The Florida Gators weathered a third quarter storm today at Doak Campbell Stadium to down their in-state rival the Florida State Seminoles 37-27. Behind the rushing of senior Mike Gillislee, an improved passing game, and an opportunistic defense the Gators played perhaps their most complete game all year. Not before facing more adversity, however, much of it self-inflicted.
Fending off their BCS detractors who complained that Florida doesn’t win “sexy” enough to be a BCS title contender, the Gators came out throwing early mixing the play-calling, then settling in behind their hard-nosed running game, suffocating defense, and strong special teams to win another huge game against a BCS top ten team.
Mike Gillislee rushed for 140 yards with 2 touchdowns and Jeff Driskel was 15-23 for 147 yards and one touchdown and the Gators took a huge step towards a possible BCS title game appearance pending the outcome in tonight’s Notre Dame-USC game. The Gators offensive success against the top ranked defense in the nation was somewhat surprising, the Gators defensive effort was not. The defensive line led by Shariff Floyd and Dominique Easley shut down the Seminoles running game holding them to only 112 yards and stayed in the Seminoles backfield the entire game. The Gators defensive backs played their usual tight man-match coverage and kept the Seminoles wide receivers from making any big plays in the passing game. The Gator defense, which created 5 turnovers, dominated the Seminole offense the entire game. The Seminole defense which came in ranked first in the nation had little answer for the Gator rushing game. The Gators finished with 244 yards on 47 carries and 3 rushing touchdowns.
The Gators, to everyone’s surprise, came out throwing from the start mixing the play calling between run and pass and they were able to move the ball effectively on their opening possession before setting for a quick field goal and a 3-0 lead. The Gators actually moved the ball effectively the entire first half but kept settling for field goal tries and one untimely fake field goal try to take a 13-3 lead into halftime. On fourth and 1 from the Seminole 26 yard line the Gators set up for the field goal try in the old swinging gate formation. They snapped the ball to Trey Burton who, trying to avoid the pass rush, threw what amounted to a jump pass to his brother, tight end Clay Burton who was wide open on the play. The ball hung in the air short and off target where Clay made an awkward dive at the ball and it careened off his helmet to turn the ball over on downs. That left the score 3-0 and gave the Seminoles a bit of momentum.
They were not able to capitalize on it though going 3 and out on their next two possession as the Florida defense stayed in FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel’s face the entire first half. The Gator defense started early with the turnovers picking off a Manuel pass on the first possession and continued throughout the first half, forcing and recovering a fumble on a kickoff after Caleb Sturgis had put the Gators up 6-0 and then picking off another Manuel pass on the next FSU possession. Until Manuel’s scramble right before halftime which put them in field goal range, the FSU offense went nowhere. The Gator defense played about as good a half as they could possible play.
The third quarter, though, changed the momentum and complexion of the game. When Florida State took the opening kickoff of the third quarter and quickly turned the ball over on a Marcus Roberson interception it looked as though the Gators would pour it on. The Gators inspired play had kept the home crowd quiet all afternoon. How quickly things can change though. After two quick incompletions, Jeff Driskel was sacked on third down plus called for intentional grounding backing the Gators up deep in their own territory. On fourth down, Kyle Christy picked a heck of a time to have possibly his worst straight up punt of the season, booting a very returnable 39 yarder which was in fact returned by Kenny Shaw 26 yards down to the Gator 25 yard line. From there the Seminoles drove in for a touchdown on 3rd and goal, a td pass from Manuel to tight end Nick O’Leary. Suddenly the score was 13-10 and the crowd was awoken and getting loud. They would quickly get louder.
On first down on Florida’s next possession Jeff Driskel and Mike Gillislee got gummed up on a zone read handoff and the ball flipped out into the hands of star Seminole defensive end Bjoern Werner which he returned to the Gator 16 yard line. James Wilder carried the ball to the one and after a couple of Florida penalties Manuel ran the ball in for the score and a sudden 17-13 FSU lead.
