Florida 24, South Carolina 14, Game Recap: Gators do just enough on offense to knock off Gamecocks

Once again, Florida was maybe a play or two away from losing a game they shouldn’t have.

This week, Gators fans have freshman running back Jordan Cronkrite to thank for making that play, as his incredible grab in traffic- and ensuing ability to break free and turn it into a touchdown- saved Florida from potential disaster. Cronkrite went up in between two Gamecock defenders, snatched Treon Harris’s pass out of the air, wheeled around and turned what could have very easily been an interception into a Florida touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

That play, and a couple of others late in the game, saved Florida from becoming the biggest upset victim on a day filled with them.

On a day in which #6 Baylor, #7 Stanford, #9 LSU, #10 Utah and #19 UCLA all suffered losses to teams Vegas says they shouldn’t have lost to, the Gators nearly suffered a loss that would have been worse than all of them. South Carolina came into the game with an interim coach in Shawn Elliot (moment of silence for the dearly departed Steve Spurrier) and a paltry 3-6 record. That’s one loss away from bowl ineligibility, by the way, and sporting a defense that had been surrendering 428 yards of total offense per game, you can’t help but think that they don’t deserve one anyway.

Anyway, thanks to simply taking care of business by beating them- no matter how ugly- Jim McElwain’s club now figures to skyrocket up the College Football Playoffs rankings from #11 all the way up to #8. They may jump even higher depending on what the committee thinks of an Oklahoma team that won at previously unbeaten Baylor but has an ugly loss to a 4-6 Texas team on its resume. I can’t really say for sure. The committee has proven to be difficult to read.

But Florida came oh so close to making all of this irrelevant, and kissing their national championship hopes goodbye.

The game actually looked like a case to strengthen Florida’s playoff case, as the Gators looked like they’d run away with it for awhile. Florida scored on its second possession of the game on a strong run by Cronkrite to cap off a solid 15 play, 87 yard drive led by Harris, and took a 7-0 lead. After the defense forced a three and out by the Gamecocks, the Florida offense put together another nice drive. Though it seemed to stall when Harris was sacked by Gerald Dixon on a second and six from the Gamecocks’ 36, Harris then rolled out to his right and threw the aforementioned ball in the direction of Cronkrite…

…which should almost certainly come with a warning in today’s film room session to Harris that he needs to be careful, or that he could have maybe considered taking off and trying to get the first down with his feet, but hey, a touchdown is a touchdown, and this particular one made it 14-0. Florida then added a field goal from Austin Hardin in the third quarter- hey, he’s made his last two!- to make it 17-0. And that seemed like it would be more than enough to win; South Carolina could only muster 43 yards of total offense throughout the first three quarters, and showed little life in general.

But never underestimate the heart of a team playing with an interim head coach.

First came a throwback screen for a touchdown. QB Perry Orth threw a lateral to receiver Pharaoh Cooper, who then lobbed it back to Orth as he streaked down the sideline for the touchdown. Predictably enough, Florida’s offense then went three and out, and then a few plays later, Orth found Cooper behind the usually stout Gator secondary for an easy touchdown to cut the lead to 17-14. (This was the point in the game that I realized something particularly unsettling: Florida had blown second half leads in each of the last two years against South Carolina.)

But like they’ve done so many times this year- and failed to do throughout the last four years- the Gators reacted to adversity the way the great teams do. They shrugged off earlier mistakes and replaced those bad memories with better ones by making big plays when they had to.

Once again, Treon Harris didn’t have a great day by any means, but he made the big play when he had to, finding DeMarcus Robinson for an 18 yard gain on the second play of the drive. Once again, the offensive line didn’t have a great day by any means, but they opened up a gaping hole for Kelvin Taylor three plays later on a third and eight, who then broke off a 53 yard run to the shadow of the goal line (and then scored on the very next play). And once again, the defense made its share of mistakes throughout the game, but made the game-sealing play when presented with the opportunity to, as Quincy Wilson jumped in front of an Orth pass and picked it off with 1:20 to go. Ball game.

Harris threw two interceptions on the day, one of which really wasn’t an interception so much as him getting nailed and losing control of the ball. The other one was bad; it was a poor decision to try to force one, and a decision that essentially negated a Jalen Tabor interception in the red zone as the half wound down to a close. Yet he showed improvement at times, and his overall body of work suggests that he could be really effective if he operates mainly from the pocket. Of course, this came against a porous Gamecocks defense that ranks outside the top 75 in most defensive categories in FBS, but confidence is what’s key for Harris as the season nears its conclusion. He’ll have one more weak defense to develop confidence against in Florida Atlantic, and then fun time’s over as FSU comes to the Swamp on Thanksgiving weekend, which is of course followed by the really big game in Atlanta.

But to repeat the closing of last week’s recap: what’s most important is that Florida won the game despite struggling, albeit in not nearly as gruesome a fashion. The defense may give up big plays here and there, but overall, it has to rank as one of college football’s best. This defense alone could keep the Gators in every game they play, no matter how strong the opponent is. And so as each passing week gives us fewer games to look ahead to with more to look back at, it’s important to remember that as long as the defense comes to play, the Gators will have their chances to win every game they play in.