Florida vs. South Carolina, Rapid Recap: Special teams, little things fuel big win

Chris Trotman

A punter shall lead them? Sure. But Florida's dominance is based on getting all the little things right.

Florida defeated South Carolina, 44-11, on Saturday. You can relive the game through our Game Thread. We'll look back at the game in at multiple parts: The Rapid Recap, our first look before a second viewing, comes first.

If that wasn't Championship Mode, it was close.

How Florida Won

The final fumble of the first half. Solomon Patton giving Damiere Byrd a death hug made the ball come free; Chris "Juice" Johnson almost housing the ball thwarted South Carolina's chance of making anything but a miracle comeback.

Outstanding

Florida's special teams play. Two forced fumbles (salute to Trey Burton and Patton) turned into two touchdowns. A Jordan Reed return of an onside kick set up another touchdown. Andre Debose set up two more scoring drives with long returns, and saved a lot of yardage by fair catching a bunch of punts. Florida blocked another South Carolina field goal. Caleb Sturgis made a 42-yard field goal look like a chip shot. The only mistakes that were made by Gators in special teams on the day were allowing an extra point to be blocked and returned (though, to be fair, Sturgis did give chase for 50 yards on that play, and his whiff on a dive at Victor Hampton's laces was a moment of levity) and a bone-headed covering of the blocked field goal by Earl Okine that cost the Gators 18 yards of field position for no reason.

More importantly: Holy shit, Kyle Christy is the best punter I have ever seen suit up for Florida. I realize this is sacrilege, given that I saw Chas Henry play, but Christy averaged 54.3 yards per punt on seven punts on Saturday, topping his career high for average by more than five yards per punt and besting his career high for long punt with a 62-yard boot. He's going to be leading the nation in punting average when the NCAA releases updated stats on Sunday. He flipped the field from the Florida 18 to the South Carolina 25, the Florida 14 to the South Carolina 35, the Florida 8 to the South Carolina 26, and from the Florida 41 into the end zone for a touchback ... because no one was at the spot on the South Carolina 1 where it landed when it landed there. He's made up for any error the offense has made in recent weeks, and having him booting the ball has to be a huge comfort to both Brent Pease, whose offense can take more chances on long downs and pass up marginal gains, and Will Muschamp, whose defense is virtually never backed up.

For this reason, I tried to start a "KY-LE CHRIS-TY (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap)" chant for him about four times. None of them stuck. But with Wuerffel as my witness, there will be a KY-LE CHRIS-TY chant at The Swamp before year's end.

Jeff Driskel's accuracy. Driskel put throw after throw where it needed to be on Saturday. The first touchdown pass to Reed was rifled low and inside where Reed could shield it; the "touchdown pass" to Omarius Hines was perfect; the touchdown pass to Quinton Dunbar was high, where only Dunbar could elevate to get it; another back-shoulder throw to Dunbar was a thing of beauty; the second touchdown pass to Reed was weighted beautifully to get over the line; the pass to Reed in the middle screen was beautifully weighted to get over the rush and right to his hands. Driskel's still got room to get a lot better at reading defenses and making quick decisions, but a first-time starter sophomore quarterback who completes about 70 percent of his throws and never throws picks and has the mobility to move the pocket and get upfield is better than my rosiest hopes for Driskel had him becoming in 2012.

Defensive line. The Gators go legitimately eight deep on the line, with every starter (Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley, Omar Hunter, and Lerentee McCray) having a capable backup behind him (Leon Orr, Jonathan Bullard, Damien Jacobs, and Dante Fowler) to bring the same intensity while spelling the more seasoned starter. Fowler, in particular, seemed like a monster-to-be, discarding his man a few times and recording his first collegiate sack, but Easley was as near his 2011 peak as he's been since, Floyd is maintaining a level of play that will make him a first-round pick next year, and Orr's been one of the finest surprises of the season. The four sacks were nice spoils of war, but neither Connor Shaw nor Dylan Thompson had time to set and throw until the fourth quarter, when Muschamp and Dan Quinn called off the dogs.

Remember when Florida was going to miss Ronald Powell? Right.

