Florida vs. South Carolina score, takeaways: Gators rally behind Graham Mertz, buck road trends

By OnlyGators.com Staff
October 14, 2023
Florida vs. South Carolina score, takeaways: Gators rally behind Graham Mertz, buck road trends

Image Credit: Maddie Washburn, UAA

Saturday seemed to be going the way so many Florida Gators games have over the last few seasons — particularly those on the road — with hopes of success fading and mistakes mounting as the clock ticks away. That inevitability did not come to pass, though, as a combination of top-notch playing form redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz and a bit of luck sent Florida to a 41-39 win over the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Mertz completed 30 of 48 passes for a career-high 423 yards and three touchdowns, none more important than his final connection to senior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall for a 21-yard go-ahead touchdown with 47 seconds remaining.

The respective 2023 and 2022 transfer portal acquisitions were undoubtedly the stars of the day for a Gators team that badly needed playmaking talent to step up as a bit of a track meet emerged at Williams-Bryce Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina.

Florida’s road struggles under head coach Billy Napier are not necessarily put to bed, but his program did prove it can be a tough game outside of the friendly confines of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. And that victory puts the Gators at 5-2 entering the bye week, exactly where they needed to be before the second half of their season commences.

“We’ve struggled on the road. Certainly tonight was one heck of a football game. I do think some of the toughness that we’ve built, some of the resolve that we’ve built, the relationships. This group has done nothing but get closer,” Napier said after the game. “[The struggles have] almost galvanized the group. We came here today to prove something. What a way to win a. football game. … I’m just really proud of the team’s resolve.”

Let’s take a look at what went right — and wrong — for Florida on Saturday afternoon.

The Graham Mertz Rises

Entering the 2023 campaign, it was commonplace for preseason analysis of the Gators to include some form of concern about Mertz as the starting quarterback. He’d done everything in his power to prove those doubters wrong and make them look foolish.

While Mertz continues to take too many sacks and will perhaps play it safe far too often, he has an almost shockingly efficient passer for Florida. Mertz is completing 76.2% of his throws this season with his 62.5% mark Saturday actually being a season-low mark. He has set two career-highs in passing this season — both times on the road (Week 1 at Utah) — and has thrown six touchdowns without an interception over the last two games.

Mertz’s .762 completion rate and 12-2 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions are career-bests by substantial margins. While the Gators do not throw it down the field much, he is getting the ball to the right players — often in space — and frequently avoiding disastrous mistakes that could crush a team without much margin for error. On Saturday, he completed three key fourth-down conversions.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of Graham Mertz,” Napier said. “… The leadership he showed. And man, what a competitor. Are you kidding me? That was incredible. Kid’s got grit, man. He’s what University of Florida football should be.”

Pearsall caught a career-high 10 passes for a career-high 166 yards. Redshirt freshman tight end Arlis Boardingham (five receptions, 55 yards) caught a touchdown for the second straight game — tip drill style on a tough pass from Mertz — as he continues to emerge as a breakout performer. Freshman WR Eugene Wilson III caught one of only three incomplete passes to Pearsall for 22 yards in similar tip-drill style to set up Pearsall’s game-winning score. All of that came after Pearsall converted a fourth-and-10 for 26 yards earlier in the drive.

In total, eight players hauled in balls from Mertz as part of a surprisingly pass-heavy game plan against a Gamecocks defense that has struggled to stop the run this season. It’s fair to question Napier’s play calling in that regard, but at the end of the day, Mertz delivered all game and rallied Florida when it counted the most — late in the fourth quarter.

“Graham Mertz, in particular, you can’t help but respect the competitive spirit of the kid. The toughness. The decision making. He was fantastic. Never flinched,” Napier said. “… This is a man that came here on a mission and had a plan. He’s a product of his work. For him to operate the way he does in our system in the first year, the level of comprehension, the high-level decision making that’s happening out there, I can’t tell you how impressed I am with the kid.”

