Expectations dictate everything in sports.
Every outcome — especially in the volatile landscape of college football — is judged based on the presumptions made prior to kickoff.
Florida entered its affair with the South Florida Bulls as the No. 18 team in the country. The Gators were favored by 23.5 points at home.
Many fans believed Florida would use this game against USF as a glorified practice; an opportunity to build confidence after a crushing defeat against Kentucky the week prior; a stepping stone before returning to Southeastern Conference play next Saturday on the road against rival Tennessee.
Instead, the Gators and Bulls found themselves in a dogfight. Florida head coach Billy Napier wasn’t surprised though — he didn’t overlook the opponent.
“The South Florida team that I watched tonight I think is a high-quality team,” Napier said after the game.
Florida (2-1, 0-1 SEC) avoided a disastrous upset against USF (1-2) Sept. 17. The Gators defeated the Bulls 31-28 despite their defense giving up 286 rushing yards and redshirt sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson throwing two interceptions. The old adage — one UF is currently living by — is that an ugly win is still a win.
“Anytime you win a football game I think there’s a place to celebrate that, and we certainly are going to do that tonight,” Napier said. “We have a lot of work to do, that’s very obvious, but credit to our team and staff.”
Richardson’s statline left something to be desired for the second straight week. He also threw two interceptions against Kentucky. His second pick came at a critical moment. If it weren’t for a defensive bailout, it could’ve been the paramount play of a USF upset.
The Florida offense had driven 70 yards down the field, trailed by four and lined up first-and-goal on the 5-yard line. Richardson opted to throw a fade pass in the direction of redshirt junior Justin Shorter.
“They loaded the box up, he had one-on-one coverage over there. He made a decision to throw it,” Napier said.
Richardson’s pass was read perfectly by South Florida defensive back Aamaris Brown. The Bulls had a chance to ice the game, but it was the Gators’ defense that loomed large in the waning moments.
The turnover battle was the story all night and dictated the momentum of the game. That palpable energy changed sides nearly a minute after Richardson’s second pick. Florida defensive back Tre’Vez Johnson played savior with a diving interception to give the UF offense a shot at redemption.
“It was a big, big, big play by Tre’Vez. We really needed that,” Florida defensive back Jalen Kimber said.
The Gators set up shop in prime field position and finally decided to keep the ball on the ground, specifically in the hands of Trevor Etienne. The freshman running back carried the ball four straight times for 28 yards and punched in the go-ahead touchdown.
Etienne was the third Florida running back to find the endzone. Sophomore Montrell Johnson Jr. and redshirt sophomore Nay’Quan Wright both scored in the second quarter, the former a 62-yard explosion and the latter a 7-yard finish to a 12-play drive.
“The O-line, the running backs, they saved us,” Richardson said.
The rushing attack accounted for 217 of UF’s 329 total yards against USF, but it will face a more stout run defense next Saturday in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Volunteers are allowing just 83.3 yards per game on the ground, fourth fewest in the SEC.
On the defensive side, the Gators were without redshirt senior linebacker Ventrell Miller. The signal caller of the defense was severely missed as Florida was throttled on the ground to the tune of 286 USF rushing yards.
UF allowed 230 ground yards to Utah week one and then held Kentucky to just 70 yards. The stats point to inconsistency. When Tennessee trots out sophomore running back Jaylen Wright, who is averaging 15 carries and 77.7 yards per game this season, against UF, he could be in store for a big outing.
Last season, the Gators handily defeated the Vols in Gainesville 38-14. In that game, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, who was a redshirt junior at the time, passed for more than 200 yards and two touchdowns. He was still growing as a starter and now has a firm grasp on the role.
After a 3-0 start Tennessee enters next Saturday ranked No. 11 in the nation. Florida, on the other hand, dropped to No. 20 after its narrow victory over USF.
The top-25 matchup between the Gators and Volunteers will kickoff inside Neyland Stadium at 3:30 p.m. The game will be broadcasted on CBS.
Joseph Henry is a fourth-year sports journalism major and is the Alligator's sports editor. He previously worked as senior news director, assistant sports editor, men's basketball beat reporter, volleyball beat reporter and golf beat reporter. He enjoys sitting down to watch a movie as often as possible, collecting vinyl and drinking Dr. Pepper.