It was chippy, it was sloppy, and it was ugly. In other words, it was exactly what most people expected to happen when the Florida Gators and Florida State Seminoles finally got together for the 2021 edition of their rivalry game after not being able to do battle a year ago.
And one week after firing their coach, the Gator seniors took the field one final time at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and continued their former leader’s favorite Thanksgiving tradition- beating FSU.
Dameon Pierce led the way with a season-high twelve carries for 62 yards, Brenton Cox paced the defense with four sacks, Anthony Richardson took over from an error-prone Emory Jones in the second half and Florida, sans coach Dan Mullen, knocked off FSU, 24-21. The win is Florida’s third straight in the rivalry, and the Gators have now increased their lead to 37-26 in the all time series.
This one had a far more peculiar buildup than most. Oftentimes when Florida and FSU meet, it’s a high-stakes showdown between top ten or at least top 25 teams. Not only are bragging rights on the line between fans of two storied programs, but the winning team’s fanbase generally feels some sort of accomplishment, having defeated the other major name brand program in the state. Both programs usually enter this game jostling for recruits, superior bowl position, and a reason to feel good about their program.
But that wasn’t the case this year. With both the Gators and Seminoles entering the game at 5-6, the stakes were different than ever before: the winner would head to a bowl game, and the loser would trudge off the field ineligible for a bowl game, their season over. Florida won that unusually low-stakes battle on Saturday, and sent FSU home for the postseason.
The Seminoles more than deserve it.
McKenzie Milton had a ball snapped over his head that he had to flag down for a 17 yard loss to kill one drive. Milton threw a pick to end another. An offensive pass interference call ruined yet another. Punter Alex Mastromano shanked a punt. With six seconds to go, Jordan Travis allowed himself to run the entire final six seconds off the clock in the second quarter rather than throw the ball away. All in the first half.
And yet, despite all those first half mistakes, the game was tied at the break because of three Emory Jones interceptions, including one in the end zone with half a minute left in the half. (More on that another day.) Jones did start the scoring with a bomb to Kemore Gamble five minutes into the game, but did little else right from that point on. The final straw- the obvious tipping point for interim coach Greg Knox- was when Jones misfired a ball that hit a Seminole defender in the back. Had he turned around, it would have been easy interception number four. So Knox decided to go with Anthony Richardson from then on, and Florida was off to the races.
Richardson led the Gators to 17 unanswered points, the final seven of which seemed to put the game away. Dameon Pierce appeared to have a go-ahead touchdown on a 13-yard carry, but was flagged for illegal participation for continuing to churn ahead even though his helmet had come off (which: LOL). So Pierce came out for a play, came back in, took his next handoff and scored anyway. That made it 24-7 with 12:36 left.
FSU, though, didn’t go down easy. The Noles scored two touchdowns in a row of their own, sandwiched around a Jason Marshall interception. But the second touchdown came with :49 showing on the clock, forcing FSU to try an onside kick. Which didn’t go so well. Once Parker Grothaus touched the tip of the ball with the tip of his foot and the ball dribbled off the tee- and nowhere close to the required ten yards- the game was over, as was the Seminoles’ season.
As for the Florida Gators, the attention will soon pivot to the next head coach. The upcoming bowl game will give the seniors one last opportunity to add to their NFL resumes, while the returning players will be out to impress their next coach, and give themselves a leg up on the competition for their jobs next season.
But for the moment, that’s neither here nor there. This season will not be remembered as a good one, but in a season where little went right? As Jimbo Fisher would say: “We just beat the damn Noles.”
And no matter how bad the season may have been, that’s always worth celebrating.