COLUMBIA, S.C.– Before Florida’s 19-14 loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks, two programs trending in opposite directions took the field before a full house of 83,853 at Williams-Brice Statdium: a 4-5 Florida team that hadn’t won since early October, and a South Carolina team that found out in the first quarter that its SEC East championship hopes were still very much alive after Auburn knocked off Georgia.
Both schools ran out during the blaring sound of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a fitting entrance since a piece of Florida football glory disappeared after that season when Steve Spurrier retired after 12 years as the Gators’ head coach.
Since 2001, South Carolina has twice entered its game with Florida with seven wins (2008, 2011). In that 2001 game the Gators leveled the Gamecocks 54-17, behind three touchdown passes from Rex Grossman. Steve Spurrier was coaching Florida that day at Williams-Brice Stadium Twelve years later things played out much differently.
The Head Ball Coach, who now wears garnet and black instead of orange and blue, looked across the field to a Florida team starting a redshirt freshman quarterback but this time with different results. Skyler Mornhinweg threw 13 passes — five in the first 53 minutes — but unlike Grossman never found the end zone. That 2001 Florida team came within a failed two-point conversion of playing in a de facto national championship play in game; the 2013 version almost certainly won’t qualify for a bowl game. Juxtapose that with a South Carolina team that feels like it has everything to play for.
“We want to win eight; we want to win nine; we’re trying to win 10,” Spurrier said. “Then we’re trying to win 11. We set all those goals and we’ve always hopefully got something to play for every game, something big to play for.”
Tonight was win number eight, pushing the Gamecocks to an 8-2 record on the season, and sinking the Gators to 4-6. While the winner looks to Atlanta, the loser hopes for a Compass Bowl date at best.
The Gators did what they could with a short-handed unit. That meant a heavy reliance on the rushing attack, and Florida ran the ball 75% of the time, 41-55 total plays went on the ground. A lot of the runs came out of the much-maligned Wildcat formation, an attempt to add diversity to the run game to show the Gamecocks more than just a straight quarterback handoff look. South Carolina was ready for it.
“Yeah,” Spurrier said. “We talked about that all week after we saw [Tyler Murphy] wasn’t able to play that that’s probably what they were going to do. They did it pretty well there in the first half. Killed the clock, I think there was four possessions for both teams in the first half. So, the defense really came around in the second half.”
After scoring on their first two drives in the first half, the Florida offense only got into the red zone one more time the rest of the game (a drive resulted in a missed field goal). The Gators gashed the Gamecocks for 169 net rushing yards in the first half, and only 31 more in the second half once South Carolina’s defense dialed in. The adjustments stymied a Florida offense that seemingly played with one hand tied behind its back the entire game, but although his team played well, Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward would rather have had the contest play out a different way.
“I wish [Murphy] would have played though,” Ward said. “And I say that because I think anytime you play a team that all they can do is run the football it makes it tougher especially when they do it with a [wildcat quarterback], so if he would have played they would have had a more conventional offense, but we made the adjustments and I’m proud of the guys for doing that.”
The tagline of “2001: A Space Odyssey” invites viewers to “Let the Awe and Mystery of a Journey Unlike Any Other Begin,” and that rings true for Florida as it faces the final two games of the season.
The Gators are staring the prospect of no bowl game squarely in the face for the first time since 1990 with a winnable game against Georgia Southern and the herculean task of stopping the buzzsaw that is the Florida State Seminoles Thanksgiving weekend up ahead. If they don’t win both games, Florida’s season will be over by the beginning of December and they will reap none of the benefits that four weeks of bowl practices present. They will be a Florida football team sitting at home during the postseason for the first time in many of its players’ lifetime.
That foreboding end to the 2013 season launches into the beginning of an uncertain offseason, in many ways a mysterious journey unlike any other for Florida football.