(Photo credit: Florida Gators)
How do we know the Florida Gators are getting better as a football team?
Florida’s defense surrendered a 3rd and 17. Anthony Richardson misfired on several passes, including one on the first drive of the game that should have been intercepted. And other than one booming punt from Jeremy Crawshaw and a chip shot field goal from Adam Mihalek, Florida’s special teams unit literally could not have done any worse of a job.
And yet the Florida Gators won by 32 points anyway. Over a fellow SEC team, mind you, not an FCS cupcake.
Thanks to a first quarter explosion, the best defensive showing of the year, and the offensive line opening up so much room for activities, the Gators obliterated South Carolina, 38-6. With the win, Florida claims its 30th all-time win over South Carolina, holding a 30-10-3 advantage in the series. Included in that tally is a 17-2 mark in the Swamp, with the only two losses coming to Spurrier-coached Gamecock teams.
This one? Well, this one was a little extra sweet.
The win serves as payback for the Gamecocks’ 40-17 victory last season, a loss that spelled the beginning of the end for Dan Mullen. And Florida may still not be done flexing its muscle over South Carolina. The Gamecocks’ final SEC game of the year is against Tennessee, while Florida wraps up its SEC slate against Vanderbilt. If Florida wins its finale and South Carolina loses to Tennessee as expected, the Gators will finish ahead of the Gamecocks in the SEC standings- not the ultimate goal at Florida, but another 2021 wrong that would be righted.
The win also serves as a dose of payback over Oklahoma-turned-South Carolina QB Spencer Rattler. As Oklahoma was blowing Florida out in the 2020 Cotton Bowl, Rattler ran around doing the Gator Chomp, and after the game- a 55-20 Sooners rout- he sarcastically tweeted, “it was a good matchup.”
This one wasn’t much better.
Florida exploded out of the gates for touchdowns on each of its first three drives to knock the Gamecocks down for the count. The first two times, Florida went the long way. The Gators went 14 plays for 75 yards (finished off by a Richardson touchdown run) and then seven plays for 64 yards (capped by a throw from Richardson to Ricky Pearsall) to go up 14-0.
Then the Gators landed the early haymaker.
After Xzavier Henderson fumbled a punt and Florida recovered at its own 15, Trevor Etienne exploded through a vacuous hole on the line of scrimmage and took it 85 yards for a touchdown. That made it 21-0 with two minutes left in the first quarter.
Meanwhile, Spencer Rattler didn’t look like he was an SEC-level quarterback (remember that one? Good times!). He completed 18 of 26 passes for 145 yards, almost all of which were checkdowns and safety valves underneath, and the Gamecock offense- against a Florida defense that came into the game ranked outside the top 100 in the country in yards allowed per game- never made a serious threat to touch the scoreboard.
In fact, if not for Florida’s special teams taking a nap, the Gators would have pitched a shutout. After Florida called a timeout preceding aa 4th and 6 for South Carolina just across midfield, Gamecock head coach Shane Beamer dialed up a fake punt. Punter Kai Kroeger took the snap and suddenly lofted a pass to a wide-open Dakereon Joyner, who brushed off a would-be tackle and took it 48 yards to the house.
And that was only a small portion of the Gators’ mortifying day on special teams. The Gators also had one field goal blocked, dropped the snap on another field goal attempt, surrendered a 37 yard punt return to Josh Vann, and had the aforementioned fumble by Henderson on his punt return (which Florida recovered) in the first quarter.
But on this day, that didn’t matter. Florida’s special teams gaffes cost them six points— minus three for each failed field goal attempt— and handed South Carolina six points, on their fake punt touchdown (the Gamecocks went for two, and failed to convert.) That’s a difference of twelve points, bringing a game that should have ended with a final score of 44-0 down to 38-6.
And now, with that 38-6 win of the Gamecocks under their belts and a lot of things clicking on both sides of the ball, Florida must keep going, keep working, and keep improving so that wins like this are not hailed as the centerpoints of seasons, but rather the norm.