Jelani Jenkins. Jenkins had a sack and a leaping pick with a cast on his hand. I will probably never doubt Jelani Jenkins again, because he's clearly Superman.

Red zone performance. Last week:

Florida ran 13 plays in the red zone; three went for more than one yard. Three of the four red zone trips featured at least one penalty. Florida fumbled at the Vandy 1 and somehow got the ball back. Gillislee had a touchdown wiped out by a penalty. Florida's best plays in the red zone were Driskel running in his second touchdown of the night and a Vandy pass interference. Sturgis' three field goals all came from less than 30 yards. This was only non-fatal because the other team was Vanderbilt.

This week: Florida converted six red zone trips for six touchdowns. You don't get better than that.

Turnover margin. Florida forced four turnovers, and it probably should have forced five (Purifoy popped another ball out on a kickoff, but seemed completely unaware that he had forced a fumble until everyone else was). Florida committed no turnovers. Florida is now 11 turnovers to the good in 2012, and rubbing elbows with Alabama and Kansas State in the top 10 nationally in that category.

The Swamp. I think Florida fans can't top the insanity that accompanies a game against Alabama or Florida State, or the LSU showdown that seemed like a reclaiming of turf, and then they roar on defensive downs well into the fourth quarter of a game that was long over and stay minus several hundred for the last seconds of a seismic win. The fifth-largest crowd in the history of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium acquitted Gator Nation well yesterday.

Encouraging

Florida may have a couple of receivers. Dunbar's shiftiness turned into a touchdown again on Saturday, as he spun out of a tackle and scrambled to six. But Hines was the biggest revelation, making a sensational catch on a play that made SportsCenter's Top 10 despite being erased due to a penalty. Frankie Hammond has slipped in my estimation, but he's solid if and when Florida decides it wants to go to him. And the Gators even targeted Debose on a deep route, a "MY STARS AND GARTERS" moment for me in the stands. There's probably a significant chance of a no-show by the receiving corps next week, but it's a chance and not a certainty; that alone is a big upgrade from 2011.

Trey Burton. He's probably destined to be the most contentious player to wear the orange and blue of the Late Meyer/Early Muschamp Period, because one side of the line that divides diehards has him as a potent playmaker and the other sees a player who is a jack of all trades and a master at none. The truth, I think, combines the two: Burton can reliably follow blocks for four yards on an option run out of the shotgun and either wriggle or bull for a yard that moves the chains, a sort of low-key playmaking that is not nearly as flashy as the long runs he'll sometimes break or the fluke touchdown flurry against Kentucky as a freshman.

Anyone who still wants to see Trey throw has forgotten how ponderous his throws are, but he's a perfectly useful Swiss Army Football Player, and he both covers for some weaknesses Florida has (you will note that Pease leans on him to get first downs come third down because the up-the-gut play is not automatic) and forces defenses to scheme for a headache because he can fill so many roles.

I've come to terms with liking Trey Burton the football player, and I can (mostly) ignore everything else as long as he at least stays this good for the rest of his career. I recommend making your own peace with him, too.

Brent Pease is a wizard. Florida had 29 yards in the first half, committed several back-breaking penalties, and was as helpless as a two-year-old in a lion's cage when it came to protecting Driskel from Jadeveon Clowney. No matter: Pease found a way to make good on phenomenal field position even when Mike Gillislee and the running game couldn't get unstuck, called the exact right play for a touchdown that was called back for a bad block by Gilly, and generally made an offense that has its fair share of chicken shit look like chicken cordon bleu all day. Muschamp was asked this week how one could stop Pease's offense, and he basically said it was hard and that he might not be able to. That's high praise, in my book.

Here's more high praise: Pease is the smartest offensive mind to be in charge of the Gators' point-scoring personnel since the guy who was on the other sideline on Saturday.

The secondary. Matt Elam rules, Marcus Roberson's improving, Jaylen Watkins made one bad play based on drifting too far, Josh Evans is blossoming, Purifoy's the most physical player, pound-for-pound, on Florida's roster, and De'Ante Saunders is like a miniature Elam (cover skills and flexibility) mixed with Ahmad Black (playmaking). Two quarterbacks failed to complete half of their passes against the No-Fly Guys with Steve Spurrier's plays on Saturday, and there's still plenty of room for them to improve, too.

