Surviving Starkville

The 29-19 score wasn’t pretty. Neither were the two picks from Tim Tebow, the continued struggles in the red zone, or the defense seeming leaky and susceptible to big plays without Brandon Spikes, Jaye Howard, and Lawrence Marsh.

But: On the road in an environment Florida had struggled in for about two decades, with an offense that went 2-for-13 on third down and would take shambolic as a compliment, a defense that seems prone to back-breaking lapses from the form that throttled early-season opponents, a kicker who is apparently adding random extra point failures to his one missed field goal per game in his last three outings, and the shadow of Brandon James still missing the game-breaking volatility of years part, the Gators won, and by double digits.

It’s fun to figure out how to adjust the score with a few plays: Tebow throws away his picks and it’s probably a 32-6 game; Ahmad Black’s interception return isn’t nullified by a questionable roughing the passer and it’s 39-6; Caleb Sturgis makes that missed field goal and it’s 42-6; one of the three drives to within the Bulldogs 10 makes it to the end zone and it’s 45-6. Dock them the six points from Dustin Doe’s Leon Lett impression, and you still come back with 39-6.

39-6 is a big, flashy score, and an arguably better result against a gamer team in a rougher setting than Texas delivered with a 41-7 win in Columbia over a Missouri squad that has beaten only Illinois, Bowling Green, Furman, and Nevada.

But if that first heinous pick had never happened, things would have just been close. Tebow merely throws that away and the subsequent field goal makes it 16-3 at halftime, forces Dan Mullen to play for a touchdown on the first drive deep into Gators territory in the second half, and shuts the door but does not turn the key. Mississippi State can’t get a touchdown in the second half despite emptying the playbook, and Florida can confidently play to run out the clock instead of pressing for scores, grinding the clock to zeroes and the Bulldogs to dust with a running game that, for its supposed troubles, still garnered 249 yards without the luxury of sustained garbage time to pad stats.

Instead, the Gators went into the half with the door ajar and never did produce the play that slammed it.

Maybe this team isn’t a door-slammer. Maybe the fourth quarters of games won’t be previews of next year. Maybe Tebow won’t cruise to a Heisman because the gaudy stats will never pile up. Maybe that’s all right.

Florida fans have grown so accustomed to the Spurrier/Meyer template of scorched-earth football with forty-point margins and offense carrying the day that dramatic, sixty-minute contests feel like violations of birthright. We’re so entitled, we forget that there even is another half, much less how they live.

So I add this bit of advice: If you can’t have the comfort of blowouts, at least savor the tension of close victories. Then remind yourself that, really, they are victories.

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