Once again, a sloppy Florida Gators football game ended with Will Muschamp taking a loss.
Kyle Trask shook off an ugly interception to throw four touchdown passes- three of which came in the fourth quarter- as Florida handled South Carolina, 38-27. The Gators have now won four out of the last five games against the Gamecocks, and more importantly remain in perfect position to reach all their preseason goals as the calendar flips to November.
Perhaps most impressive was how a shorthanded Florida handled a team that was feeling good about itself after knocking off then-No. 3 Georgia on a wet, slippery field that was battered by the outer bands of Tropical Storm Nestor. The Gators managed to score a double digit road win despite missing their two best pass rushers in Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard, as well as explosive receiver Kadarius Toney. In doing so, Florida only turned the ball over once, dropped two passes and stayed the course through three quarters before turning it on in the fourth.
And Florida didn’t even need a massive comeback this time.
South Carolina opened the game by marching 75 yards on seven plays and scoring on a Mon Denson touchdown run- which was aided by back to back offsides penalties on Luke Ancrum- before the game devolved into the sloppy affair many had predicted in the mud. With the exception of a long field goal by Florida’s Evan McPherson and South Carolina’s Parker White each, punts filled the air for most of the duration of the first half. But midway through the second quarter, Trask- who played mistake free football throughout the first half- found freshman Jacob Copeland down the field on a post route, who shook a tackle and trotted into the end zone to knot the game at 10. The rookie wideout from Pensacola finished the day with three catches for 89 yards- by far his biggest and most impressive showing as a Gator.
The slippery conditions finally got the best of Trask to start the third quarter. The ball floated out of his hand and was easily picked off by South Carolina’s Jamie Robinson, setting up the Gamecocks at Florida’s 20. Florida’s defense appeared poised to get the stop and force a field goal, but on third and eleven, Tavien Feaster took off on the draw and took it 21 yards to the house to put the Gamecocks back up 17-10.
Undaunted, Florida punched back immediately- albeit with some help from the officials. On the very next play, Dameon Pierce took the handoff, slipped through the line and took off down the left sideline for a 75 yard touchdown run. But before the snap, Florida right tackle Jean DeLance flinched and popped out of his stance early, and late in the run, Florida received Tyrie Cleveland seemed to be holding the Gamecocks’ trailing safety. Thankfully for the Gators, both went unnoticed, the play stood and the game was tied once again.
Back came South Carolina on its next drive, driving right through the rain and the Gator defense and seemingly ready to punch it into the end zone again with a first and goal opportunity when the tides turned on a dime. Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham dialed up a corner blitz and South Carolina never saw it, and as a result, CJ Henderson barreled through and plastered Ryan Hilinski for an eight yard loss. The Gamecocks had to settle for a goal and a 20-17 lead.
And then Florida took over the game.
Right after the field goal, the Gators drove just across midfield before stalling. But Tommy Townsend then airdropped a punt down to the South Carolina 3. Florida’s defense then held and forced a reciprocal punt, which gave Florida the ball two yards inside its own territory. The Gators were forced into a fourth and three, which Trask converted by buying time and then zipping a strike to tight end Kyle Pitts. On the very next play, Trask lofted a rainbow down the right sideline that Freddie Swain dove for, bringing the ball across the goal line before his knees touched the ground for a 25 yard touchdown to give Florida its first lead of the game- which they wasted no time expanding on.
On the fourth play of the Gamecocks’ next drive, Zach Carter barged into the backfield and slapped the ball out of Hilinski’s hand. His teammate Tyree Campbell recovered to give the Gators the ball at the South Carolina 29. Four plays later, Trask found Pitts for an insurance touchdown to make the score 31-20, as Florida somehow avoided getting flagged for offensive pass interference on a nearby rub route. For good measure, Trask hit Trevon Grimes on a sort of hybrid slant/screen route a few minutes later for a five yard touchdown to put the game out of reach.
Though South Carolina added a meaningless touchdown in the waning moments, the Gators had made their point. No, they hadn’t just put on the prettiest display of football the world had ever seen, and yes, the officiating crew was less than competent and more than frightening with some of their decisions (both ways). But by the time the mud, flags and towels that South Carolina fans had thrown onto the field had cleared, the SEC East had been whittled down to three contenders with two true favorites. As fate would have it, each of those three contenders- Florida, Georgia and Missouri- will all play each other in the month of November.
Which the ugliness of today’s game takes a backseat to. The Gators are back to being a true contender in a strong SEC East, and that means another box can be checked off in Dan Mullen’s quest to meet the Gator Standard.