The Florida Gators did not immediately take to the muck at South Carolina on Saturday.
Kyle Trask was not sharp early, Florida’s running game remained stuck in neutral, and the Gators defense — playing without two stars and getting banged up as the game wore on — didn’t seem to have the personnel or pugnaciousness to match a South Carolina running game that did plenty to control the game even without starting halfback Rico Dowdle.
And the SEC officials working the game seemed hell-bent on missing as many major calls as possible, first benefiting South Carolina and then Florida.
But when the flags — and towels thrown by Gamecocks fans — were cleared off the field, it was Florida that once again pulled away from South Carolina late, using a strong fourth quarter to secure a 38-27 win.
Three of Trask’s career-high four touchdown passes came in that fourth quarter, from the go-ahead strike to a full-extension Freddie Swain to the final score on a tunnel screen to Trevon Grimes. And those 21 points broke open a game that had been tied or seen the Gamecocks up by a possession for the first 40 minutes of play, with a fumble and a fourth-down stop helping to set up Florida with short fields late in the contest.
But before that flurry, it had been a couple of unlikely heroes who helped Florida stay even with South Carolina. Jacob Copeland made a splash in his first truly outstanding performance of what could be a great Florida career, hauling in 32- and 37-yards catches in the first half and getting six points on the latter. And then, literally a play after a gutting South Carolina drive in the third quarter, Dameon Pierce ran 75 yards to paydirt for a game-tying score.
Pierce was aided on that play by a questionable no-call on what appeared to be holding from receiver Tyrie Cleveland and a missed false start by Jean Delance, and Florida would later get the grace of a few pass interference calls and a no-call on a pick play on the second touchdown of the fourth quarter.
But Florida also dealt with some puzzling missed calls in the first half, and both teams had ample reason to be mad at the men in stripes by day’s end.
The Gators just had the lead by then, thanks to Trask settling in and Florida’s defense choking down on Ryan Hilinski, whose erratic throwing (17-for-35 for a mere 170 yards) thanks to some exotic pressures brought by Todd Grantham to compensate for the absence of Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga helped to ensure that Tavien Feaster’s career day (25 carries, 175 yards) came in a losing effort.
The win moves Florida to 7-1 on the season, secures bowl eligibility, and makes the Gators’ next two big games — a showdown with Georgia in Jacksonville and a meeting with Missouri on the road, which bookend a likely rout of lowly Vanderbilt in The Swamp — ones that will almost certainly decide whether they play for the SEC title.
And while what Florida put together on Saturday wasn’t a pretty picture — if this was watercolor painting, the result was smeared and far from professionally done — that view of the horizon remains rather promising.