COLUMBIA, SC—As the clock ticked down below 20 seconds, Todd Grantham made his way to each player, a huge smile on his face as he congratulated his defensive players around him. The No. 9 Florida Gators had knocked off the South Carolina Gamecocks 38-27 on a sloppy, rainy, chilly day in Columbia, South Carolina.
Grantham’s message to each guy he hugged was simple.
That’s how we fight.
The Top 10 Gators, after a 21-7 fourth quarter, made their way over to the several thousand Gator fans still hanging in the stands, the only ones left of the announced 78,883 in attendance, and in a crowd that had been largely devoid of Gamecocks garnet and black for several minutes. The rain from tropical storm Nestor continued to fall in a steady sheets, as it had done most of the afternoon, but an impressive road showing by Gator nation stuck through it all—in all kinds of weather.
That’s really the story of the Gators win on the field as well. It was 58 degrees at kickoff, wet and as head coach Dan Mullen explained, as sloppy as the weather.
“You know, started really sloppy. Sloppy first half for us with execution. I mean, and not just, 'Oh, OK, well we didn't block' or this, I mean guys just going the wrong direction, getting the wrong signal, running the wrong plays. So that was kind of disappointing.”
The Gators were without star defensive ends Jabari Zuniga and Jon Greenard as both recover from ankle injuries. Zuniga was initially injured September 14 against Kentucky. Greenard was injured versus Auburn and finished that game. Both tried to play versus LSU last week. Greenard was only able to play two of the first three defensive series before sitting and Zuniga reinjured his ankle during the third quarter. Both will have a week to rest as the Gators get a bye before facing No. 10 Georgia. Mullen said he expects both of them back at practice by Monday of that game week, Tuesday at the latest.
Things couldn’t have started worse for Florida. After winning the coin toss and deferring, the Gators defense took the field with the Gamecocks at their own 25-yard line. On the second play, Gamecocks freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski (17-35, 170 yards, 1 touchdown) took a flea flicker and sent one 41 yards to Bryan Edwards (7-78 yards), putting them down deep in Gators territory at the 26. Twice penalties by Florida gave the Gamecocks new life, none more devastating than the (second) offsides by Luke Ancrum. With South Carolina at the 1-yard line, a bobbled pitch resulted in a fumble, recovered by the Gamecocks but looking to force a field goal. Yet the UF offsides penalty moved USC half the distance to the goal and allowed a replay on 3rd down. Mon Denson found an easy lane to pay dirt and South Carolina quickly went up 7-0. The offense followed that up with a drive that went: drop, overthrow, route miscommunication, punt.
After an Evan McPherson 48-yard field goal, a few drives to settle down and not one remarkable moment, the two teams headed to the second quarter with the No. 9 Gators still trailing 7-3. The Gamecocks Parker White tied his career long of a 49-yard field goal (tied from last weeks game winner against Georgia) to make it 10-3.
Then the Gators answered. A Tyrie Cleveland (1-14 yards) target picked up several yards after the catch for a 14-yard gain. Running back Dameon Pierce got his first touches since being knocked out against Auburn and picked up nine yards over two consecutive carries. But it was three different keepers by newly minted “willing runner” Kyle Trask (21-33, 200 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT) that kept the chains moving. Once on the Gamecock side of the field, Trask went between two defenders on a high pass for Jacob Copeland (3-89 yards, 1 TD). The redshirt freshman climbed the ladder to wrestle down the ball, bounced off a defender and hoofed it the last 15 yards of green grass for a 37-yard touchdown that tied the score at 10.
“It was good,” smiled Copeland while recapping the play.
“[Mullen] always says, ‘Be ready,’ and that’s what I was. I stayed in, my team kept me motivated, and I just stayed ready at all times. When my number was called, I made a play.”
As the first half ticked down, the Gamecocks looked to go deep to Edwards for a lead, by great coverage by Marco Wilson held up the receiver and the two teams headed to the locker room tied at 10.
The Gators started the second half with the ball…and promptly gave it away. Kyle Trask floated a pass between Freddie Swain and Tre Grimes, right into the waiting arms of Jammie Robinson. The safety returned it to his own 20-yard line. Three plays later, Tavien Feaster cut up the middle, breaking away from Ventrell Miller and Shawn Davis for a 21-yard touchdown run and the Gamecocks extended their lead by seven.
But yet again, Florida responded.
Pierce (7-87 yards, 1 TD) took a handoff, hopped to the outside and put in a house call, 75-yards tight roping the sideline for a touchdown to tie it at 17.
“It sparks the offense,” said receiver Freddie Swain (5-20 yds, 1 TD) of the play.
“It shows we don't have to go eight plays for a touchdown. We could go one and done and take big shots and run big runs and we just electric offense."
Added quarterback Kyle Trask, “I think it just boosted our confidence going out there for the rest of the game knowing that we can move the ball on these guys if we need to and it just gave us confidence from there on out.”
Receiver Tyrie Cleveland was step for step with Pierce most of the way, blocking Israel Mukuamu from stopping the speedy sophomore. The fans in attendance wanted a holding flag thrown on Cleveland and expressed their sentiments as such loudly, for an extended period of time. But given that Mukauma didn’t attempt to move his body towards Pierce and instead just ran next to him, there was no penalty. instead, just a block that linebacker David Reese saw from the sideline as the key to the play.