Jordan Reed. Reed runs well, but in a sense that Florida tight ends haven't in a long while, mostly because we got hooked on an archetype that existed in Gainesville before the NFL decided tight ends were cool: Aaron Walker, Ben Troupe, Cornelius Ingram, and Aaron Hernandez were all receivers first and blockers second, but ran with grace and fluidity, and I'd peg Troupe, Ingram, and Hernandez as among the five best athletes on their respective Florida teams. Reed could be a top-five athlete in his own right, but he rumbles, chugs, and looks more like a bear than a panther, more likely to run you over than slip by you. But he did elude some tacklers on the great middle screen, proving that's in his arsenal, to go with hands and size that made him the no-doubter target on the two goal line touchdown throws Driskel made, and he's still about as new to the position as Will Muschamp is to head coaching.

I would have put Reed in Outstanding, but he failed to score on that kick return; he does merit special commendation for telling a reporter later "I thought I had it, but Ace Sanders is fast, man."

Both Good and Bad

The running game grinds, if slowly. Florida had 89 rushing yards, which, okay, sure, whatever, but it took 48 carries to get them. After two straight games with no losses of yardage, Gillislee lost yardage on his first carry and four more; Driskel was in negative yardage as a runner after sacks. The big play of the day was a 14-yard end-around by Patton. But Pease sticks to it, and the offense gains yards, and there's no shortage of people who can tote the rock. It ain't pretty, but Florida makes the other team look even worse by trampling it into the dirt.

Needs Improvement

Big plays. Florida hit just one play of more than 20 yards a week after going without a play of 20 or more yards for the first time in seven years, and though the Gators get credit for throwing deep three times (and, frankly, should have had at least one of those three work out), the lack of big plays is a bad thing if this team should ever find itself in a shootout. You don't want to be flipping to a page of the playbook that still has its laminate fully intact when down 14 in the third quarter.

Pass protection early in games. Purely a hunch, but I think Pease and Tim Davis don't really know what they're going to get up front until the second quarter or so, and so Driskel takes a few sacks and the running game looks bad for about 15 minutes each week. That hasn't been catastrophic yet, because Driskel knows how to take a sack without making it a turnover, bizarre failure to do that against LSU aside, and because Christy can just boom a punt and erase the mistake eventually, but Florida should see Jarvis Jones, will see Florida State's strip-sack brigade, and could see Alabama before the end of the calendar year. There's still time to die by taking too long to figure that out.

Florida's fourth quarter defense. Florida allowed three points in the fourth quarter. What's more, it played zone coverage in the secondary. Tighten up, boys.

Embarrassing

Penalties. Florida continues to rack up exotic ones (add "roughing the snapper," "illegal cut block," and "blocking out of bounds" to the pile, though that last one was by Stephen Alli on a punt return and resulted in South Carolina's table of Gatorade being upended, which may have been crucial in terms of the hydration battle) that are also essentially dumb ones, and Florida fans continue to chant "BULLSHIT" very well, and the penalties keep on being big (in just the first quarter, penalty by penalty: extended a field goal drive by wiping out a punt; extended same drive by eliminating a third down; wiped out the prettiest touchdown pass of the year), and it still feels like we get screwed more often than the other team does. At least Muschamp gave us the glory that is #OVERCOMETHEADVERSITY for our troubles.

The Wave. I will never do The Wave at a sporting event for as long as I live, but it's a lot later than I thought it would be now that I'm finishing this up, so I'll just make this quick: The Wave is done by people who want to prove that they can pay no attention to anything but themselves as part of a crowd, people who think that thousands of people doing a very simple thing in unison looks cool, and people who need an excuse to cheer for something at a sporting event. If you go to a sporting event and are bored enough to resort to starting The Wave, I think there is something very wrong with how you choose to watch sports, and I challenge you to think deeply about where your life went wrong.

That's what I saw. What'd you see? I'll be in the comments all day.

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