Gators show character in win over FSU, but what might have been?
The Gatorade hit Greg Knox’s back moments after Anthony Richardson took one final knee, and for a moment, a stunned, soaked Knox stopped to breathe in the scene. As he did, a few of the Gators’ seniors surrounded the interim head coach, hugging him and slapping his back.
As Florida celebrated a 24-21 win over Florida State on a sun-splashed Saturday in The Swamp, it was hard not to appreciate how Knox had held the team together, winning a huge rivalry game only days after the dismissal of head coach Dan Mullen.
It wasn’t a well-played game, or a win Gators fans will tell their grandchildren about.
But don’t tell that to these Gators players, or to the legions of fans in a sold-out Swamp who arrived early to honor a group of seniors who just lost their head coach and stayed afterward to celebrate a 3rd straight win over the hated Seminoles.
Don’t tell that to a group of seniors who desperately wanted to play a bowl game. To them, everything about that win was beautiful. When you’ve lost 9 of your past 11 games against Power 5 opposition, as Florida had entering Saturday’s contest against Florida State, you don’t care about style points.
A win is a win, and whether it sends Florida to the Duke’s Mayo Bowl or the Gasparilla Bowl or the Grinch Stole Christmas Bowl, they won’t care. The Gators are going bowling and Florida State, which thought they could steal one on the road from a bitter rival, will stay home for the winter.
Credit Knox, and Florida’s skeleton staff, which was down Mullen and 2 other assistants, for having the Gators focused and ready to play for the logo. In the end, it was effort, emotion and pride that won this football game. Nothing else.
Florida didn’t play well. In fact, most of the mistakes that plagued the Gators all season were present Saturday afternoon.
The Gators were undisciplined.
They committed 13 penalties for 107 yards, and that doesn’t include multiple offsetting personal fouls in a chippy affair that featured a scuffle before toe even met leather. Florida State might have thought dancing on Florida’s Gator head at midfield was a good way to show they were ready to reassert supremacy in the Sunshine State. The fact Florida took offense to it showed the Gators cared.
Florida was error-prone and careless with the football, too.
Florida began 4 possessions in the first 3 quarters inside Florida State territory, thanks to a tenacious effort by a Todd Grantham-less Gators defense for the second consecutive week. Florida scored a total of 3 points on those possessions, thanks in part to poor play from starting quarterback Emory Jones. The 4th-year quarterback tossed 3 interceptions in the first half, including a devastating one that spoiled a 16-play, 66-yard Gators drive at the end of the first half.
When Jones missed a wide open Jacob Copeland over the middle on 2nd-and-8 on Florida’s first possession of the second half, Knox had the courage to do what Mullen waited too long to do much of the season: he put Jones on the bench and turned the game over to Anthony Richardson.
The redshirt freshman fans clamored for much of the year wasn’t spectacular, but he was efficient enough to lead Florida to 17 points on his first 4 possessions, which helped the Gators snatch momentum in a stalemate and build a lead that ultimately proved too much for Florida State to overcome.
The play calling, handled by quarterbacks coach Garrick McGee in the absence of Mullen, was also curious.
The Gators got cute when simple would do, and tossed an interception on a needless flea flicker after a Seminoles turnover in the first half.
Once again, Florida also waited too long to turn the game over to Dameon Pierce, who ran angry and strong, especially as Florida State’s defensive line wore down in the second half. But to the staff’s credit, Pierce did carry a season-high 12 times, collecting 62 yards and scoring what proved to be the winning touchdown on the game’s second-most memorable play.
Dameon Pierce is a MONSTER pic.twitter.com/7kK56ldyYf
— CFB over all (@PickettsPool) November 27, 2021
Florida, which had lost 7 consecutive 1-possession games before Saturday, almost fell apart, too.
A combination of penalties, the elusiveness of Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis, and leaky pass coverage helped the Seminoles cut a 24-7 Gators lead to 3 with under a minute to play. All season, the Gators made the last mistake. Saturday, Florida State did, failing on what is likely the worst onside kick attempt of all time.
Florida State football since Oregon ran them out of the College Football Playoff
— Florida Basketball Hour (@FloridaBBHour) November 27, 2021
The Whiff at Ben Hill Griff aside, there were times watching Florida win Saturday that made it difficult not to think about what might have been.
Florida’s defense, buoyed by an outstanding pass rush led by Brenton Cox, who had 4 sacks, blew up a Seminoles offensive line that came into the game one of the best teams in America at protecting the quarterback. The Gators also tackled as well as they had all season, flying to the football and doing a decent job in containment, at least until late in the game. The effort begged the question — where has the Florida defense we’ve seen the past 2 weeks been all season, and would it have played this way all year if Grantham had been fired last winter?
The combination of Richardson and Pierce helped Florida’s offensive line, which struggled mightily over the second half of the season, gain confidence. Florida rushed for over 109 of its 139 yards rushing in the second half, almost exclusively through the bulldozer that is Pierce and the confidence of Richardson.
Richardson also took care of the football, something he didn’t do late against LSU or against Georgia. But if Dan Mullen had turned things over to Richardson earlier in the year, say, after Florida struggled to move the ball against Kentucky, would Mullen still be Florida’s head coach?
These are questions without definitive answers, which also is a fair characterization of Florida’s football program right now.
It’s been 13 years and counting since an SEC Championship. Head coach No. 8 is coming in since the graduation of Tim Tebow after the 2009 season. The talent gap with archrival Georgia is expanding.
These are issues awaiting the next head coach, who could be announced as early as Sunday.
On Saturday in The Swamp, all of that could wait at least one more day.
Florida beat Florida State, and in this state, that still matters.