The game was there for the taking.
With 1:04 left in the third quarter senior safety Jabari Gorman forced and recovered a fumble, giving the Gators’ offense possession of the football on the South Carolina 42-yard line.
Despite getting his hand hit and hurt early, Treon Harris had led the Gators to a 17-10 lead at that point and this offensive possession would be the one that would make it a two possession lead and salt away the game for good.
After back-to-back Matt Jones’ carried for eight yards, Kurt Roper turned to Harris on a quarterback keeper. The freshman picked up the yards necessary for a first down but Spur linebacker Jordan Diggs poked the ball out of his arms and recovered the fumble.
That’s when it all started to unravel for the Gators. We didn’t know it at the time but that was the beginning of the end to this football game.
“We had every opportunity to win,” a despondent Will Muschamp said following the overtime loss.
The Gators would try to swing momentum in their favor even following the costly turnover. The defense forced a punt on the following possession after Carolina ran six plays to gain just six total yards. Will Muschamp has called his defense firemen in the past, saying he wants them to have to put out fires on the field. They did, time after time, in the fourth quarter and you were sure that they would be able to save the burning offense before the clock struck zero.
Three plays, two yards and a Kyle Christy punt — his sixth of the game — later, you were less certain.
After exchanging punts with the Gamecocks, the Gators were able to drive down the field and put themselves in position to seal the game. Their second such opportunity in the fourth quarter.
Frankie Velez lined up from 32-yards out but his low-lining kick was blocked by Brison Williams. The Gators defense, which was torched in the first half but had settled down after, was stout again.
“[We] Settled down defensively as the game went on,” Muschamp said. “We played pretty well against a very good offensive football team.”
The problem wasn’t the defense. The offense, like a turtle sensing danger retreated into their shell. The Gators ran 13 plays in the fourth quarter. They threw just one pass. In total, Florida ran 60 plays, throwing the ball just one time. That’s 81.6% running plays — or, the same run-to-pass ratio that Georgia Southern has on this season.
That vanilla offense became predictable and easy for a putrid South Carolina defense to defend.
Florida’s defense came up with one more answer. They forced Carolina into a 4th-and-10 situation and turned the Gamecocks over on downs. The Swamp was rocking, the players were dancing and for a moment everyone in the stadium believed. Surely, this stop would be the one. The Gators surrendered 10 points in the first quarter but had shut down Spurrier’s high-octane offense since.
This would be the difference. With just 2:22 left in the game the offense took the field. It took them three plays to lose three yards before sending Kyle Christy out on the field.
Carlton Heard came straight up the gut, mostly untouched, and stuffed the punt that barely got off Kyle Christy’s foot.
“We were in a look where we should have kicked it the other way but we didn’t,” said Muschamp. “As far as the protection was concerned, they came free and we didn’t get the ball off quicker. That’s a situation where that shouldn’t happen.”
South Carolina took over the ball with just 39 seconds and no timeouts. A tired Florida defense that had spent all afternoon running up flights of stairs to try and save the building that the offense was busy burning couldn’t get a stop when they needed it most.
Carolina would score on a busted play; Dylan Thompson pitching a ball to Mike Davis — who fumbled it — only to have the ball bounce back into his gut across the goal line for a touchdown, sending the game into overtime.
The Gators lost the toss. South Carolina deferred and Florida’s offense did what it was best at on Saturday. They went three-and-out before Austin Hardin connected on a 35-yard field goal.
South Carolina turned to the ground when they received the ball. Mike Davis rushed for two yards, then five, then four and a first down. He carried the ball one more time before Thompson threw a screen pass to set up a third-and-two. Florida surrendered those two yards and gave the Gamecocks a new set of downs. They only needed one as Thompson kept on a read-option, finding the endzone and sending a sea of black, white and garnet spilling out on to the field in celebration.
The Gators players looked on in shock and disbelief. What had just happened? With less than three minutes to play this game’s outcome seemed a foregone conclusion, how did they end up feeling like this?
“They’re a good team, like I said. They had their plays set up, they were running the ball hard. Mike Davis was running it hard, give him credit,” Vernon Hargreaves said after the game. “They had a good play at the end, they got in the end zone and they won the game. You’ve got to give them credit.”
Muschamp’s defense played like fireman. They did their best to follow the arsonist offense but at the end of the day they ran out of steam. The defense couldn’t save the day against South Carolina and they won’t be able to save their head coaches’ job.