Bowl games used to be a birthright at Florida.
They used to be second nature, like high-powered offenses and sold-out home games and blowouts the week before Florida State — the Gators had beat their last five Week 12 opponents by an average score of 53.8 points.
Remember those days?
“Nothing’s easy,” coach Will Muschamp said, “and we certainly don’t make it that way.”
The Gators (6-5) came out flat in a half-empty Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday and nearly suffered what used to be unthinkable: a loss against an FCS opponent. But Florida righted the ship, holding on to beat Furman 54-32 in a game closer than the final score indicated.
The Paladins surprised the Gators by running triple options out of the Wing-T offense to take an early edge, and for a time it looked like Furman (6-5) would pull the upset. But after falling behind 15-0, redshirt senior quarterback John Brantley guided the offense. He finished with a career-high 329 passing yards and four touchdowns.
“We just kept fighting,” Brantley said. “We knew things would go our way if we just keep calm and collected, and (they) did.”
After Caleb Sturgis missed a 51-yard field goal on Florida’s opening drive, Furman pounded the ball through the Gators’ defense, gaining 67 yards on six straight running plays, including a 1-yard touchdown run by Jerodis Williams.
Florida’s hole grew from there. Center Jonnothan Harrison snapped the ball well over Brantley’s head on the first play of the next drive, leading to a safety. The Paladins dominated the Gators’ defense again on the next drive, this time ending with a 31-yard touchdown from Chris Forcier to David Hendrix on a play-action pass.
“Furman came out, they played well in the first half,” sophomore linebacker Jelani Jenkins said. “They really did. They came out and they did what they wanted to do.”
Brantley answered with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Reed, but Furman’s offense continued to plug away, this time with a trick play. After catching a lateral in the flat, Colin Anderson pulled up and chucked a deep ball Sederrik Cunningham for a 47-yard touchdown. Cunningham beat safety Josh Evans.
Through three drives, the Paladins gained 194 yards on 16 plays and held a 22-7 lead.
“I got frustrated, coming on the sidelines saying, ‘Listen, it’s Furman,’” defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said. “No disrespect, but it’s Furman. This is not how we’re supposed to come out.”
But Florida’s talent proved to be too much in the long run. The Gators ended the half with three straight scoring drives, including two in which Brantley tossed touchdowns
Florida took a 27-22 lead into the half and held on for the rest of the game, though it wasn’t fully in hand until De’Ante Saunders returned an interception 25 yards for a score.
Outside of the final touchdown, though, Saturday hardly felt like a time for celebration. The Gators defense once again failed to stop the run, allowing 233 yards on the ground, including a 77-yard touchdown by Williams in the third quarter. Florida has allowed an average of 190.3 rushing yards its last seven games.
When a reporter suggested the Gators were dominated up front by the Paladins’ line (which averages 275.8 pounds), Floyd took offense, saying Furman’s linemen only knew how to cut block.
“If getting cut every play is controlling the line of scrimmage, then, hey, they did it,” Floyd said. “If you can cut somebody every play and say, ‘We dominated,’ then too-doo. That’s not dominating to me. Dominating to me is pushed back, knocked back, pancakes — that’s dominating. But cutting somebody and having them land on top of you is not dominating the front.”
Regardless of how the Paladins ran the ball, however, they were successful, and the Gators will face a much steeper test next week. Florida has a chance to salvage this season with a win against Florida State, but expectations are low after Saturday’s performance.
Win or lose next week, though, the Gators are bowl bound. Who would have thought that would ever be in doubt?
“At Florida, you really don’t think that sometimes, ‘Hey, we might not be bowl eligible,’ defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. “Definitely gets that monkey off our back.”
Contact Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org.