With under a minute remaining in Saturday’s game between Florida and South Florida, the Gators led by just three points, 31-28.
In a game that many expected to be over well before the final whistle, Florida’s defense was tasked with getting a necessary stop to prevent a nightmare upset. The team had experienced many highs and lows in just two weeks, but a first-ever loss to the Bulls would be the lowest yet.
The defense did its job, though, getting a stop and setting up fourth-and-18. The game would come down to USF kicker Spencer Shrader as he sent the 48-yard attempt into the air.
The snap was mishandled and the kick fell short.
No. 18 Florida (2-1, 0-1 SEC) defeated USF (1-2) 31-28 to avoid a disastrous upset Saturday night. Despite allowing more than 400 yards in offense, the Gators would survive to see an above .500 record once more.
The Gators elected to start the game on defense and wasted no time in making a highlight play. USF quarterback Bohanon Jr. completed a short pass to wide receiver Xavier Weaver, who was tackled by a swarm of Gators and coughed up the ball. Freshman linebacker Shemar James, who saw increased playing time in the absence of redshirt senior Ventrell Miller, recovered the fumble and gave Florida possession.
UF got off to a quick start on the offensive end as well. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson opened the contest with a flurry of efficient completions, including a 20-yard dime to junior tight end Keon Zipperer.
The Gators sputtered out in the red zone as Richardson was brought down on a scramble. The drive ended with a 31-yard field goal from redshirt freshman kicker Adam Mihalek to put the Gators up 3-0 early.
USF took the field hoping to erase its early mistake. Florida looked strong defensively, keeping the Bulls behind the chains, but would continually allow sizable gains on third down. South Florida head coach Jeff Scott marched down the field using a Billy Napier-esque offense.
As USF crossed midfield, its momentum began to overpower the UF defense and the Bulls eventually found themselves on the Gators 10-yard line. South Florida sophomore running back Brian Battie punched the ball up the middle and found the endzone. The Bulls put the first touchdown of the game on the board and added the extra point to boot, making it a 7-3 USF lead with 1:21 to play in the first quarter.
The Gators opened up the second quarter with a bang and put themselves back on top.
Sophomore running back Montrell Johnson took the ball in the backfield, found a slim gap near the left hash and was gone. Sixty-two yards later Florida led 10-7. It marked the longest touchdown run by a Gator since Richardson went for 80 against the Bulls just last season.
Scott and the Bulls had no intention of backing down early. The third-year head coach decided to go for it on fourth down deep in his team’s own territory. It paid off massively as Battie broke away for 51 yards and the first down, placing South Florida’s offense right within striking distance once more. Florida’s secondary came up huge, however, and broke up multiple scoring chances to hold USF to a field goal. The game was tied at 10 with 10:45 remaining in the first half.
Florida’s offense didn’t skip a beat. The duo of Richardson and freshman running back Trevor Etienne traded chunk plays back and forth as the Gators moved the chains and closed in on the endzone. However, UF’s scoring chance looked to be in jeopardy as it faced a third down on the 18-yard line.
Richardson completed a pass to sophomore receiver Xzavier Henderson, who fell short of the first down marker. However, a late hit from USF defensive back Matthew Hill kept the Florida offense on the field.
The Gators quickly made use of their second chance. Redshirt sophomore running back Nay’Quan Wright rushed seven yards for a Florida touchdown. Following the extra point from Mihalek, UF led 17-10 with 4:45 to go in the half.
The Bulls’ offense took the field hoping to keep up the back-and-forth nature of the game thus far. Florida’s defense, on the other hand, had different goals in mind.
Bohanon dropped back and attempted to complete a slant pass to wideout Holden Willis. Redshirt sophomore defensive back Jalen Kimber read it the whole way, jumping the pass and taking the interception back for a score. As the clock wound down on the opening half, the Gators extended their lead, 24-10.
USF began to get its offense working on its final drive of the half, but a crushing offensive pass interference call and a handful of incompletions by Bohanon left the Bulls with just a 49-yard field goal to chip away at UF’s lead.
As the Gators headed into the locker room, they led 24-13, perhaps still failing to meet the expectations of Florida fans. The offense put up points but the defense got shredded on the ground, allowing 216 yards on 22 USF carries.
Florida would begin the second half with the ball in its hands. To the dismay of Gators fans in attendance, it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Richardson stepped up in the pocket on third-and-8 and struggled to find an open target. He fired a pass directly into the hands of USF linebacker Dwayne Bowles Jr.
The Bulls took full advantage of the turnover this time, scoring just six plays later. A successful two-point conversion cut UF’s lead to three. Richardson’s costly misread looked eerily similar to his interception against Kentucky last week.
Each team traded scoreless drives and punts as the clock ticked away in the third quarter. The tension hung over Ben Hill Griffin Stadium as the Bulls marched up the field, knocking on the door of the lead. Gators fans sang Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” with a tinge of nervousness in their voices.
As the final quarter of play began, the Bulls moved with force from the UF 30-yard line to the goal line in just two plays. The Florida defense was now tasked with what could be a make-or-break stand. By second down, the Gators broke, allowing USF tailback Michel Dukes to break the plane at the pylon. South Florida led 34-28 with 11:14 remaining in the game.
Richardson, with his back against the wall, took the field in hopes of righting the ship and saving Florida from an upset nightmare. He launched a massive 30-yard completion to redshirt junior WR Justin Shorter to bring the Gators past midfield. A pair of rush attempts from Johnson that went for first downs placed the Gators at the five yard line.
The next play, Richardson launched a goal line fade to shorter, and was intercepted once more. This time by USF defensive back Aamaris Brown. The crowd went silent as Florida was seemingly out of chances.
“I have no issue with the decision that he made to throw it,” Napier said. “It’s how he threw it. He tried to throw a back shoulder fade when that wasn’t what was required.”
However, the Gators were given a second chance at life the following drive. Bohanon threw his second interception of the game to sophomore safety Tre’Vez Johnson. Florida made no delay in snagging the sudden escape rope.
Responsibility was laid upon freshman running back Trevor Ettiene. He did not disappoint, carrying the rock four straight times to move the chains and find pay dirt for the Gators. With 5:05 to go, UF now led 31-28.
“I think [the running backs] saved us tonight,” Richardson said.
The defense would hold firm, and the missed field goal attempt from USF sealed the Gators’ victory.
Florida’s “break” from ranked teams did not go exactly as planned, and now UF must return to top-25 competition with serious battle scars.
“I don’t think you can get caught up in [expectations],” Napier said. “The Gators played South Florida tonight and did enough to win. The work is not going away.”
The Gators travel to Neyland Stadium to take on the No. 15 Tennesee Volunteers next Saturday. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on CBS.
Jackson Castellano is a second-year sports journalism student and the assistant sports editor at the Alligator. In the past, he has covered UF basketball and baseball for the Alligator and was an associate editor at ClutchPoints.