On Oct. 2, Florida Gators redshirt sophomore cornerback Jaydon Hill suited up for the Gators for the first time all season. In 43 possible games since enrolling at UF in January of 2019, Hill has played in just 23. Consistent struggles with knee injuries since high school have kept him off the field, including a torn ACL which sidelined him for the entire 2021 campaign.
On Saturday, Hill competed against his first Southeastern Conference opponent of the year, the Missouri Tigers. He exited toward the locker room later that afternoon with his first two career interceptions, his first career pick-six and a great share of responsibility for Florida’s first SEC victory of the season.
“The discipline to continue rehab and the toughness to stay the course, right?” Florida head coach Billy Napier said. “He’s passionate about this game.”
The Gators (4-2, 1-2 SEC) defeated Mizzou (2-4, 0-3 SEC) 24-17 in the Swamp Saturday afternoon. Florida’s defense came up huge, as Napier’s offense bloomed late in the game. The Gators’ offense picked up 232 of their 297 total yards in the second half.
UF elected to give Missouri the opening possession. The Tigers picked up a first down on their first play, and later converted on third and 9. However, the Gators defense quickly tightened up and stuffed a third down option run.
Napier’s offense took the field for the first time and came out with a punch. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson completed a 20-yard pass to redshirt junior wide receiver Justin Shorter for a big first down. UF also fell flat, including a near interception by Richardson, failing to pick up another first down after the completion.
Another strong defensive possession from the Gators would force Missouri’s punting unit back on the field. Sophomore wide receiver Xzavier Henderson, who regularly handles returning duties for Florida, made the most of the opportunity. He returned the ball 48 yards to the Tigers’ 24-yard line. The offense could not fully take advantage, and UF settled for a field goal and a 3-0 lead with 2:58 remaining in the first quarter.
The Gators defense then decided to take matters into their own hands.
Facing a third down with six yards needed to convert, Missouri quarterback Brady Cook dropped back and scanned the field. Instead of finding a Tigers receiver, his pass zipped into the hands of Hill. He carried his first career interception 49-yards into the endzone to put Florida up 10-0.
“It came from a lot of our film study,” Hill said. “Last night, I watched that play like three times. When I caught that and saw green grass, it was over.”
In the opening minutes of the second quarter, the Gators slowly drove up the field with help from a handful of penalties called on the Missouri defense.
Nearing the red zone, UF’s offensive line allowed a string of unproductive rush attempts, prompting the field goal unit to retake the field. Redshirt freshman kicker Adam Mihalek’s attempt went wide left, and the Tigers took over at their own 33-yard line.
Missouri came out for its next drive and showcased the highs and lows of its offense. First, a fumble caused by a miscommunication before the snap nearly killed the drive. The very next play, senior running back Nathaniel Peat pushed the ball 28 yards up the field to the Gators’ 17-yard line.
Fellow senior tailback Cody Schrader would finish the job for the Tigers four plays later, punching past the goal line and cutting Florida’s lead to 10-7 with 3:55 remaining in the first half.
Things would take a sharp turn for the worse as the Gators tried to close out the half. Richardson was sacked by DJ Coleman. Trying to move the ball under pressure, Florida’s signal caller lost possession. It was ruled a fumble recovery by the Tigers.
Richardson has now recorded a turnover in five straight games.
“Every time, coach Napier says we have to post a zero, and we have yet to post a zero,” Richardson said. “I’m trying to take charge on that.”
Missouri took over at UF’s 32-yard line with 2:57 remaining in the half. Florida’s defense once again picked up the slack. A solid goal line stand forced the Tigers to settle for a field goal. The game was tied at 10 points a piece as both sides trotted back to the locker room.
Tigers head coach Eli Drinkwitz and his offense outclassed the Gators on paper. Missouri ran 40 plays for 197 yards and over 20 minutes of possession time. Florida ran a measly 18 plays for less than 10 minutes of possession in comparison.
The Gators took over on offense after the break with just 65 yards to their name.
Sophomore running back Montrell Johnson Jr. rushed 41 yards to bring UF past midfield in the opening possession of the half. Florida’s offense ran cold as it closed in on scoring position and left the drive in the hands of its field goal unit.
Mihalek took the field after his previous misfire. Mihalek’s kick once again went wide of the uprights and left the game tied 10-10. Missouri took over possession at its own 30-yard line.
After giving up a 16-yard gain for a first down, the Gators defense once again stood strong and forced the Tigers to punt. It seemed that neither team was willing to budge in the low-scoring stalemate.
UF’s offense opened another drive with a massive gain on the ground. Freshman running back Trevor Etienne picked up 39 yards to move the line of scrimmage past the 50. Richardson and the Gators offense took its chances, including a deep pass to Shorter which was ruled incomplete, but found themselves facing a fourth-and-2.
Florida stayed on the field.
Richardson broke free on the fourth down attempt and rumbled for a 32-yard gain, just short of the goal line. Johnson provided the final punch needed to score the very next play. Mihalek’s extra point was good and put the Gators up 17-10 midway through the third quarter.
Missouri’s calculated offense refused to relinquish the pace to Florida’s sparse explosive drives. The Tigers slugged up the field, facing third-and-5 at the Gators’ 15-yard line using 11 plays and nearly six minutes of play clock.
Cook searched for an option and fired towards senior wideout Tauskie Dove. Instead, he found Hill once again for the second interception of the afternoon. Florida’s offense took possession and let the clock run to triple zeroes.
Headed into the final quarter of play, the Gators still led by a touchdown.
Florida’s offense continued to lean on its run game to provide the spark it needed. Johnson broke off a 36-yard gain into red zone territory, giving the Gators a chance to go up two possessions.
Richardson made sure UF did just that, rolling to his right and firing a dart to junior wide receiver Rick Pearsall in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. The Gators led 24-10 with 11:10 remaining in the contest.
Missouri’s offense worked aggressively to cut the deficit. Cook completed three passes of 15 yards or more in the Tigers’ subsequent drive to push them up the field. Peat would once again find open field and bring home an 18-yard score. Florida was back down to a one-possession lead, 24-17, with 5:58 remaining.
The Gators made their best attempt to run the clock down. Etienne ate possession and time as UF slowly drudged upfield in hopes of closing the game on top.
Florida faced third down and long with just over three minutes remaining. Richardson dropped back and launched a potential first-down completion to Pearsall. The pass was broken up by Missouri safety Jaylon Carlies and landed in the hands of redshirt freshman defensive back Daylan Carnell.
The Tigers were handed another last chance at victory. Facing a third-and-18, Cook completed a 20-yard pass to wide receiver Mekhi Miller to keep the drive alive. Missouri would not be leaving Ben Hill Griffin Stadium without a fight.
Facing fourth down with just two yards to gain, Cook lined up in the shotgun with the game on the line.
With 1:17 remaining and just one timeout available for Missouri, Florida let the clock drain and escaped with a win over the Tigers.
The Gators will make another home stand against the Louisiana State Tigers next week with an opportunity to return to .500 in the SEC.
“It wasn’t necessarily the best in any of the three phases of the game, but we did just enough,” Napier said.
Kickoff against LSU is scheduled for 7 p.m. The game will broadcast on ESPN.
Contact Jackson Castellano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @jaxacastellano.
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.