Special teams, defense lead Florida to 24-17 win over Ohio State in 2012 Gator Bowl

Offense was not the Florida Gators’ strong suit this season, but Florida (7-6) got just enough of it Monday to compliment a sterling effort from their special teams and defense en route to a 24-17 toppling of the Ohio State Buckeyes (6-7) in the 2012 Gator Bowl at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, FL.

The Gators and Buckeyes were tied at a touchdown apiece minutes into the second quarter until a kickoff return and punt block were each brought back for touchdowns to give UF a 21-10 lead and help the team pull out a much-needed victory to end a tough first season under first-year head coach Will Muschamp.

Florida started out at their own 40-yard-line after the opening kickoff fell out of bounds at the one. The Gators got two quick first downs before redshirt senior quarterback John Brantley was hit from behind and, after a review that overturned an incomplete pass, the loose ball was ruled a fumble and given to the Buckeyes. OSU moved down the field but consecutive sacks by UF sophomore defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd forced a punt.

The Gators took over on their own 20, and Brantley began leading his team down the field once again. On first-and-10 from the Buckeyes’ 22-yard-line, junior left tackle Xavier Nixon (knee) and Brantley (right forearm) both went down with injuries when the latter was sacked. Brantley would return to the game and two plays later threw a 17-yard strike on third down to redshirt senior wide receiver Deonte Thomspon for the first touchdown of the game.

Thompson’s reception was questioned by Ohio State head coach Luke Fickell as it appeared the ball came loose when he hit the ground, but Florida got on the field to kick the extra point before he could call a timeout to force a review.

A review wound up being called on the ensuing possession when OSU running back Dan Herron fumbled the ball on first down. UF recovered and won the challenge but coughed it back up to the Buckeyes just two plays later when Brantley mishandled a snap.

Ohio State took advantage of the miscue by tying the game. QB Braxton Miller, who did not attempt a pass in the first quarter, completed three throws for 41 yards as part of an eight-play, 72-yard drive that ended in a touchdown with 11:25 left in the first half.

Florida responded even quicker as redshirt sophomore wide receiver Andre Debose returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, going down the field untouched and putting his team ahead 14-7 while setting a school record for longest play in a bowl game and a Gator Bowl record for longest play. He was named the contest’s Most Valuable Player after the game.

Two possessions later, the Gators were stopped for a three-and-out, but a shanked punt by freshman Kyle Christy allowed the Buckeyes to take over at midfield. After gaining two first downs, Miller was sacked for an 11-yard loss as redshirt senior DT Jaye Howard broke through the offensive line. OSU kicked a 47-yard field goal to reduce their deficit, heading into the half down four.

Forcing Ohio State to punt on their first possession of the second half, Florida had both redshirt senior RB Chris Rainey and sophomore WR Solomon Patton break through the formation. The former blocked the punt, which was picked up by freshman linebacker Graham Stewart and returned it 14 yards for a touchdown. It was the sixth blocked punt of Rainey’s career, setting a SEC record.

The Gators got another defensive stop and began moving the ball once again until Brantley’s third down pass was intercepted by LB Tyler Moller at Florida’s 47-yard-line. However, just three plays later, Miller completed a pass to Posey that was quickly fumbled (forced by freshman cornerback Louchiez Purifoy), recovered by UF, fumbled again and picked up by junior safety Josh Evans.

Brantley made up for his pick with a great 32-yard pass to redshirt junior TE Omarius Hines on his next play, starting the Gators off on a eight-play, 53-yard drive that stalled a half-yard short of the end zone. Redshirt junior kicker Caleb Sturigs netted a 17-yard field goal to provide Florida with a two-touchdown advantage.

Though the Gators stifled the Buckeyes’ offense much of the second half, Miller led Ohio State on a seven-play, 88-yard drive in just 2:08 that ended in an 11-yard touchdown pass to WR Jordan Hall, who made several players miss on his way to the end zone.

Florida, however, recovered the onside kick and kneeled the ball to end the game and earn the hard-fought victory.

Brantley finished his final contest in orange and blue 12/16 for 132 yards with a touchdown, interception and two fumbles. Rainey had team-highs in carries (16), rushing yards (71) and receptions (three) while also coming through with the game-changing punt. Thompson’s touchdown was his first of the season, and Demps was also efficient with eight touches for 34 yards.

Miller was also quite efficient, going 18/24 for 162 yards in the air and two scores; he also carried the ball 15 times for 20 yards, losing a lot of ground due to the number of times he was sacked.

OSU outgained UF 299-263, passing and rushing for more yards, but was held to just 2-of-10 on third down conversion attempts. The Buckeyes also forced one more turnover (3-2) than the Gators and held the ball for slightly under five minutes longer. Florida, however, converted 50 percent of their third downs (6-of-12) and scored twice on drives of one play or fewer.

The Gators avoided a losing season but handed the Buckeyes their first seven-loss campaign since 1897. Florida now has 24-straight winning seasons and 32 consecutive years ending with a record at or above .500, two accomplishments which lead the country. UF also posted four-straight bowl wins for the first time in school history.

Ohio State is now 0-10 all-time against SEC teams in bowl games due to a victory in 2010 being vacated. The Gators also improved to 2-0 all-time against the Buckeyes with their last victory coming 41-14 in the 2007 BCS National Championship.

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