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Florida gets needed win with Outback Bowl rout of Iowa

KIM KLEMENT/USA TODAY SPORTS

Man, did they ever need that.

Of all my thoughts in the aftermath of the Florida Gators’ surprising 30-3 thrashing of Iowa in the Outback Bowl, that was the most prevalent. A team that most recently had lost its conference championship game by 38 points, one that won its own division two years in a row but still had a giant-sized self-esteem problem, really needed a feel-good afternoon on a sun-splashed, Florida day.

But this win was about more than all that. It came a month before National Signing Day during a recruiting season in which Florida seems to be well behind many of its key rivals and opponents. It came when observers had their doubts about the direction of the program because of its paltry offense, despite the back-to-back SEC East titles. So much of the narrative about these Gators has been that they won the East not because of anything they did well but because the division was so stinking bad.

In retrospect, coach Jim McElwain probably was justified in being annoyed that people didn’t properly appreciate his team. The truth is, as bad as those losses to FSU and Alabama felt, the Gators did have the terrific win in Baton Rouge against an LSU team that boat-raced everyone else the past two months except top-ranked Alabama, and even hung around the Cyborg Tide for three quarters.

RELATED: Florida hasn’t been able to escape QB woes in post-Tebow era

Then they ended the season by rolling Iowa, a team that came in having won three games in a row by a combined 82-23. That stretch included an upset of Michigan and a 30-point rout of Nebraska.

So this was a good win. A needed win. A momentum-creating, feel-good, take-that win.

Some other reasons it was a joy for Gator fans to watch:

* Young guys. More than anything else, the typically stifling Gators defense featured several players who will be on the team next year. For so long, the conversation has been whether the Gators will survive on defense because eight regular starters aren’t expected back. But on this day, young defenders were flashing throughout the day. The group was led by freshman safety Chauncey Gardner, the game’s MVP with two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. In fact, if linebacker Daniel McMillian hadn’t come down with a tipped pass for another interception, Gardner would have picked that one off, too, making for a hat trick.

But it wasn’t just Gardner. Freshman linebackers Kylan Johnson and Vosean Joseph were terrific. They will be joined in the future by fellow freshman David Reese, who was hurt and missed this game. Junior safety Marcel Harris, expected to return, became the team’s leading tackler after not starting much of the year and was a terror again. Linemen Taven Bryan, Khairi Clark, CeCe Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga, Keivonnis Davis and Jachai Polite made life miserable for Iowa quarterback C. J. Beathard. All should be back.

* It was good to see running back Mark Thompson make a big play. Thompson is big and fast and agile, but his time has been limited because of fumbles. But his 85-yard touchdown after catching a screen pass from Austin Appleby might have been the biggest play of the game. It broke a 3-3 tie, and from that point forward it seemed like Iowa was playing uphill.

* Appleby wasn’t perfect (two interceptions in the game’s first five minutes) but, overall, probably played his best game as a Gator. He was 14-of-25 for 222 yards and two touchdowns. It’s clear Appleby isn’t a great player; even in this game, he held the ball too long at times, taking sacks when he should have thrown the ball away. But he was a team guy, never complaining while sitting on the bench behind Luke Del Rio, even though he transferred in from Purdue and this was his last year of college football. It was nice to see him go out a winner.

* When it was all over, Eddy Pineiro turned out to be as good as all the hype, and put the icing on the cake on a terrific season. He was 3-of-3 on field goals and some of his kickoffs, all touchbacks, went halfway to Clearwater.

All in all, it was a good day. Who knows how much it helps on the recruiting trail, but it can’t hurt. More important, a team that limped into the offseason last year after getting blitzed by Michigan in the Citrus Bowl now soars into this one after playing maybe its best game of the season.

They truly needed that.

RELATED: Is Florida about to both revamp and finalize its coaching staff?

(You can follow Frank Frangie on Twitter @Frank_Frangie)

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