JACKSONVILLE — Special teams and timely defense lifted Florida to a 24-17 victory against Ohio State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl at Everbank Field in Jacksonville on Monday.
The win helped the Gators (7-6) avoid their first losing season since 1979 when Charley Pell led a 0-10-1 team in his first season. On the flip side, the Buckeyes (6-7) suffered their first losing season since 1988 when they went 4-6-1 under first-year coach John Cooper. It was Ohio State’s first seven-loss season since 1897.
Florida’s defense contained OSU dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller, especially on third down and in the second half. Take away an 88-yard scoring drive late in the game, and Miller accounted for less than 100 yards.
Ohio State managed just 62 yards in the third quarter. Two drives ended in third down sacks and the other with a fumble that was recovered by Josh Evans and led to a 17-yard field goal by Caleb Sturgis that gave the Gators a 24-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Ohio State’s first two possessions of the fourth quarter netted just 19 yards on seven plays. However, the Buckeyes put together an 88-yard scoring drive to cut the lead to 24-17 with 57 seconds remaining in regulation.
Down a single score, Ohio State loaded the right side of the field for an onsides’ kick. The attempt was thwarted when it was recovered by Florida’s Stephen Alli, and first-year coach Will Muschamp received an ice bath shortly after at the hands of Andre Debose and Quinton Dunbar.
The play of the game may have been when Florida’s Chris Rainey blocked a Ben Buchanan punt in the third quarter. Graham Stewart scooped it up at the 14 and scored to give Gators 21-10 lead less than four minutes into the second half.
Florida led 14-10 at intermission with the difference being a 99-yard kickoff return by Debose, who raced up the left sideline untouched after OSU had tied the score at 7-all. The 99-yard return is a Gator Bowl record and came with 11:13 remaining in the first half.
The Gators played bend-but-don’t-break defense during the first two quarters, giving up big plays and long drives only to come up with stops at key moments. They sacked Braxton Miller four times in the first half, with two coming on third downs.
With interim offensive coordinator Brian White calling plays from the press box, Florida’s offense was multiple to start. It lined up in six different formations on the first six plays of the game to quickly marched downfield before a third-down fumble by senior quarterback John Brantley ended the drive with OSU recovering at its own 26.
Ohio State used a late-hit penalty and a 12-yard run by Dan Herron to move into Gators’ territory on the ensuing possession. However, back-to-back sacks – the first by Sharrif Floyd and the second by Floyd and Jaye Howard — followed by a three-yard run by Miller forced a punt.
Florida overcame a delay of game penalty on third and short and had to burn a timeout on the ensuing possession to avoid another delay of game penalty. Still, the Gators went 80 yards on 14 plays with quarterback John Brantley firing a bullet to Deonte Thompson for a 17-yard touchdown to take a 7-0 lead.
The Gators converted three third downs on the drive, with Brantley passing for each conversion. The most dazzling was when Brantley spun out of a would-be sack before hitting Debose for a first down.
Brantley was under pressure for most of the first half, but was 10 of 12 passing for 92 yards thanks to a short, quick passing attack. The pressure came from Ohio State’s defensive front blowing up the Gators offensive line. Brantley finished 12 of 16 for 132 yards with a touchdown and intereption.
Florida recovered a fumble only to cough it back up to the Buckeyes two plays later when Brantley mishandled a snap exchange. Ohio State didn’t complete a pass in the first quarter but made the most of its first completion with a 25-yard reception by big tight end Jeff Heuerman.
Braxton Miller then hit Dever Posey for a 10-yard gain and — following a couple of nice runs by the Buckeyes — the duo hooked up again on a quick slant for a five yard touchdown to even the score at 7-all. It capped an eight-play, 72-yard drive.
Ohio State had two drives stopped in the second quarter on sacks by UF’s Ronald Powell and Howard. The Gators’ offense snapped the ball just four times in the second quarter.