As had become custom over his time in Gainesville, Florida started on defense against Will Muschamp and South Carolina on Saturday.
And as was also custom, the Florida defense set the tone with a three-and-out.
Almost everything that happened from there on Senior Day — from the first-possession touchdown drive to the riding of Jordan Scarlett to the emergence of Ahmad Fulwood to steely play by an injury-ravaged defense — was a bit less familiar.
But, then, so is Florida winning with Muschamp on a sideline in Gainesville.
The Gators’ 20-7 win was a closer-than-it-should-have-been triumph, true, and largely because of Florida’s own doing. Florida committed three first-half turnovers, with Mark Thompson and Austin Appleby coughing up fumbles in the red zone and Appleby chucking a ball that was tipped for a pick right before halftime. Antonio Callaway had a punt return touchdown called back for a questionable holding call immediately prior to Appleby’s interception, and a drop on what should have been a touchdown pass to end one of the two other Florida drives that entered the Gamecocks’ territory and culminated in field goals, rather than touchdowns.
This was less the clean, definitive Gators domination that largely preceded Muschamp, and more the sort of constrictive control that has marked some of the best wins during his tenure.
But it had flashes of the still-coming future under Jim McElwain, whose offense had one of its better days between the 20s.
The Gators racked up 374 yards on just 56 plays, and averaged nearly 10 yards per play in the first half. Jordan Scarlett ran for 134 yards, a career high, and finally spent a game as Florida’s featured back after Thompson’s fumble and Lamical Perine’s ineffectiveness. Appleby threw for 201 yards and ran for another 34, breaking a 33-yard run that helped lead to the Gators’ first touchdown. Five Florida players had 20 or more receiving yards, each one recording a reception of at least 12 yards.
Florida’s defense, meanwhile, was Florida’s defense. It yielded 256 yards, most of them late in the game to Jake Bentley, who completed 10 of his final 11 passes. South Carolina mustered just 43 yards on the ground on 30 carries. Without Alex Anzalone, Jarrad Davis, or CeCe Jefferson from the kick, and without Bryan Cox, Jr. and Marcus Maye after in-game injuries, this was a fine performance, if not a sensational one.
From here, Florida will head to Baton Rouge and Tallahassee, places where fine performances may not be enough. From here, it gets hard again.
For today, this was good. This was enough.