Quarterback Emory Jones stood calmly in the pocket, searching for an open receiver. He fired a rocket intended for Trent Whittemore in the back of the end zone but instead found Florida State corner Jarvis Brownlee, Jr. for his third interception of the half. Jones walked off the field, head hung low as a flurry of boos rang out from the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium crowd.
Jones’ near-fourth interception early in the third quarter solidified the change Florida fans clamored for all season. Redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson came in off the bench to the crowd’s raucous approval and proceeded to play the rest of Florida’s 24-21 victory over the Seminoles Saturday.
Richardson and running back Dameon Pierce’s performances Saturday, coupled with the glimpses of greatness shown throughout the year, left Florida fans wondering what could’ve been. Would this season had been more successful if former head coach Dan Mullen committed to Richardson and Pierce as the starting workhorses early on in the season?
Richardson entered with the game knotted up at seven and strung together three scoring drives in four possessions, expanding the Gators lead to 24-7. The redshirt freshman finished the afternoon an efficient five-for-seven passing for 55 yards and a touchdown and added 11 carries for 27 yards with his legs. He by no means lit the world on fire, but he kept away from the cardinal sin of football: turnovers.
The Gainesville native’s second-half heroics are nothing new to Gator Nation. Richardson led four straight touchdown drives in the team’s eventual loss to LSU and showed flashes of greatness early in the season against FAU and USF.
His lone start of the year came against the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs and their historic defense. He struggled against the ‘Dawgs, throwing for just 82 yards and two interceptions.
Jones racked up 19 passing touchdowns in 2021, but he threw 13 back-breaking interceptions. That type of inconsistency on offense limited Florida’s downfield passing attack, as the Gators completed just 17 passes over 20 yards with Jones under center this season, eight of which came against the likes of Vanderbilt and Samford.
Richardson completed six passes of 20 or more yards despite throwing nearly 250 less times than Jones (64 attempts to 310).
After the game, interim head coach Greg Knox did not commit to Richardson nor Jones as the starter for the team’s bowl game.
“What we’re going to do is enjoy this victory,” Knox said. “Then, when we get to that bowl game, we’ll let them figure it out. They’ll go to work and they’ll compete and we’ll make a decision from there.”
Speaking of competing for snaps, Pierce once again shined in The Swamp. The senior back carried the ball 12 times for 62 yards and a touchdown, including a helmetless run for the ages that was called back because of a technicality in the rule book.
“My mama been calling me hardheaded since I was little, so that ain’t nothing new, Pierce said of the run after the game. “That was just basic instinct.”
Entering Week 13, Pierce owned the highest PFF rushing grade in the country (93.4) despite never seeing double-digit carries in a game.
After logging just two carries in the first half against FSU, Pierce commanded 10 in the second half. He took over late in the third quarter, ripping off runs of six, eight, 12 and 12 yards on a single drive. He completed that drive in the fourth quarter with the vicious helmet run that didn't count followed by a 3-yard touchdown plunge.
“I ain’t got good intentions (when I’m running), I’m gonna tell you that,” Pierce said.
Pierce’s angry running style led to 15 total touchdowns, the most in a single season by a Gator since Percy Harvin had 17 in 2008. Pierce averaged 5.9 yards per carry this year, over a yard more than fellow starter Malik Davis (4.7).
Despite the obvious discrepancy in stats and production, Pierce just barely outsnapped Davis (87 to 85). Florida’s rushing offense cleared 200 yards each of its first four weeks, but fell off quite a bit since, hitting that mark just once in the past eight games (Samford). There’s no guarantee more Pierce usage would’ve helped the offense, but numbers don’t typically lie.
Florida won Saturday because it finally played its best players. The problem is it took a coaching change and nearly missing a bowl game to get them on the field. Maybe if the more efficient players saw the field earlier in the season, 2021 could have been a more successful year in Gainesville. Maybe.
Contact Michael Hull at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Hull33.
Michael Hull is a third-year journalism major with a specialization in sports & media. He has a minor in business and leadership and is a struggling Jacksonville Jaguars fan.