“The thing I thought was most impressive was Tyrie Cleveland's block, all the way down the sideline. That just lets you know that, you know, it's a team sport and you know he had his back the whole way, and Tyrie got unbelievable speed and the [defensive back] couldn't come near Pierce the whole way, so that was kind of impressive.”
The Gators are tied with Memphis for a FBS leading, three touchdowns of 75+ yards this season.
The Gamecocks looked to be moving down field at a stead pace yet again but a well timed and perfectly executed corner blitz by CJ Henderson dropped South Carolina back and they had to settle for a field goal for one last lead at 20-17. But as the 4th quarter creeped over Williams Brice Stadium, the Gators took the game firmly in hand.
It began with a Tommy Townsend punt that Van Jefferson was able to down at the 2-yard line. After Amari Burney dropped into coverage and knocked a ball away, the Gamecocks were forced to punt deep from their own territory. It gave the Gators their best field position of the day to that point, at their own 48-yard line.
Running back Lamical Perine broke off a nine yard run to get things started, one of his 14 carries on the day for 68 yards. Florida racked up 154 rushing yards in all, their best rushing performance against a FBS opponent so far this season.
“We're getting there, you know what I mean,” posed Mullen.
“Obviously you want a little more consistency out of it, but we are hitting like explosive plays. I think just how people are playing us for those things it gives opportunities for explosive plays, in how they're defending the run and trying to bracket different receivers and take receivers away from you, that you end up getting explosive plays."
After Perine’s nine yard carry, the rain began again, a deluge that created a misty haze for anyone in the stadium trying to see the field. Luckily for the Gators, Kyle Trask did see it and on 3rd and 7, with five wide and pressure coming, Trask stepped up away from the rush and scampered down field for five yards. At 4th and 3, with the weather taking a bad turn and still down by three, Mullen elected to go for the conversion after getting the confident call from quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson.
Trask was flushed, danced and patiently waited for tight end Kyle Pitts to break from a defender and make the 9-yard catch. It was evidence of a maturation that Trask has made week to week since taking over for injured quarterback Feleipe Franks.
“Just with reps and experience, you just gel more, you know get better timing with the guys. We started clicking here in the second half and I think some of that showed,” explained Trask.
From the 25-yard line, Trask went right, waited on Freddie Swain to come back and hit him in the corner for a touchdown that gave the Gators their first lead of the day.
Recapped Swain, ”I just had a corner route and a shallow, and I just beat him and he played kind of inside, so I just kind of beat him on the corner and he just grabbed me and Kyle just like floated it behind me so I was able to pivot out and make a play on the ball.”
Florida would score on their next two drives as well to take a commanding lead. But it was thanks in large part to a defensive standing that was night and day different from the first half. The Gators defense gave up 387 yards to the Gamecocks in total (170 passing, 217 rushing), a performance that was due largely to pockets of explosive plays. But backed up in their own territory, Hilinski dropped back on a RPO and was met with Zach Carter who sacked the freshman quarterback and knocked the ball loose. Kyree Campbell recovered the fumble and Florida took back over at the USC 29-yard line.
“That’s what we build this defense on: fighting and never giving up and relentless effort,” bragged Carter.
The ensuing drive got clicking when Trask ran right on a naked bootleg, directing Jacob Copeland back for a completion that went 20-yards. Trask was then intercepted in the endzone, but a flag was thrown on Gamecocks Jaycee Horn for defensive pass interference. The play happened in the endzone shadowed by the student section, which let out a cacophony of boos and jeers. Replay showed that Horn clearly had a hand in Van Jefferson’s face mask, but that didn’t stop the students from beginning to throw towels (a fan tradition a la the Pittsburgh Steelers here in Columbia) down on the field with many even landing in the endzone. It was the wrong move.
“Oh I loved it,” cackled Trask.
“This is what you play for, just come into a hostile environment and take and earn everything that is on the field. I mean we love playing games like this and I’m really proud of how our guys came together there at the end and executed at a high level.”
Trask answered the boos with a swing to Pitts on the sideline. He stepped in for the touchdown and Trask—as an homage to Feleipe Franks in last years South Carolina game—shushed the student section.
“I had to do one for Franks right there,” laughed Trask.
Trey Dean (3 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 QB hurry), CJ Henderson and Mohamoud Diabate (1 tackle, 1 QB hurry) all made their presence felt on the following defensive drive and the Gators offense put up one more touchdown on the board for good measure, a 5-yard tunnel screen from Trask to Tre Grimes.
The Gamecocks scored a garbage time touchdown to make the board look more respectable. But as the rain continued with relentless effort, it was the Gators who walked off the field in Columbia last, sitting at 7-1, their only loss to a Top 3 team and with a much needed bye week in place before a Top 10 showdown with Georgia that will, by all indications, decide the SEC East.
Said Carter, “We always thinking about Georgia. It’s in the back of our mind. But we have a bye week, and then it’s finally here.
“That game means everything. We control our own destiny. So that game is another step towards the goal we want to accomplish.”