Florida football: Tough Gators set stage for November to remember
There are ugly wins in college football, and then there are road wins in the meat grinder of SEC play. Those are never ugly.
Led by their seemingly unflappable quarterback Kyle Trask, the Florida Gators picked up a huge SEC road win on Saturday, defeating South Carolina 38-27.
It wasn’t easy. It was never going to be.
After grueling back-to-back Top 10, College Gameday featured matchups against Auburn and at LSU, it was reasonable to wonder what Florida had left in the tank physically and emotionally ahead of a trip to face a South Carolina team brimming with confidence after its upset of then-No. 3 Georgia in Athens.
Most any good football team can get up for a College Gameday atmosphere and a big game against a Top 10 opponent. The great programs find ways to win the grind-it-out games in-between. The challenge — would Florida be ready to grind and win a challenging road game against a good team after two huge games and two weeks away from another huge game? That made the South Carolina game a better barometer of Florida’s progress as a program in year two under Dan Mullen than Auburn or LSU.
Florida had plenty built-in excuses had it put on a poor performance.
The Gators entered Williams-Brice Stadium for a noon kick with an injury list resembling a M*A*S*H unit, and missed two defensive stars, All-SEC end Jabari Zuniga and BUCK/DE Jon Greenard, a midseason All-American. The weather was poor, with torrential rains from Tropical Storm Nestor rolling into Columbia right around kickoff. Rain and wind usually favors the team with the better running game, which entering Saturday’s game was undoubtedly South Carolina.
Complicating matters, Florida got off to a dreadful start, with All-American corner CJ Henderson beaten over the top by South Carolina’s Bryan Edwards for a 41-yard gain on the second play from scrimmage. The Gamecocks scored six plays later, after a phantom offsides penalty negated a Florida stop on third and goal.
Throughout the first half, the Gators struggled to establish an offensive rhythm.
The wet ball — as well as Will Muschamp’s Cover 2 defense — clearly bothered Trask and uneven officiating made the whole game feel disjointed. A missed pass interference penalty forced a Florida punt midway through the second quarter, setting up another Gamecocks scoring drive, and before the Gators knew it, they trailed 10-3.
The Gators responded with a long touchdown drive to tie it at 10 before halftime. But with the rain worsening, Florida’s offense sputtering and South Carolina starting to establish the run behind talented Tavien Feaster, a dreadful loss certainly seemed possible.
Many Gators teams in this middling decade of Florida football would have wilted. Will Muschamp’s Florida teams rarely won games like this, a big reason a coach beloved by the Florida administration and respected by fans and players was ultimately shown the door after four up-and-down seasons.
You think Jim McElwain was winning the kind of meat cleaver game where you hit the other team in the mouth and roll around in the mud? Think again. McElwain won the SEC East twice but the grind of the SEC stressed McElwain out so much he bailed before finishing Year 3.
Dan Mullen’s Florida? This team is tough.
They’ve battled and won tight football games all season: Against Miami in Week 0, at Kentucky, against Auburn. Even in defeat, they stood toe to toe with LSU for four quarters.
They don’t panic. They keep playing. They grin in the face of adversity. They don’t back down.
Even after the second half opened with a quick Trask interception and a Gamecocks touchdown, the Gators stayed the course. Assisted by an astonishing missed false start penalty, the Gators answered South Carolina’s touchdown with Dameon Pierce’s 75-yard touchdown run.
Then, while Florida’s offense kept trying to figure it out, the Gators defense came up with big stops, forcing punts on two of South Carolina’s final three drives of the third quarter and limiting the Gamecocks to a field goal on the other.
Florida hung around and hung around and finally, in the fourth quarter, which began with the Gamecocks leading by three, Florida kicked the door in and took control.
“While our offense settled in, our defense made stops and made some plays,” Mullen said. “Finally, we were able to flip the field position and get in the plus side and finish it off and score touchdowns at the end.”
With good field position, Florida opened the playbook a bit more and stressed the Gamecocks defense, rattling off three consecutive touchdown possessions to turn a 3-point deficit into an 18 point lead.
Were there some fortuitous calls along the way? Absolutely. Kyle Pitts’ touchdown catch, which put Florida up 31-20 late, came on a vintage and without question illegal pick play. It’s unfortunate that a high-level college football game contains as many grievous errors — four of which directly led to points for both teams — as Saturday’s game did in Columbia.
But the reality is Florida didn’t win Saturday because of the referees.
They won because they made a few more plays than the other team, which has become a staple this season.
Florida won because even after Trask struggled early, he rallied late to become the first Gators quarterback since Tim Tebow to throw for four touchdowns in a SEC road game. They won because on a critical 4th and 3 in the fourth quarter, with Florida down three points, Trask (on a sprained knee) somehow bought time with his legs then delivered a strike to Pitts, who had pried his way open.
The Gators won because their much-maligned offensive line stood toe-to-toe with an excellent South Carolina front that had bullied mighty Georgia in Athens a week prior.
They won because Mullen has come to Florida and flipped the culture, transforming the Gators from a program that hoped to win games like this to one that expects to win them.
“It’s great. We are right where we want to be coming into this season, we control our own destiny,” Mullen said. “Coming into a bye week, we are going to have three games in November — conference games in November — that will determine who goes to the SEC Championship and that’s all you want to do is be in that position in November.”
All their goals in front of them and the biggest Cocktail Party in a decade waiting on the horizon.
You can bet Florida will be ready.