Through just over two quarters in Tampa on Monday, Florida and Iowa had staged the sort of defensive struggle that most expected of the 2017 Outback Bowl.
From the moment Mark Thompson took a screen pass to the house onward, though, Florida put on a show, as the Gators scored 27 unanswered points for a resounding 30-3 triumph over the Hawkeyes. Prior to that score, Florida and Iowa were tied at 3-3, with the Hawkeyes having scored their first, and only, points on a 36-yard field goal.
Austin Appleby threw for 222 yards and two touchdowns after throwing two passes tipped into interceptions in the game’s first six minutes, and was named player of the game on ESPN’s broadcast for his performance. Florida’s Jordan Scarlett ran for another 94 yards on the ground on just 14 carries; Thompson’s 85 receiving yards led all players in the category, and Antonio Callaway’s seven catches (for 55 yards) did the same.
But this game was as much or more about Florida’s injury-riddled defense stepping up as it was the Gators’ beleaguered offense punching in scores.
That defense shut down and feasted on Iowa’s anemic passing game, with freshman Chauncey Gardner snagging two interceptions and returning one for a touchdown in the fourth quarter and Daniel McMillian scoring a third pick of C.J. Beathard in the period. Beathard completed just seven of 23 passes for only 55 yards.
Gardner’s pick-six covered 58. He was, unsurprisingly, named Outback Bowl MVP.
Florida didn’t fare as well against Iowa’s excellent running game, yielding 171 yards on 42 carries, but it stiffened near the end zone, stuffing one fourth-and-goal try in the first half and forcing a field goal try — ultimately missed — early in the third quarter.
And that was all accomplished without Alex Anzalone, Bryan Cox, Jr., Jarrad Davis, Marcus Maye, and David Reese, who all missed the game due to injury. While Reese will return in 2017, the other members of that quintet may not be part of next year’s defensive core.
And if the M.A.S.H. unit wearing white yielding three points on this Monday — Florida’s fewest conceded in bowl history — was any preview of what could be if Randy Shannon is promoted to full-time defensive coordinator, Jim McElwain ought to make that promotion official as soon as possible.
Florida’s 2017 season ends with a 9-4 record in a year that featured just 11 regular season games after Hurricane Matthew forced the relocation of the Gators’ game against LSU and the cancellation of its date with Presbyterian.
It also ended with just the Gators’ fourth game of 30 or more points this year — and their first bowl victory against a Power Five team since 2011.