Bucking the trends

Entering the game Saturday, the Gators under Napier were …

  • 1-7 away from home (1-14 including the prior regime)
  • 1-9 when tied or trailing with 14:55 to play
  • 1-6 when being outrushed
  • 0-3 when allowing 300+ yards passing
  • 0-2 when gaining less than 100 yards rushing
  • 3-9 when allowing 21+ points

All of those trends were overcome as Florida battled back from a 10-point deficit with 9:11 remaining to outscore South Carolina 14-2. (The lone safety was purposefully taken with the Gators up four.)

Napier had been down on the Gators’ practice habits the prior three weeks but was shockingly effusive praising them for their preparation this week. He also spoke about making quality control changes to the road schedule, including Florida arriving earlier in Columbia and getting more sleep during the week. (Undoubtedly, the 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff made a difference, too.)

“This group of players is special. We had our best week of practice. We’re growing up,” Napier said after the game. “… They never gave up on each other. … Can you believe we get paid to do this?! … We’re building something. Better days are ahead.”

Game management … praise?

It may have taken 19 in-season weeks worth of criticism, but Napier undoubtedly did his best work in his most important role of managing the game on Saturday. And where he truly shined just so happened to be in the most crucial period: at the end of each half. If he handling these key situations as he previously did, it may have ultimately have cost the Gators this win; instead, his decisions and Florida’s execution in major moments directly led to the victory.

Tied at 21 late in the first half, Napier called a timeout with South Carolina on third down. Gamecocks QB Spencer Rattler was sacked on the ensuing play, and a shanked punt gave the ball back to the Gators at their 45-yard line with 1:24 remaining. Though the drive was not executed to perfection – after two long gains, Florida false started on third down – it nevertheless added a 28-yard field goal from sophomore kicker Trey Smack to take a 24-21 lead into halftime.

(So often previously, Napier would have been fine with calling a couple runs and letting the clock run out to sit tied at the break despite the fact that South Carolina was getting the ball to start the second half. His growth here should not be overlooked, but we must see if it’s a one-off occurrence or a start of a trend.)

And then, with Florida trailing in the fourth quarter, Napier was appropriately aggressive on both scoring drives. That trust given to his players undoubtedly played a role in their execution. Mertz, Pearsall, Boardingham and Wilson were all exceptional down the stretch, and while the offensive line had its struggles throughout the game with Mertz taking an unnecessary pounding, it did just enough in pass protection those final two drives to help the Gators toward their win.

It wasn’t all sunshine

No damper is being put on this victory, but it would not be appropriate to close the door on Saturday’s game without pointing out some significant problems that arose, namely on defense and at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

Endless explosives: Stopping South Carolina WR Xavier Legette was always going to be problematic, but redshirt junior cornerback Jalen Kimber failed … and failed … and failed in his attempts. It started with a pass interference penalty on the ‘Cocks opening series; one play later, they ran for 30 yards and ended the drive with a touchdown. Before the first quarter was out, Kimber allowed a 45-yard reception. And then in the third quarter, he gave up a 46-yard reception. The results of those three drives: 17 combined points. (Legette finished with 110 yards.) He was not alone, though. Beyond the long run given up by the entire defense came a 41-yard pass on the first play of another touchdown drive for South Carolina in the second quarter. That also resulted in a touchdown.

Teaching tackling: Apparently, that did not happen this week. Missed tackles by Florida’s defense were a dime a dozen — and they happened at all three levels — including multiple times in the offensive backfield for would-be sacks and runs for lost yardage. Freshman safety Jordan Castell, at one point, got straight run over. On other occasions, the ‘Cocks broke tackles for third-down conversions. The Gators defense looked like a sieve at times Saturday, and its inability to wrap up playmakers and take them to a ground was a significant reason. Florida fell back into its old ways on third down, allowing 5 of 10 tries to be converted.

Painful penalties: Beyond the aforementioned DPI, redshirt senior offensive lineman Lyndell Hudson II committed a rough false start on third down during the final drive of the first half that ultimately stalled in a field goal as the Gators were unable to convert 15 yards. Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Caleb Banks also committed roughing the passer on what would have been a drive-ending stop in the fourth quarter. (Luckily, Florida was able to get that stop on the next series.) Don’t get it twisted: The road discipline was much better than usual for UF. But these back-breaking miscues could have made the difference in the game.

