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Florida 24, Missouri 17: Gators spark up, stave off Missouri in second half

Florida produced a lot of explosive plays after a sleepy first half — for itself and the Tigers.

Syndication: Gator Sports Matt Pendleton / USA TODAY NETWORK

Florida’s 10-0 lead over Missouri in the first half of Saturday’s Homecoming clash turned out to be a mirage — as one might expect an advantage built on a field goal after an unexpectedly great punt return and a pick-six to be. And by halftime, the Gators had coughed all of it up, and left fans choking on a dyspeptic bit of game management.

So how to explain the 24-17 final margin in Florida’s favor? Maybe by saying the Gators dispelled some smoke and smashed some mirrors.

After tallying just 66 yards of total offense in the first half, Florida’s ground game came to life after intermission, with Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne each getting more than 80 rushing yards on the day and uncorking multiple explosive rushes in the second half. Anthony Richardson also made one of the plays of the day on the ground, scrambling for 32 yards up the middle on a fourth down to set up a Johnson touchdown rush that put Florida up 17-10 just before the end of the third quarter.

Richardson’s best pass of the day — an accurate laser between defenders while on the run to get Ricky Pearsall a touchdown catch — followed not long after, and Florida took a 24-10 lead on that possession, its largest of the year over a team not named Eastern Washington.

Of course, it wouldn’t last. Missouri’s offense, which put up 220 yards through the air and another 150 on the ground, responded on its next drive, getting a couple of back-breaking third down conversions with 15 and 22 yards to go and cutting the Gators’ lead to one score on a Nathanial Peat (20 carries, 117 yards) run.

Then calamity struck Richardson — who had an attempt at a forward pass while being tackled ruled a fumble late in the first half, leading to a short-field drive for a Mizzou field goal despite Billy Napier calling timeouts seemingly in an unsuccessful effort to ice the usually glacier-veined Harrison Mevis — in the form of a turnover that wasn’t totally his fault for the second time on the day, as a tall throw that nevertheless hit a leaping Pearsall in the mitts was deflected into a Missouri defender’s arms for a pick that gave the Tigers good field position for a last drive.

Florida’s defense, though, found enough resilience to bend but not break one last time, ultimately stopping both third and fourth down tries on short yardage near midfield.

That effort made sure that the outstanding ones from Jaydon Hill — who collected both picks in just his second game back from multiple injuries requiring surgery and also made a few sure tackles — and Ventrell Miller — who tallied double-digit tackles while also bumping receivers on both of Hill’s picks, and probably played the best game of his long Florida career — would be paid off with a victory, even though Richardson threw for just 66 yards, Missouri had 21 first downs (to Florida’s mere 13), Adam Mihalek missed two field goals, and Florida held the ball for under 24 minutes of game clock.

And with Florida stuck in what feels at times like the misery of mediocrity — good enough to win any game, bad enough to lose any game, and constitutionally averse to consistently doing anything well — in the first year of Billy Napier’s tenure, more games like this that are root canals in disguise may be in the offing, even if Florida fans don’t love what they see in this particular mirror.

The results may, at times, be the desired one. The path may be anything but desirable.