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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Jones explodes, defense implodes in 70-52 Florida victory

Quarterback Emory Jones tallied a record 550 yards while the Gators allowed 530 yards to the Samford Bulldogs Saturday

<p>A frustrated Dan Mullen on the sidelines against Samford Nov. 13, 2021. His former home has a pending offer in Gainesville.</p>

A frustrated Dan Mullen on the sidelines against Samford Nov. 13, 2021. His former home has a pending offer in Gainesville.

The gray, rainy sky set an ominous tone for the afternoon. 

Head coach Dan Mullen threw his hat on the field in frustration, his defense looking lost. Samford wide receiver Montrell Washington waltzed across the goal line to take the early lead in front of a sparse Florida crowd.

It was only the first quarter. In fact, it was the opening drive of the game.

The Florida Gators (5-5, 2-5) managed to take down the Samford Bulldogs (4-6, 3-4) at home in less than convincing fashion Saturday, ending a three-game losing skid with the 70-52 victory.

Quarterback Emory Jones had his best game as a Gator, completing 28 of 34 passes for 464 yards and six touchdowns, while adding 86 yards and a touchdown with his legs. Jones’ 550 total yards were a single-game school record, breaking Tim Tebow’s mark set in his final game against Cincinnati in 2009 (533). 

The Florida defense had its worst game of the season though, as the FCS Samford tallied 530 total yards, including 465 yards from quarterback Liam Welch.

The Gators defense, now led by Christian Robinson after the firing of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham last weekend, immediately looked confused. Samford’s up-tempo offense disoriented Florida, as the Bulldogs scored on their opening drive in just four minutes and 34 seconds.

Jones and the Florida offense looked to respond on the ensuing drive, and it did. Tight end Kemore Gamble dodged his way to a 27-yard catch-and-run to set up a Malik Davis six-yard scamper for the score.

The Gator defense didn’t look any better on its second drive, as Samford again cruised to a score. This time, Welch hit tight end Michael Vice for a 58-yard touchdown after busted coverage left him wide open. 

Jones completed two passes on the following drive, hitting Gamble for 46 yards then finding receiver Ja’Markis Weston for a nine-yard score. The game was knotted up at 14 with four minutes remaining in the opening quarter, and the shootout was on.

The Florida defense continued to have no answers for the Bulldogs attack, as Samford went 79 yards again with a 40-yard touchdown pass from Welch to Jay Stanton giving the Bulldogs a 21-14 lead.

Jones took off for a 31-yard touchdown run to even the game again, but after a pair of punts, Welch ran in a four-yard score to give the Bulldogs a 28-21 lead with 10 minutes remaining in the second quarter. 

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Dameon Pierce stole the show and rumbled his way to 45 yards and a touchdown on four carries, but he was quickly overshadowed by Samford’s special teams. 

Washington housed the following kickoff, a 98-yard return to give the Bulldogs a 35-28 lead. The Gators hadn’t allowed 35 points in a half since the 2020 SEC Championship against Alabama, and it didn’t stop there. The Bulldogs stretched their lead on a 10-yard scramble from Welsh one possession later. With 3:17 remaining in the first half, Samford led 42-28.

Jones hit Nay’Quan Wright for a 45-yard touchdown, but Florida went into the locker to a flurry of boos, trailing 42-35.

The unexpected battle of the quarterbacks defined the first half. Jones completed 13-16 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns, adding 56 yards and a touchdown with his legs. Welch, meanwhile, completed 18-28 passes for 298 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 31 yards and a pair of scores as well.

The sun peaked out behind the clouds as Florida began the second half with the ball. The Gators offense continued its strong performance, reaching the end zone on its opening five possessions of the second half.

The Bulldogs seemed to carry their momentum into the back half of the game, quickly driving past midfield. However, Florida finally made a play on defense, as safety Mordecai McDaniel intercepted Welsh’s pass. The Gators took over at their own 30 and took the lead for the first time, as Jones found Gamble for his fifth touchdown of the afternoon. 49-42, Florida.

The UF defense was fully awake now, shutting down the Bulldogs offense on a fourth down attempt. 

Samford refused to go quietly into the night. After another Washington touchdown made it a one-score game, the Bulldogs surprised Florida with an onside kick, recovering and taking over around midfield. Samford had to settle for three, though. The field goal gave Samford the most points an FCS school has ever scored against an SEC opponent, but the Bulldogs never scored again.

Jones delivered with the game on the line, hitting Gamble for an 18-yard score to extend the lead to 11 with 9:03 remaining. Pierce added a touchdown for good measure, extending the UF lead to 70-52. Florida finished the afternoon with 717 total yards to Samford’s 530.

“Things didn’t always go our way today, a lot of things went the other way,” Mullen said. “Finding that way to not let go of the rope, stick together, make some plays there as the game wore on to go win. I’m really proud of our guys.”

Florida looks to gain bowl eligibility with a win next weekend, as it travels to Colombia, Missouri to take on the Mizzou Tigers.

Contact Michael Hull at Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Hull33.

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Michael Hull

Michael Hull is a fourth-year journalism sports & media major and a sports writer at The Alligator. He hosts the weekly sports podcast and has worked on staff for five semesters. In the past, Hull has served as the sports editor, the men's and women's golf beat writer, the volleyball beat writer and the football beat writer. 

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