COLUMBIA, S.C. — Down to its third-string quarterback and dealing with injuries to several other critical players, Florida had plenty of reasons to roll over Saturday night against No. 10 South Carolina.
The Gators entered as heavy underdogs, had been eliminated from Southeastern Conference Eastern Division contention and were already on the verge of finishing the season without making a bowl appearance for the first time since 1990.
Still, they fought. Yet again, they came up short.
Playing in front of 83,853 fans inside Williams-Brice Stadium, the Gators let a late fourth-quarter lead and an opportunity for a dramatic upset slip away in a 19-14 loss to the Gamecocks.
“We followed the script in what we felt we needed to do to win the game,” coach Will Muschamp said.
“Extremely proud of the players who continue to fight in the game. There’s a lot of negativity out there, and these guys pulled together and showed you something.”
With starting quarterback Tyler Murphy out for the game due to an injured shoulder, Florida (4-6, 3-5 SEC) turned to its third quarterback of the season — redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg, who was making his first career start.
With Mornhinweg under center, the Gators employed a very clear plan: run, run and run some more, while depending on their defense to limit the Gamecocks (8-2, 6-2 SEC) offensively.
The strategy worked surprisingly well in the first half.
Kelvin Taylor enjoyed a breakout performance prior to halftime, ripping off a pair of long touchdown runs to ignite the UF offense. Defensively, Florida’s undermanned unit returned to its early season brilliance by pressuring South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw and limiting big plays.
Shaw, who finished the game 14-of-28 passing for 213 yards and one touchdown, missed several throws down the field, while running back Mike Davis was held in check as Florida went into halftime leading 14-6.
“That’s what we expected,” Mornhinweg said.
“We expect that we are going to win, be physical and dominate every game.”
If that was truly the case, the Gators were likely the only ones who expected to come out with such success. Leads have been few and far between for UF, which had not led at any point in its past three games.
Prior to Saturday, Florida’s last lead came early in the second quarter of a loss to LSU on Oct. 12 — the same day Murphy suffered a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder.
“We were able to eat the clock and move the ball and follow the script, so to speak, of what we needed to do to be successful,” Muschamp said.
A half away from snapping its four-game losing streak, the Gators had an opportunity to put themselves in firm position to potentially earn a bowl berth.
With a win against South Carolina, Florida would have needed to win just one of its remaining games against Georgia Southern and No. 2 Florida State.
However, it was not to be. Now, the Gators have the daunting task of beating an undermanned FCS foe and a national-title contender that will likely be favored by at least two touchdowns entering The Swamp.
UF’s downfall began early in the third quarter.
Florida went three-and-out after receiving the football first to open the second half. South Carolina responded by quickly marching down the field.
On third and 3 from the UF 32-yard line, Shaw finally found his touch and connected with Bruce Ellington, who had gotten behind Florida defensive back Brian Poole in the end zone.
The touchdown cut the Gators’ lead to 14-13 with 10:23 remaining in the third quarter while also jumpstarting the Gamecocks’ offense.
“We gave up some plays that we shouldn’t have,” safety Cody Riggs said. “Lost our focus, I think. We should have won the game for the offense. They put us in a good position early in the game. We were up eight points, but we didn’t come through for them.”
UF’s defense bent several more times in the second half, but it never broke.
The Gators held the Gamecocks to a pair of field goals late in the fourth quarter, but their productive first-half offense was replaced by the punchless unit that has come to be expected.
The biggest blow came from South Carolina tailback Shon Carson, who led the Gamecocks in rushing despite playing behind Davis, the team’s featured back.
On first and 15 from the USC 5-yard line, Carson ripped off a 58-yard run up the middle of the field to move the Gamecocks into Gators territory.
Seven plays later, South Carolina took its first lead of the game on a 22-yard field goal by Elliott Fry.
Fry, who made four field goals in the game, tacked on three more points with 2:16 remaining in the fourth quarter to extend South Carolina’s lead to 19-14.
Forced to make a play in the waning minutes, Mornhinweg threw an interception on the ensuing drive to eliminate any chance at a comeback.
He finished the game 10-of-13 passing for 107 yards with no touchdowns and the one interception in his debut.
“Somehow it worked out again,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “First half, they had us a little bit on our heels, but our guys got tougher in the second half and shut Florida down pretty good.”
Despite suffering their fifth straight loss for the first time since 1979 — a year Florida went 0-10-1, its most recent losing season — the Gators showed the type of fight Muschamp hoped to see. UF’s third-year coach was satisfied with the resolve of his players given the current circumstances the team faces.
Florida opened the game with its seventh different starting offensive line combination of the season, was missing 10 players who are out for the year and did not have cornerback Marcus Roberson, who became the seventh Gator to be suspended at some point this season when he violated team rules this week.
The setbacks have turned the team from a national-title contender to an afterthought. But with a long-term view in mind, Muschamp supported his players.
“Guys, it’s not excuses. It’s real,” Muschamp said. “It really is. You can say what you want to say and write whatever the hell you want to write, but it’s real. It’s frustrating.
“It’s frustrating for that locker room. To hell with me. I worry about the kids. These kids fought their butts off. There’s a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. We have a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off.”
Follow Phillip Heilman on Twitter @phillip_heilman.