Cutting down on penalties might be Jim McElwain’s grandest opening gesture

GAINESVILLE – There were a lot of jaw-dropping numbers in Florida’s 61-13 win over New Mexico State in Saturday’s season opener. Eight-for eight in the red zone, for instance, and five different Gators scoring the first touchdowns of their college careers.

The stat that really stands out, however, is a reflection of something the Gators didn’t do for a change.

Penalty flag on the field during an preseason NFL football game between the Detroit Lions and the Buffalo Bills at Ford Field in Detroit, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

Florida was hit with just one penalty for 10 yards against the Aggies. That’s as close to a clean game as you’re ever going to see, and it’s the first time since 1977 that the Gators have been tagged with only one.

It was an illegal block by a special-teamer that finally broke up the no-flagger and that happened in the fourth quarter, when the backups were busy. Heck, I can remember games when previous Florida teams had penalties called for unsportsmanlike conduct prior to the kickoff.

Just last year there were 150 yards worth of laundry draped around the Gators in a single game, and they won anyway, at Tennessee.

That Gator tradition, marked by penalty yardage leadership in the SEC for five years running, is the only one that McElwain does not need to reclaim. Steve Spurrier, whose innovative playcalling often brought motion penalties and such, overcame the penalties by scoring all kinds of points. Will Muschamp, fired a year ago, tried to tamp the penalties down by raising his sideline decibel level, but with no success.

Earlier this summer McElwain put particular emphasis on striking out personal fouls, saying “Those are the unforced errors that have been the Achilles’ heel for a long time around here. I’m tired of it.”

Now it must be noted that New Mexico State, a sloppy team in every way, was hit by just one penalty, too, at the Swamp. Makes you wonder if the officials were just in a forgiving mood, or wanted to move a bad game along, or weren’t quite warmed up for the new season.

Most of those zebras, however, were part of the same crew that worked the Florida-Alabama game last season. There were 16 flags dropped in that 42-21 Crimson Tide victory. Eleven of them were against Nick Saban’s team. At Tuscaloosa.

Doesn’t seem like that shy of a group, or at least not one that makes a habit of looking the other way.

Florida’s going to have to work a lot harder against future competition, and that means straining longer to hold blocks, getting meaner with gang-tackling, etc. The Gators don’t schedule much heavy-lifting in season openers, and that’s a big reason why their streak of 26 consecutive wins to start the year is the longest active streak in the nation.

Took a look at the 2014 opener, though, or at least the one that counted in the wake of that weather-canceled match with Idaho. Florida rolled Eastern Michigan 65-0 last Sept. 6. It was a big night in every way, with 655 total yards, 27 first downs and, gulp, 10 penalties for 100 yards.

That was Muschamp, never quite in control of the whole package at Florida. This is McElwain, a more comprehensive leader, demanding better execution to go with the necessary enthusiasm and intensity.

Paring down on the penalties may just be the foundation to everything else he builds in Gainesville. Helps keep the offense from sputtering. Maintains momentum on both sides of the ball. Builds team discipline and demonstrates it in a tangible way.

Gives the Gators a better chance to win, and what better recommendation is there for any coach than that?

 

Fewest penalty yards (single game) in Florida history

Opp.                                 Yr.               Yds.

Florida State                 1977             5

LSU                                   2007             8

Alabama                          1994           10

Alabama                         1978           10

Kentucky                        1977           10

Georgia                           1975           10

Maryland                         1974           10

Miami                               1974           10

New Mex. State              2015           10