(Photo credit: Florida Gators)
The postgame scene as fans streamed out of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium was almost surreal.
Members of the South Florida band banged on the drums that protruded from their chests, as a smattering of green-and-gold clad Bulls fans followed them to their truck, triumphantly chanting “U-S-F!” and “Let’s Go Bulls!” They were, of course, outnumbered by orange-and-blue clad Florida Gators fans, who erupted in a chorus of boos, with an array of one-liners about how USF is a school for UF rejects mixed in. If not for a few stray “Horns Down” gestures from Florida fans and a couple of other Gator fans shouting, “SCOREBOARD!” back at the South Florida crowd, to a casual observer, it would seem as though USF had pulled off the biggest upset in school history and beaten the mighty Gators.
They almost did.
Thanks to a bad snap that cost USF 14 yards and then a failed hold on a would-be game-tying field goal attempt, the Florida Gators narrowly escaped South Florida with their season still intact, hanging on by a 31-28 margin. 53 weeks earlier, Florida had raced out to a 35-3 lead over South Florida midway through the second quarter and coasted from there. This time around, it was a drastically different story.
Other than the fact that Florida finished the game with more points than South Florida, little else went right for the Gators all night.
South Florida wasted no time establishing its will, driving into Florida territory to start the game before fumbling. Florida cashed that mistake in for a field goal, but then USF replied with a punishing 12-play, 81-yard touchdown drive that Brian Battie capped off with a ten-yard touchdown run. Moments later, Montrell Johnson took off for a 62-yard touchdown run that put Florida back in front, seemingly restoring order.
But on the very next drive, South Florida again bulldozed its way right over the Florida Gators defense on another long drive. To its credit, this time, Florida stiffened in the red zone and forced a field goal. That tied the game at 10.
It seemed as though Florida’s offense had figured things out on the ensuing drive. Anthony Richardson connected on one of the few deep balls he attempted all night, finding Trent Whittemore for a 33 yard gain. The rest of the time, Florida leaned on its ground attack, featuring Trevor Etienne heavily before the drive stalled out. But a USF penalty gave Florida new life on the drive, and moments later, Nay’Quan Wright punched it in.
And it seemed as though Florida’s defense had figured things out on its ensuing drive, too. USF’s Gerry Bohanon locked on to and led his receiver too much, and Jalen Kimber made him pay. The Georgia transfer jumped in and picked the ball off, broke away, and took it to the house. That made it 24-10 Florida late in the second quarter.
USF’s final drive of the first half appeared to stall out, but then Billy Napier made a critical mistake: calling timeout to ice field goal kicker Spencer Shrader on his end-of-the-half field goal attempt… but too close to the point at which the ball had been snapped, meaning Shrader got a free practice kick. He missed that practice kick to the right, but got a chance to correct himself and straighten it out on the real kick. Which he did. And thus, it was 24-13 at halftime.
At that point, USF had amassed 242 yards of total offense, a statistic that’s hard to swallow when you realize that USF barely eclipsed that number over an entire game against BYU, which just got pummeled by Oregon- a team that Georgia obliterated 49-3. The transitive properly doesn’t work when applied literally in college football, but that piece of perspective takes a bad performance and downgrades it to “simply nauseating.” But more on that later.
In any case, it felt like the Florida Gators had control of the game at halftime, despite the litany of issues on display in the first half. But after the intermission, Florida took a step backward from playing a poor-but-passable level of football to just playing frighteningly poor. And they nearly handed the game away.
First came a horrifying interception from Richardson that he threw late across the middle- a cardinal sin at the QB position- which was returned all the way into the red zone. USF scored four plays later, and the ensuing two-point conversion drew the Bulls within three. Florida then gained a grand total of five yards on its next two drives, both three-and-outs, and after the second one, USF took advantage of the short field, driving 51 yards to pay dirt. That put the Bulls- a 24.5 point underdog- up 28-24 with 11:50 remaining in the fourth quarter.
And thus, the mighty Florida Gators, a school that even under Dan Mullen recruited vastly superior athletes than South Florida, were on the ropes against those Bulls.
And then came a second, even more horrifying pick from Richardson, a play that he supposedly checked into after a run was called. Richardson stared down Justin Shorter on a fade route and telegraphed his throw, a line drive that Aamaris Brown read the whole way and easily stepped in front of for an interception in the end zone. With 7:50 left in the game, USF had a 28-24 lead and the ball in The Swamp.
Luckily, USF then started making mistakes of its own.
Tre’Vez Johnson picked off an overthrown ball on a dive to essentially give Richardson and the offense a do-over, this time starting at the 28. Trevor Etienne then carried the ball four straight times, and bulled his way into the end zone on the last one. That adjusted the scoreboard to read 31-28 in favor of Florida.
USF then drove down into the Florida red zone on a wilted, Ventrell Miller-less Gator defense to increase the intensity of the nerves that much of the crowd of 88,496 was experiencing. But then two fundamental errors killed the Bulls- a bad snap that rolled back fourteen yards before Brian Battie fell on it, and then holder Andrew Stokes couldn’t put the ball down for Shrader on the game-tying field goal attempt, resulting in a wounded duck that tailed wide right. And thus, the Florida Gators had won… ever barely.
There’s no way to analyze what took place on Saturday night without pointing fingers in several different directions. The amazing thing was, the underwhelming performance was a total team effort. Everything went to pieces at once- the offense, the defense, and the coaching. It was just a bad showing, period.
More analysis, the real x’s and o’s breakdown of this nightmare of a game, will come in our Five Takeaways piece in the ensuing days. To be blunt, I’m still in such utter disbelief that three run-throughs of the game tape wasn’t enough; I need to watch it a fourth time to truly believe what I saw.
But for now, suffice to say two things: one, a win is a win, and the effort that Florida put forth on Saturday night was good enough to beat South Florida. And two, it might not be against any Power Five opponent remaining on the schedule.