A year ago, a Florida team under the weather due to one of those always-bothersome flu bug went up to Columbia, South Carolina and got its ass kicked by the Gamecocks.
Consider the favor repaid — and then some.
Florida rolled up 374 rushing yards and got its best defensive performance in some time in its 38-6 destruction of South Carolina on Saturday, securing bowl eligibility in a game that had plenty of time for Senior Day sentimentality.
The Gators nearly had three 100-yard rushers for just the second time in school history, with Montrell Johnson (161 yards, one touchdown), Trevor Etienne (100 yards, most of them on an 85-yard bolt to paydirt), and Anthony Richardson all over the century mark at one juncture, but a late sack left Richardson with “just” 96 to go with a score of his own. And South Carolina never really stopped the three-headed Gators ground game, which averaged nearly seven yards a pop — and would have cleared that number had Jeremy Crawshaw not lost 10 yards on an aborted field goal.
A great game not being one for the record books because of a massive discrepancy in special teams efficiency was a theme of the night. South Carolina’s lone touchdown — the only points scored on Florida’s defense in its last six quarters of play — came on a fake punt hauled in by Dakereon Joyner minutes before halftime, but the Gamecocks also blocked an Adam Mihalek field goal, maybe psyched Florida out of attempting a long field goal as the first half ended, forced a Xzavier Henderson fumble on a punt return that Florida was able to recover, and snuffed out Crawshaw’s scramble attempt on a field goal doomed by Crawshaw’s inability to get a high snap down in time for a kick.
Beamerball alone — or aided by Florida’s own special teams being special in the wrong ways — was not nearly enough for South Carolina, though. Florida’s defense made sure of that.
The Gators allowed just 237 yards — or 189, subtracting the fake punt’s 48 — to Spencer Rattler’s team less than two years after being strafed for a still-unreal 684 by a Rattler-helmed Oklahoma team in the 2020 Cotton Bowl, and made the Sooner-turned-Gamecock uncomfortable all night.
That discomfort still might have been preferable to what the Gators did to Gamecocks rushers and receivers, though, as Florida did a fantastic job of tackling and prying the ball loose, including three times over a span of four offensive snaps in the third quarter.
The highlight of those was somehow not Kamari Wilson’s bruising tackle serving up a loose ball that Trey Dean snatched out of midair for what could have been fairly assessed as an interception or a fumble recovery, but rather the colossal Desmond Watson pawing a ball directly out of a running back’s clutches and attempting to return it for what would have been one of the most electrifying touchdowns in football history if not for Rattler’s tackle attempt slowing him up.
That’s 415-pound Desmond Watson just taking the ball away. pic.twitter.com/FGezS0gOCg— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) November 12, 2022
He’ll have to settle for one of the coolest non-touchdowns ever.
And Florida, for this year, will have to settle for making a bowl — likely one removed from the top tier of those available to SEC teams outside of the College Football Playoff — and not quite putting its pieces together early or often enough to be more. Richardson’s erratic day as a passer — 11-for-23, 112 yards, two touchdowns, and about 10 throws that were either too hot or just off — might have been this Saturday’s best reminder that the Gators have had opportunities to be better even than the rising team they appear to be.
But even if Richardson just played his last game in The Swamp, and departs Florida for the NFL, what the Gators are building seems like it could be a foundation for greatness.