Concerning calls: While Napier was largely solid with his offensive decisions Saturday, he was far from perfect. Florida had first-and-5 at South Carolina’s 32-yard line in the first half but ran short plays (that all failed) trying to get the first down rather than extending the field toward the end zone; UF settled for a field goal. To start the second quarter, Napier called 10 passes and no rushes on a drive that similarly stalled with a field goal. And then in the third quarter, he thought the best way to capitalize on 39 yards gained by Wilson was to use an extremely slow-developing trick play. That failed and … you guessed it … Florida settled for a field goal. (While players were open for Mertz, the timing was so poor that he had nowhere near enough time to execute it, which means the play call was not solid from the jump.)

That decision reminded of the wide receiver pass called last week, which was the wrong play at the wrong time and resulted in an interception. None of this is to say that Napier should be vanilla and not take risks. But when the offense is moving the ball at will and does not need a spark, that’s absolutely the wrong time to pull out the appendix of the playbook. Talented play callers know when to execute such gadgets, and it’s just another example of the responsibility being too much for the head coach to handle.

Offensive line play: It looked like the Gators were posed to bully the hosts up front on both sides of the ball except that never came to pass. Florida’s offensive line was relatively atrocious, allowing four sacks with Mertz drilled seven times in the game. It was only average in the running game, too, often letting defenders through the line before plays could even develop. That same unit was also largely responsible for a blocked field in the fourth quarter, the only miss for Smack to this point in 2023. On the play prior to the blocked kick, Mertz got no time in the pocket as he was sacked on a critical third-and-5 play at the ‘Cocks’ 25. Defensively, the Gators struggled to get to Rattler only managing one sack in the game. They also allowed him to scramble for 46 yards and allowed 98 yards to Mario Anderson on the ground.

Additional bright spots

  • Redshirt sophomore WR Kahleil Jackson made a tremendous 45-yard catch falling to the grass in the second quarter … he caught a 7-yard TD a couple plays later.
  • Boardingham converted a fourth-and-11 catching the ball 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage … that came one play before his tip-drill score.
  • Running backs junior Montrell Johnson Jr. and sophomore Trevor Etienne combined for 99 yards … Etienne had a brilliant 28-yard run, scored a touchdown and completed a 2-point conversion pass to redshirt freshman TE Hayden Hansen.
  • Sophomore Miguel Mitchell grabbed his first interception of the season to basically ice the game.

Odds & ends

Florida improved to 31-10-3 all-time against South Carolina with a 13-8-2 edge in Columbia … the Gators have won five of the last six and eight of the last 10 meetings since 2015 … Florida under Napier is 10-0 when leading after the third quarter … UF improved to 35-11 against unranked opponents since 2018 … the Gators have scored in 443 consecutive games, an NCAA record

What it means

Sitting 5-2 entering the bye week, Florida succeeded in hitting its expected performance marker even if it did not get there through the path most expected. The primary goal for the Gators this season was not to win the College Football Playoff or even the SEC East but rather to show improvement in key areas from a year ago. In some ways, they have not done that yet. In others, such as Saturday’s road win, they undoubtedly have.

Florida was 4-3 entering the bye last season albeit against a slightly more difficult schedule. It split the Utah and Tennessee games (winning at home, losing on the road) and fell to Kentucky just the same. However, this Gators team is younger, without a top-five NFL quarterback and one that lost some of its best players along the offensive line to the transfer portal.

Holding a 6-1 record would have been the ceiling for Florida at this point with 4-3 (and Napier falling to 1-8 away from home) a disastrous floor from which it would have been tough for the Gators to rise over the duration of the season. The schedule only gets harder from here. Florida enters it in as good a position as it could have hoped given the obstacles it is facing this season.

What’s next?

Rest. The Gators will take a couple days off before beginning to prepare for perhaps their toughest game of the season as Florida meets No. 1 Georgia on Saturday, Oct. 28 at 3:30 p.m. in a game that will air live nationally on CBS.

Join The

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

WordPress Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux