On Saturday, the Gators did the same things they had done all season.
They ran the ball effectively, the defense came up with timely turnovers and the pass rush showed talent and depth.
They won ugly.
But what made No. 7 Florida’s (8-1, 7-1 Southeastern Conference) 14-7 win against Missouri different from its first seven victories was that when the Gators left the field, they weren’t in total control of their postseason future.
As a result of Georgia’s 37-10 victory against Ole Miss on Saturday, Florida needs UGA to lose to SEC West bottom feeder Auburn next week. A Bulldogs win keeps the Gators from achieving their primary goal: playing for the SEC championship in Atlanta.
Still, coach Will Muschamp was pleased with UF’s effort against Missouri (4-5, 1-5 SEC) and throughout conference play. The 2012 Gators are the 12th team in school history to win seven conference games.
“That’s a credit to those players,” Muschamp said of the seven-win mark. “It’s a credit to buying in, to hanging together, to facing adversity, to facing a tough schedule ... and bouncing back after a tough week. Really proud of the players, and we did what we had to do to win the football game.”
As was the case in each of the first eight games this season, Florida was outgained in the first quarter on Saturday, albeit by a slim margin of 72-69. UF also came back from a halftime deficit for the fourth time this year after the Tigers took a 7-0 lead into the break. Omarius Hines said Florida has mastered the art of having a short memory.
“Just can’t let people get their head down,” Hines said. “It’s a 60-minute game. That was 30 minutes of it. Halftime, when we go back out there, it’s 0-0. That’s the kind of mentality we have.”
Hines tied the game with a 36-yard touchdown run on a jet sweep handoff from Trey Burton early in the second half. Until that point, the Gators defense had kept UF in the game, just as it has numerous times this season.
Missouri’s first four possessions ended with three punts and a Jaylen Watkins interception.
“In all my years as a defensive coordinator, regardless of the circumstances, our job is to make stops,” Muschamp said when asked about the defense carrying the team. “I always tell them ‘You’re the fireman. Go put the fire out. I don’t care how bad it’s blazing. Go put it out.’”
Florida, which entered Saturday ranked 10th in the SEC in sacks with 16, tied a season-high with four against Franklin thanks to an improved four-man pass rush.
Freshmen Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard each had standout performances.
Fowler recorded two tackles for a loss and a sack while Bullard had 1.5 sacks. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd made three tackles for a loss to push his team lead in the category to 10 — four more than any other Gator.
Floyd said that as the game wore on, Florida’s defenders grew more confident.
“[UF’s defense is] just relentless,” Floyd said. “Any time something good or bad happens before the defense goes on the field, coach says, ‘Go get them.’ And we went and got them.”
Whenever the Tigers had success moving the ball, the Gators responded.
Safety Matt Elam picked off Franklin on the UF 4-yard line with the game tied in the third quarter. On the ensuing possession, Florida took the lead on a 45-yard touchdown reception by Mike Gillislee on a screen pass.
Missouri covered 59 yards in less than two minutes before Franklin threw his fourth interception of the game to end the Tigers’ final drive. Josh Evans picked off the pass in the end zone to secure the seven-point victory.
The Gators do not have to win pretty to end their season on a big stage. With a No. 6 BCS ranking, UF simply needs to win out to have a chance at receiving an at-large bid to the Sugar Bowl.
If that requires the defense to put the team on its back, defensive tackle Omar Hunter will be happy to shoulder the load.
“We love it when our back’s against the wall and everything is put on us,” Hunter said. “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Contact Josh Jurnovoy at firstname.lastname@example.org.