As Will Muschamp jogged off the field, the fiery coach known for his piercing stares let out a smile.
His team did it. The team he called “soft” 11 months ago made a top-five defense look ordinary.
At least for a half.
After both defenses held the offenses to a combined 128 yards in the first 30 minutes, Florida dominated LSU offensively and defensively on the line of scrimmage during the last two quarters.
When it was over, there wasn’t any doubt the Gators were the stronger team on Saturday in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
After getting blown out by the Tigers in 2011, UF outgained LSU on the ground 176 yards to 42 and ran the football 58 times. LSU had 50 total offensive snaps.
Florida, now ranked No. 4, belongs among the Southeastern Conference heavyweights. The noise the Gators are making on the field is due in large part to a loud assistant coach who looks as if he should be the one making the tackles.
Strength coach Jeff Dillman, who arrived in January from the IMG Performance Institute in Bradenton, has brought more toughness to UF.
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Dillman instituted an Olympic-style lifting program, turning UF into the physical team Muschamp envisioned when he came to Florida in December of 2010.
“He’s crazy,” redshirt senior left guard James Wilson said about Dillman’s attitude during halftime on Saturday. “He said, ‘That’s why we play four, gentlemen. That’s why we play four.’ That’s what our whole motto is.”
Dillman’s persona has rubbed off on the Gators. UF has erased three second-half deficits this season.
Florida’s defense got stronger as the game wore on. After LSU scored a field goal on its opening drive, UF did not allow another first down before halftime. The Tigers had five possessions in the second half, and each ended in a punt or a fumble.
The last defense to control the trenches against LSU was Alabama, the team that has won two of the last three national titles. LSU mustered just 92 total yards against the Crimson Tide in the 2012 BCS Championship Game.
Senior running back Mike Gillislee carried the football a career-high 34 times for 146 yards — 112 of which came in the second half. He scored his two touchdowns virtually untouched.
“I felt like I was getting stronger,” Gillislee said. “It comes a lot from coach Dillman and the strength and conditioning and the training. Keep on fighting and never giving up.”
This isn’t the same UF team that was decimated by injuries last season. Nor is it the same team who was outscored 72-22 in the fourth quarter during SEC games.
UF is the only FBS team this season that has held its opponents scoreless in the fourth quarter.
Florida hasn’t been this dominant along the line of scrimmage since 2009. UF won two national championships in 2006 and 2008 with Mickey Marotti as strength coach. He left after last season to work with Urban Meyer at Ohio State. With Muschamp’s insistence on running the ball from under center, the Gators needed to increase their physicality, regardless of who the strength coach was.
So far, so good.
“It was very evident on the football field that we had a very strong, physical football team that had good endurance against an outstanding, athletic bunch, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” Muschamp said. “Credit [Dillman] and his staff. Those guys do an outstanding job.”
Strength coaches don’t normally figure in the postgame conversation. For the Gators, the change from 2011 to 2012 is night and day. UF’s victory against LSU was won in the offseason.
For Dillman, the results speak for themselves.
Contact Adam Pincus at [email protected].