Miscues, penalties and questionable coaching decisions doomed the Florida Gators, which failed to take advantage of a career-high four interceptions and career-low 125 yards thrown by No. 3 Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston and ultimately fell 24-19 on Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Florida.
Florida State (12-0) won its 28th consecutive game, going undefeated in back-to-back regular seasons for the first time in school history; the Seminoles will next play in the ACC Championship Game and then possibly the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Florida (6-5), which is bowl-eligible for the first time since 2012, will play in its postseason game without head coach Will Muschamp, who was dismissed two weeks ago and coached his last game with the Gators on Saturday.
Florida opened the game by scoring nine-straight points on a trio of field goals.
FSU got a second chance on its opening possession after going three-and-out, but Gators senior safety Jabari Gorman intercepted Winston on the very next play. UF was unable to move the ball, however, and redshirt sophomore kicker Austin Hardin connected on a career-long 52-yard field goal.
A second Winston interception – this one picked off by freshman cornerback Quincy Wilson at midfield – also resulted in a field goal for Florida, which settled for a 39-yard kick off the foot of Hardin to take a 6-0 lead. When the Gators next touched the ball, freshman QB Treon Harris connected with freshman running back Brandon Powell 42 yards down the field, and Hardin came on three plays later to convert a 43-yard field goal.
Florida looked poised to poor it on Florida State moments later as the Seminoles downed the ensuing kickoff inside their own five-yard line. Backed up against his own end zone, Winston threw a third interception – grabbed by redshirt sophomore defensive back Brian Poole – and the Gators suddenly had the ball inside the FSU 10. Rather than take advantage of the opportunity, UF threw on first down and Harris’s pass was bobbled by senior tight end Tevin Westbrook; it was intercepted by Terrance Smith, who returned it 94 yards down the field for a touchdown.
A huge punt down to Florida State’s seven-yard line by Florida senior punter Kyle Christy once again backed the home team up, but FSU responded with a 12-play, 93-yard touchdown drive lasting 5:03. Karlos Williams gained 27 yards on a run, and Winston completed passes of 29 yards to Rashad Greene and 10 yards to Nick O’Leary, who hauled in the score.
Harris tried to go deep on the next drive but was intercepted by Lamarcus Brutus at the Seminoles’ 20-yard line. FSU responded with another huge drive – 8 plays, 83 yards – and found the end zone on another Winston touchdown pass to O’Leary. During the drive, Gators freshman defensive lineman Gerald Willis was penalized for a late hit on Winston; Willis was standing on the sideline when Winston ran out of bounds, and the player was subsequently sent to the locker room by his own team.
Florida looked poised to run out the clock and end the half, but Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher called a timeout to get his team the ball back. FSU was unable to gain a first down, however, and punted, only for its punter to fumble the ball and allow UF to take over possession with 53 seconds until the break. On the next play, Harris hit senior Clay Burton on a wheel route, and the tight end hauled in his first career touchdown.
Redshirt senior kick returner Andre Debose brought back the opening kick to Florida’s 40-yard line, jump-starting a scoring drive for UF. The Gators achieved three first downs due in large part to Harris but ultimately stalled, settling for a 32-yard field goal that cut their deficit to 21-19.
Florida two other scoring opportunities negated due to mistakes and bad plays. The second chance came after Florida State made some big gains down the field but turned the ball over as Winston tossed his career-high fourth interception of the game; Poole nabbed the ball with one hand and returned it 27 yards. The Gators got pushed back as junior wide receiver Latroy Pittman got called for holding and unsportsmanlike conduct (for which he was flummoxed) on the same play, but Harris still found a way to get UF into field goal range with his legs. Hardin came on to attempt his second 52-yard field goal of the game, a potential go-ahead try, but missed wide right.
Stalling after moving the ball out past midfield on their next possession, the Seminoles decided to run a fake punt that was ultimately snuffed out by Gators freshman linebacker Alex Anzalone. Harris completed a 41-yard pass to sophomore WR Demarcus Robinson with Florida continuing its drive at the Florida State 25-yard line. UF was unable to make any gains from there, and Hardin missed a 42-yard field goal to keep FSU in the lead with 9:42 to play.
Aided on by more Gators miscues, the Noles increased their lead to five on a 37-yard field goal by Robert Aguayo, giving the ball back to Florida up 24-19 with 3:25 remaining in the contest.
The Gators had one last chance to score on the ensuing possession and converted one fourth down thanks to a pass interference penalty but ultimately stalled at midfield and turned the ball over to the home team on downs.
Photo Credit: Associated Press