-Johnson.
"We don't allow [big runs] to happen, but that was the defining factor," Wolverines linebacker Jordan Glasgow said. "Their run game was much better than we've allowed."
The Wolverines, meanwhile, added a 26-yard Moody field goal and a safety on another blocked punt to finalize the scoring.
In the big picture, Saturday's win was the exclamation point on a largely successful first season under Mullen. The Gators increased their offensive production drastically, saw their defense return to its dominance of a few years ago and won some big games.
While the Peach Bowl win signifies the ending of the 2018 season, in some ways it felt more like a beginning to what could be a bright future. It was a season of newness for the Gators – new coaches, new players and new energy around the program to name a few. It's perhaps fitting, then, that they ended it by doing something new – beating the Michigan Wolverines.
"The Gators are back, and I'm proud of Coach Mullen and the staff they have here and how they keep pushing us," linebacker Vosean Joseph said. "They're going to keep pushing us to be great players and great men in the world."