Unlike last week’s debacle in Columbia, Missouri, it wasn’t a lack of effort that doomed the Gators Saturday in Columbia, South Carolina.
Instead, it was coaching and personnel issues that reared their heads.
On a cold but sunny and glorious afternoon at Williams-Brice Stadium, the Gators fell 28-20 to former coach Will Muschamp and South Carolina. The Gators played hard, with energy and resolve from the opening kick, but fell short, losing for the fifth consecutive time and all but eliminating the Gators from any chance at a bowl game.
The great coach Vince Lombardi used to say that “winning is a habit.”
Legendary Florida (and South Carolina) coach Steve Spurrier added to the memorable mantra, noting that “losing is a habit just like winning. When you’re struggling, you find ways to lose.”
Florida certainly did that Saturday.
Playing a South Carolina running game that entered the game ranked 114th nationally in total rushing and 92nd in rushing S &P+ efficiency, Florida was gashed for 120 yards in the first half alone. A.J. Turner led the Gamecocks attack with 136 yards rushing, and even on a day when Florida’s defense registered more than one sack for the first time in nearly two months, the Gamecocks averaged 4.7 yards a carry. Florida’s linebackers continued to struggle, and the Gators missed more tackles than they’ve missed in all but three games on the year. While the Florida defense has missed All-SEC safety Marcell Harris’s tackling and leadership all season, isn’t it fair to ask the coaches why there are still issues tackling?
Nevertheless, Florida’s defense did make some big plays.
Since the Tennessee game, the Gators’ defense had produced only three turnovers. They produced that many in the opening half Saturday, but could manage only a field goal from the two early interceptions and fumble recovery. For an offense that’s spent another long season mired in the mud, that’s not a formula for winning football games, let alone ones in tough road environments.
Perhaps one of Florida’s first-half turnovers best embodied both the difficult season Florida has had and the way losing permeates a culture, even when it appears things are going well.
Down 7-0 after three possessions, Johnny Townsend pinned Jake Bentley and the Gamecocks’ offense down at their own 3-yard line. South Carolina offensive coordinator Kurt Roper opted to be aggressive, and threw on first down, but with Cece Jefferson applying pressure, Bentley overthrew his intended receiver and Florida freshman CJ Henderson intercepted the pass.
Sometimes the film describes it best:
— SEC Country (@SECcountry) November 11, 2017
Henderson’s interception and fumble near the end zone was precisely the kind of play that wouldn’t seem real if it weren’t on film, and the kind of “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory” occurrence that only seems to happen in seasons gone sideways.
But it’s the way the day went for the Gators.
Florida played hard, with emotion, resolve, effort and energy. The Gators put themselves in position to win.
But every moment Florida had a chance to make a winning play, it came up short.
Beyond the Henderson interception and fumble, there are plenty of other cases in point.
After clawing back to within eight in the second quarter, Florida’s defense had a chance to get the ball back on a fourth-and-short in the red zone in the second quarter. Instead, Mon Denson scored, practically untouched, on a simple isolation play from 12 yards out, staking the Gamecocks to a 15-point advantage.
After a Malik Zaire injury forced a quarterback change, the Gators finally found the end zone when a Lamical Perine run capped a 75-yard drive late in the second quarter. The Gators earned a great chance to build off that momentum early in the third quarter, when they stuffed South Carolina on a fourth-and-1 on the Gamecocks’ opening possession of the second half.
But Florida squandered the opportunity, promptly going three and out.
With South Carolina driving to take a two-score lead in the third quarter, sophomore linebacker Vosean Joseph made a brilliant, off-balance interception to give Florida the ball back, and with it, a chance to seize momentum.
Doug Nussmeier’s first play call after the turnover? A play-action running back swing pass to Mark Thompson, which South Carolina snuffed out for a 3-yard loss. Florida committed a procedure penalty — its fifth of the game — a play later, and once again, Florida had coughed away any semblance of momentum rather than seizing upon the opportunity.
On the next series, the trend continued. Florida’s defense was gaining steam under aggressive play-calling from defensive coordinator Chris Rumph. But on third-and-9, Florida forgot to contain Bentley, who ran for 13 yards and a first down. Two plays later, Bentley scored on a run-pass option, and Florida found itself, despite tremendous effort, right where it had been in the second quarter, down 15 points.
In the fourth quarter, down 15, Franks found Freddie Swain wide open on a third-and-19. Catch the ball and it is a first down, moving the sticks. Naturally, Swain dropped it.
Even in the end, Florida fought. Feleipe Franks scrambled and turned a broken play into a near-touchdown, only to see Moral Stephens tackled by his own man on a 63-yard completion downfield. Florida scored a day later, but the play was fitting symbolism.
Florida’s coaches didn’t provide an edge or make a winning difference, either.
On a day when the Gators’ special teams and defense competed throughout, Nussmeier’s bizarre game-plan simply never gave Florida a chance to seize control of a game Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks didn’t seem to want to win.
Starting Malik Zaire for the second consecutive game, Nussmeier continued to refuse to adapt his offense to what his starter does best — run and extend plays with his mobility and athleticism. Nussmeier mystifyingly opted to make Zaire a pocket passer instead, abandoning Florida’s offensive strength — the running game — early.
Compounding matters, Florida repeatedly called play-action passes on third-and-long, giving Zaire even less time to throw in the pocket on obvious pass plays, despite an offensive line that struggles to protect. Coaching football isn’t as easy as it appears on message boards, but it isn’t astrophysics, either. Nussmeier’s refusal to adapt to his personnel is a problem that causes failure in multiple business and economic models. It’s no different in football.
Saturday’s Gators’ loss was a throwback to the LSU and Texas A & M losses of October, in which Florida mentally came to play and competed but lost because of talent and coaching deficiencies.
Make any number of these plays, or any number of the coaching adjustments, and maybe Florida isn’t hoping for a miracle late. But Florida didn’t make any of them.
And in the end, that’s what Florida’s loss was about.
It was an acknowledgement of the culture of losing that’s infiltrated the Gators’ program, and will challenge whoever takes over next month.
Florida needs better offense, to be sure. Florida needs improved personnel and depth on defense as well.
But perhaps most vitally, Florida needs a culture change, one where a proud program plays to a standard and winning, and investing in the hard work that impacts winning, is the expectation.
It certainly wasn’t Saturday.