Image Credit: ESPNI
Florida Gators bounced back from a tough loss with a great defensive performance, holding the South Carolina Gamecocks for three-plus quarters on the way to a 20- 7 victory on Senior Day at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida.
The Gators were unable to clinch the SEC East on Saturday as Tennessee beat Kentucky, so Florida will enter its final SEC game of the season next week in a must-win scenario in order to win the division and advance to the SEC Championship Game for the second straight year under head coach Jim McElwain.
Here are four things we learned from the Gators’ win on Saturday.
1. Creativity is the key: McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier dialed up a solid offensive game plan on Saturday. Florida employed zone reads, screens, reverses and more in order to get the ball in the hands of its playmakers. Seven different players caught passes, and though none of them had massive games, they were all quite productive. The opposite goes for sophomore running back Jordan Scarlett, who was rightly given the lion’s share of carries (20) and piled up 134 yards on the afternoon. While UF continues to deal with quarterbacking problems, its goal needs to be to let the playmakers do their thing. That has not truly happened this season until Saturday — and it paid off.
2. Temporary answer at quarterback? Graduate transfer Austin Appleby remains a flawed player, but he looked quite good on Saturday by completing 17-of-21 passes for 201 yards with two touchdowns (one beautifully thrown ball) and an interception. The first touchdown came on the game opening series, marking just the second time UF scored to start a game (Appleby at Tennessee). Appleby, who had a 33-yard run on a zone read, also fumbled a snap in the red zone, but it was not necessarily a good one from Florida’s third-string center (more on that in a bit). Appleby made good, strong throws and got rid of the ball when in trouble (one intentional grounding penalty). While his pick was not a great throw, it was also deflected off a fingertip and the result of an athletic grab. In other words, he played very well and allowed the Gators to take a lead — which would’ve been even bigger if not for a number of other offensive miscues.
3. Defense got it done: Florida held South Carolina to 104 yards in the first half, outgaining the visitors by 80 yards in the running game alone over the first 20 minutes. The Gators wound up forcing two turnovers in the contest — a fumble and interception of Gamecocks freshman QB Jake Bentley — but did not convert them into any points. South Carolina was just 3-of-3 on third down (1-of-2 on fourth) and amassed just 43 rushing yards in the game. Though Florida was without three starters entering the game and lost a fourth early (more on that later), it was still dominant. Freshman linebacker David Reese led with 11 tackles, while senior defensive lineman Joey Ivie got two sacks, three QB hurries and a forced fumble. Redshirt sophomore DL Taven Bryan recovered his own forced fumble, and redshirt junior defensive back Marcell Harris registered a big tackle for loss and interception on consecutive plays in the second half.
4. Injuries are really hurting: Florida began the game without five starters (quarterback, center, defensive end, both linebackers), lost three more in the first quarter and another later in the game. Sophomore Tyler Jordan, starting the game as the replacement at center, was injured on the first offensive play and did not return. Senior safety Marcus Maye hurt his shoulder on the third defensive series, got carted to the back and appeared in a sling on the sideline. Junior left tackle David Sharpe hurt his leg on the third offensive series of the game, limped badly to the sideline and never returned. Early in the third quarter, redshirt senior Bryan Cox Jr. suffered a lower leg injury and did not return. That makes nine starters sidelined for the Gators on Saturday alone, though the status of the four new injured players should be updated later.
5. Miscues a continued problem: Florida didn’t just commit 10 penalties for 80 yards, a couple of those during important plays, such as a long punt return touchdown by sophomore wide receiver Antonio Callaway that was called back and led to an interception on the next play from scrimmage. There was also a pass interference call that aided South Carolina’s lone scoring drive of the game, and a targeting on senior WR Chris Thompson that reduced the impact of an incredible punt by redshirt junior Johnny Townsend. Outside of penalties, the Gators coughed up the ball three times on the Gamecocks’ side of the field, missing three separate scoring opportunities. Junior RB Mark Thompson, getting an early carry for no good reason whatsoever, fumbled just outside the red zone as UF was rolling. Appleby fumbled a snap at the five-yard line and threw the aforementioned pick.
6. Kicking is winning: Florida ended up not needing the two field goals from redshirt sophomore kicker Eddy Pineiro but that doesn’t make them any less important. Pineiro connected from 36 and 54 yards out (his fifth field goal of 49+ yards this season) to ensure that otherwise-quality drives were not all for naught due to not finding the end zone. Though Pineiro has not been put in a game-winning or game-changing field goal position yet this season, his ability gives the Gators a lot of needed confidence — both on offense and overall — that could very well help Florida if it gets into a tight game, such as next week, perhaps?