GAINESVILLE -- And now the debate has officially begun: Is Will Muschamp in over his head?
Angry Florida fans started filing out of Florida Field after Vanderbilt’s fourth touchdown on the first play on the fourth quarter, an eventual 34-17 Commodores win on the Gators’ homecoming today.
Vanderbilt (5-4 overall, 2-4 in the SEC) won in Gainesville for the first time since 1945. Florida (4-5, 3-4) is in danger of failing to get a bowl bid for the first season eligible (not counting NCAA probation years) since 1979, which would also be the last time UF had a losing year -- going 0-10-1 that season.
Florida has now had four-game losing streaks twice in a three-year period for the first time since 1988 and 1986 under Galen Hall. Florida lost four in a row in 2011, Muschamp’s first season as head coach. Attendance was announced at 88,004 but the stadium was riddled with huge chunks of empty seats.
At the same time, it was a landmark moment for Vanderbilt -- which beat both Florida and Georgia in the same season for the first time in school history. The Gators’ last loss to the ‘Dores was 24-9 in Nashville in 1988, with a streak of 22 wins in a row coming to an end.
Florida had 344 yards total offense to 183 for the Commodores but turned the ball over four times.
“If you look at it statistically, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but because of the turnovers that our defense was able to get, the offense had a short field a lot of times, and I think that was the difference in the game,’’ Vandy coach James Franklin said.
Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy (30 of 46 for 305 yards) threw three interceptions that led to Commodores touchdowns. Vandy’s Patton Robinette threw just 12 passes, completing six for 57 yards. But the ‘Dores got three short touchdown runs from Jerron Seymour (24 carries, 69 yards) to win easily.
“At the end of the day, you cannot give them those opportunities,’’ Muschamp said. “It’s a complete emotional letdown for your team.’’
Asked if he felt his team had “checked out’’ on the season he responded: “No, I don’t believe so, I really don’t. You can’t throw it to them, that helps you check out. I don’t feel that way at all, our guys are competing and playing. I didn’t sense that at all.’’
Injuries have taken a toll, with Florida losing nine players for the year -- including starting quarterback (Jeff Driskel), tailback (Matt Jones) and top defensive star (Dominique Easley).
“The expectations never change here,’’ Muschamp said. “I know what I expect of myself. I put more pressure on myself than anyone else can to do a great job here at Florida. I take great pride in that regardless of the situation and circumstances. We’ll find a way. We’ve got to keep going at it. What we’re doing so far is not working. Keep doing the same stuff, you’re going to get the same results.
“It’s a lot of different things. Everybody wants to put their finger on one thing and say ‘Eureka. This is what it is.’ That’s not the way it works. There are multiple things we’ve got to get corrected in order to win, and we’re going to look at it.’’
Should Muschamp’s job be in question with the historic loss and long losing streak?
“I strongly disagree with that,’’ Florida offensive lineman Jon Halapio said. “I’ll go to battle with that coach any day, his whole coaching staff. I see the grind in his eyes every day, I see what he does very day, the passion he has for this team and I’ll go to war with him any day. He has our backs and I have his back, win or lose.
“We have to control the turnover battle on offense and create turnovers on defense. We’ve got to learn from our mistakes. We can’t keep creating mistakes offensively.’’
Defensive Jon Bullard said the team is aware Muschamp’s job could be on the line, depending on how UF finishes -- playing at South Carolina next week before returning home to close out the season with Georgia Southern and Florida State needed two wins for a bowl bid.
“We’re not really looking at that,’’ Bullard said. “Muschamp puts us in the opportunity to win and we’ve got to go out there and do it. I love Muschamp. Hopefully none of that happens.’’
Vanderbilt scored first on Carey Spear’s 31-yard field goal, finishing off a 14-play opening drive. Then came the rash of interceptions.
Murphy’s first interception gave Vandy the ball at the Gators’ 10 and Seymour scored on the next play out of the Wildcat to make it 10-0. The very next pass by Murphy was picked off by Kenny Ladler and returned 28 yards to the Florida 22. Four plays later, Robinette scored on a 5-yard keeper.
“Getting that great field position, being able to go 20 yards and get a touchdown is awesome,’’ Robinette said.
The Gators’ only points of the half came on Brad Phillips’ 23-yard field goal with 1:47 left.
Murphy’s third interception hit Trey Burton in the hands but was deflected to Andrew Williamson, who returned the ball to the Gators’ 4. Seymour scored from two yards out on second down and it was 24-3.
“Anytime you lose on homecoming there’s some disappointment,’’ Murphy said. “We’re kind of in a bind. We need two more games to make a bowl, so losing today wasn’t good, especially to lose on homecoming and it’s obviously disappointing to end the streak. But it’s more disappointing just to lose.’’
Florida managed to get a touchdown on Kelvin Taylor’s 4-yard run at 7:16 in the third quarter, making it 24-10. It gave the Gators a ray of hope. But Vanderbilt responded with a drive of its own _ this time not helped by a UF turnover, going 87 yards in 17 plays with Seymour scoring his third TD from a yard out.
That made it 31-10 on the first play of the fourth quarter and fans started quietly streaming out of Florida Field with a shocking loss. It was the 15th straight game in which Vanderbilt scored 24 or more points _ the longest streak in the program’s 124-year history.
“I’m a competitor,’’ Muschamp said. “I don’t like losing. I certainly don’t like the product we are putting on the field, and that’s my responsibility. I take full credit for that. When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s not good, it’s not good, and it hasn’t been good. And that’s on me. We’ll make the decisions to move forward that we need to do to help this football team in the latter part of the season as we move forward. That’s my plan.
“I’m not asking for anybody to be happy. I’m not asking anybody to give a pass. This is the real deal. This is the University of Florida. My expectation, I’ll guarantee is as high or higher than anyone sitting in those stands. There’s nobody more let down or hurt or competitive edge dented a little bit by this. So it’s one me. We’ll get it turned around. I can assure you that.’’
The Gators added a late touchdown on Murphy’s 11-yard pass to Ahmad Fulwood with 7:40 left in the game, the freshman’s first career TD catch.
A field goal in the final minute gave Vandy its last three points. Only Missouri (36-17) scored more against the Gators. Florida has given up 93 points last three games.
Murphy called the loss “very shocking.’’
“Everyone in that locker room came to Florida to win and we’re not winning,’’ he said. “And that’s just unacceptable. As players, we know that’s unacceptable. We’re just going to keep fighting, keep pushing and try to make the best out of this season.’’