After a short Gator possession where the home crowd was finally getting loud, Manuel and the Seminole offense put together a short, quick drive which culminated in a Dustin Hopkins 53 yard field goal stretching the Seminole lead to 20-13. At that point it looked as if the Gators, who had lost momentum, might also lose their composure. They didn’t and in short order they took control of the game back from the Seminoles behind Mike Gillislee’s tough running, an offensive line that began to completely dominate the line of scrimmage, some timely passing, and another lock down defensive effort in the fourth quarter.
With 4:24 to go in the third quarter, the Gators took over at their own 21 and proceeded to run the ball down the Seminole’s throats. Behind Gillislee and Driskel, the Gators drove to the Seminole 15 yard line where Caleb Sturgis kicked a 32 yard field goal and the Gators got within 4 points at 20-16. On Florida State’s next possession, Antonio Morrison put a hit on Manuel on third down that forced a fumble recovered by the Gators Dominique Easley on the FSU 37. It would also knock Manuel out for one series. The Gators capitalized quickly. On first and ten, Gillislee would took a handoff off up the middle for a 37 yard touchdown and a 23-20 Gator lead. They would not relinquish it after that.
Backup Clint Trickett, son of Seminoles offensive line coach Rick Trickett, came on in relief on the next series as the staff examined Manuel. He didn’t turn it over but he did go three and out. On the ensuing punt, Seminole punter Cason Beatty booted a 54 yard beauty that pushed Roberson back, but it also outkicked the coverage and Roberson capitalized by returning it 50 yards to the Seminole 31 yard line. This time it was the Matt Jones show as he came on in relief of Mike Gillislee who went down to an apparent rib injury on first down. Three quick Jones runs led to a 14 yard touchdown pass from Driskel to Quinton Dunbar. Suddenly, the Gators had regained momentum, quieted the crowd, and built a ten point lead 30-20.
All season this team faced adversity in the form of penalties and deficits. The same held true in this game as they killed themselves one more time with 12 penalties for 101 yards . Once again as they have all season, they refused to be bothered by it choosing to stick to the plan, keep playing their game, and steal victory from the jaws of defeat.
E.J came back in for the next series needing a quick score to try to come back from a two score deficit. A determined Manuel started stringing some completions together from there and drove them deep into Gator territory. But on 2nd and ten from the Gators 28 yard line Shariff Floyd muscled his way into a 16 yard sack of Manuel getting them into 3rd and long and, more importantly, taking them out of field goal range. A 4th and 26 pass from Manuel to Kelvin Benjamin would fall incomplete and they turned the ball over on downs.
Matt Jones came back in and picked up a couple of quick first downs while the clock continued to run and then, after a Driskel rush for a 3 yard loss and a timeout, Jones took it the final 32 yards for a touchdown and a commanding 37-20 Gator lead.
Manuel proceeded to drive the Seminoles for a final meaningless touchdown with no time left on the clock for the final 37-26 score.
So the Gators finally put a ‘sexy’ win on the board and it was pretty much for naught as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish held on to beat USC with two late defensive stands. With the win the Gators will surely finish ranked in the top four of the BCS and are assured of a BCS game, likely to be the Sugar Bowl. Notre Dame goes on to Miami to likely play the winner of the SEC Championship game between Alabama and Georgia, both big winners today.
Overall, the Gators finally looked like the number four team in the country gaining almost 400 yards of offense. The Gator defense kept the Seminole offense in check for most of the game only giving up a few explosive plays but none that hurt them. The deciding factors in this one were the turnovers: the Seminoles had 5 and the Gators had only the one fumble, and the Gators ability to run the football. The Gators controlled the line of scrimmage throughout this one and finished with 244 yards rushing their best rushing effort since the LSU game.
A season that began with so much cautious optimism now approaches conclusion. An 11-1 record, a victory against their bitter rival, and a BCS berth that awaits. The Gators now have a month to rest, heal, and prepare for one final game for 19 beloved seniors and likely, more than a couple of junior Gators who will make the early entry leap to the NFL. Few expected this team to go as far as they have, but it’s been quite a fun ride.
Next season will be a new season, a new team, and a new identity. This season this Gator team achieved beyond any fans wildest dream.