Given a chance to really put Texas A&M in dire straits on a brisk Saturday in College Station — to go up 27-17 before halftime, and force the Aggies to attempt a second-half comeback — the Florida Gators blew it.
A three-and-out that lost a yard gave A&M the ball back with a few minutes left before intermission, and the Aggies responded beautifully, jaunting 74 yards — with Devon Achane and Haynes King making big — for a lead-stealing score. And when Florida failed to respond on its last possession of the period, sabotaging any attempt with a baffling delay of game penalty before the first play of the drive, it was Aggies 24, Gators 20 at the half.
At game’s end, it was Florida 41, Texas A&M 24 — all thanks to the best second half of the Billy Napier era.
Florida immediately forced an A&M punt to begin the third quarter, and then Anthony Richardson — who threw for 201 yards and two touchdowns — set the tone for the second half with a beautifully lofted throw to Ja’Quavion Fraziars for Florida’s own go-ahead touchdown. After two more stops from the Gators’ beleaguered defense, the offense struck again, with Richardson stepping up to find Caleb Douglas to cap a drive with four runs of nine or more yards and put Florida up 34-24.
And there was no implosion coming from Florida’s defense on this day. The Gators’ offense did not score again until late in the fourth quarter, but their defense forced King — who threw the ball an astonishing 45 times despite Achane gaining over 100 yards on the ground in the first half — into two fumbles and a turnover on downs in the fourth period, and allowed just four snaps in Florida territory in the second half.
Jimbo Fisher’s bizarre insistence on putting the game on King’s arm — which generated just 23 completions on those 45 throws, albeit for 279 passing yards — helped Florida considerably, to be sure. But the Gators also played tighter coverage than had been seen for much of the year, and a resurgent pass rush — which did not seem to miss the dismissed Brenton Cox Jr. one bit — kept King uncomfortable almost without fail in the second half.
The defense’s finest day probably shouldn’t have had to be quite so good for Florida to be comfortable in its own right. Adam Mihalek missed a short field goal after Richardson barely missed a third touchdown pass in the third quarter, and the Gators failed miserably on a fourth-and-goal from inside the A&M 2 in the fourth. Despite rolling up 492 yards of total offense, the Gators also settled for a field goal early on and needed Richardson to break a 60-yard touchdown run — their only play of 25 yards or more on a day marked mostly by steady accumulation, and his second score on the hoof in the first half — to get their 17 points in the first half.
But Florida’s defense went from looking overmatched to occasionally overwhelming after halftime, and the offense did get three scores after halftime — so the punctuation put on the day by Montrell Johnson’s touchdown run late in the fourth quarter was an exclamation point that could have followed a couple others, not a question mark.
This could have been worse, yes — but for A&M, not for Florida, which moved to 5-4 with a win that could have been even more lopsided, and relegated the program coached by the notoriously well-paid Fisher to needing to win out to get to the traditional six-win threshold for bowl eligibility.
The Aggies were limited by absences, yes — but Fisher’s in his fifth year in College Station, still hasn’t found a quarterback he can count on since Kellen Mond slowly developed into one, and yet also did not realize on this day that his path to victory required running the ball with Achane far more than the 16 times the Aggies did.
Napier — who, yes, has plenty to work on in his own right — recognized that Florida could win this one by riding Johnson and Trevor Etienne (a combined 39 carries for 180 rushing yards and a touchdown, with Etienne dazzling with his agility and balance as usual) and relying on a defense that stunningly found answers and responses after a first half of agony and ruin. And in so doing, he got a win over one of the few active coaches in college football with a national championship and a win over Nick Saban.
One team that took Kyle Field on Saturday — and its stock — still seems to be rising, or at least at a buy-low point for a cautious broker. Making the other one look like a bust helped.