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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Gators, Napier fall in head coach’s first bout with Florida State

The game came down to the final seconds and featured 957 yards of total offense

<p>Florida running back Trevor Etienne — 17 carries for 129 yards and one touchdown — and wide receiver Ricky Pearsall — five receptions for 148 yards and two touchdowns — during the Gators&#x27; loss to Florida State Friday, Nov. 25, 2022.  </p>

Florida running back Trevor Etienne — 17 carries for 129 yards and one touchdown — and wide receiver Ricky Pearsall — five receptions for 148 yards and two touchdowns — during the Gators' loss to Florida State Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. 

TALLAHASSEE — Anthony Richardson lined up in the shotgun at the 26-yard line. 

Facing a fourth-and-12 with 46 seconds remaining, it would be up to the Gainesville native to lead the Florida Gators over the Florida State Seminoles, down 45-38. The Doak S. Campbell Stadium crowd was deafening all around Bobby Bowden Field. 

Richardson was engulfed by pressure and sent a prayer towards the end zone, which fell incomplete and sealed the deal on the Gators’ sixth loss of the year. 

Florida (6-6, 3-5 SEC) fell to Florida State (9-3, 5-3 ACC) 45-38 Friday in head coach Billy Napier’s first appearance against the Gators’ in-state rival. The game featured 957 total yards of offense in what finished as an absolute barn-burner. 

“[The players] put it on the line,” Napier said. “It wasn’t always pretty, but I was on the sideline and watched the game with my own eyes. They play the game of football the right way.”

Florida elected to defer the opening kickoff and entrust its defense with responsibility for starting off the game. That gamble would end up cashing in as Seminoles wide receiver Ontaria Wilson fumbled the ball on the third play of the game. The Gators defense swarmed and helped the offense take over early at its own 35-yard line. 

Nothing substantial came from the next drive, as Napier’s offense eventually lost steam and turned the ball over on downs. 

The Seminoles didn’t miss a beat after their initial slip-up. A huge 45-yard run by Trey Benson set the redshirt sophomore up to punch it in and put the ‘Noles up 7-0.

It would take just one play from scrimmage for the Gators to respond. A 48-yard kick return put UF at midfield. Richardson went deep to wide receiver Ricky Pearsall the next play to tie the game at seven.

With only five minutes gone in the first quarter, the crowd strapped itself in for a rivalry shootout. 

FSU nearly shot right back on a long ball from Jordan Travis to wide receiver Johnny Wilson. The slight underthrow found Wilson in the endzone, but he couldn’t reel it in through contact. A holding call and near-interception by Florida safety Trey Dean III forced a turnover on downs. 

Florida returned to offense and quickly moved past the 50-yard line thanks to a 22-yard gain by sophomore tailback Montrell Johnson Jr. However, the very next play would prove nightmarish for the Gators. Richardson went down after a run and headed to the sidelines. True freshman backup QB Jalen Kitna entered the game in his place. 

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Luckily for the Gators, Florida’s rushing attack kept the drive alive for Richardson to return five plays later. 

The young gunslinger needed just two plays back from the sidelines to find sophomore tight end Johnathan Odom for a touchdown. With just over four minutes left in the first quarter, Florida now led 14-7. 

The Florida State offense remained unrelenting in response. Travis completed two chunk passes before tumbling past the goal line to bring in the 29-yard score himself. Just three minutes after the Gators took the lead, the game was tied up once more, 14-14.

Richardson and the offense retook the field looking to break the tie once more. Instead, Richardson found himself caught up in the pass rush. He rolled out to his left and launched the ball into the hands of the Seminoles defense for his first interception of the night. FSU took over just short of midfield.

The ‘Noles would drive to the Gators’ 25-yard line the next drive. However, Florida’s secondary held firm when it counted and forced a field goal attempt. The kick was off-target and UF returned to offense with the game still level.

Pearsall took the field and simply took over. 

The Arizona State transfer brought in a pair of catches for a combined 75 yards on the drive, capping it off by strolling into the endzone for a 21-14 lead with under ten minutes to go in the half. Pearsall finished the night with a career-high 148 yards. 

“I’m glad Ricky played,” Richardson said.

The Gators defense was powerless to protect the lead. Missed tackles allowed FSU to waltz upfield. UF missed four opportunities to stop a Travis scramble that ended with him on the 1-yard line. Travis punched in the score himself, and the ‘Noles tied the game at 21 with 5:44 left in the first half. 

Florida drove up the field methodically and found itself in the red zone with under a minute to go in the half. The Gators took a few shots at the end zone, but settled for a field goal before trotting to the locker room to prepare for the second half.

The two teams were neck and neck, nearly equal in multiple offensive categories. The Gators still managed to find a small advantage on the scoreboard. At the half, Florida led 24-21. 

The Gators came out on offense, but quickly sputtered out and opted to punt for just the first time all night. Florida State’s offense returned to action and meticulously advanced the chains, eating the clock down to under the nine minute mark of quarter three. In the end, a near-interception by Tre’Vez Johnson left the ‘Noles with nothing but the tying field goal. 

The scoreboard read 24-24 with 8:53 left in the third quarter.

However, Florida’s poor tackling would let the lead slip away. The ‘Noles once again pushed upfield on the ground with ease. Florida held up on the goal line after what would’ve been Travis’ third rushing touchdown was called back. Facing third and goal from the 1-yard line, Florida State dialed up a pitch play to Benson for the easy score and a 31-24 lead with 4:21 remaining in the third. 

Florida was forced to punt for the third consecutive drive, this time giving up possession while trailing. A personal foul on Gators redshirt sophomore receiver Jamarkis Weston pushed the ‘Noles up even further. FSU head coach Mike Norvell and his offense would quickly capitalize with Travis’ fourth total touchdown for the two-possession, 38-24, lead. 

Florida State would maintain this advantage headed into the final quarter.

The Gators, desperate for a spark on offense, began relying on the run game once more after rushing it only once in the second half prior. The ground game drudged up to the goal line where Napier and UF attempted to bring the game within one score.

Johnson brought the ball past the goal line on third down, but the touchdown was called back due to an illegal formation penalty on Florida. The next attempt, Richardson fired an incompletion intended for Pearsall, but the Gators got another chance thanks to a pass interference call. 

After seven plays within the 6-yard line, Johnson finally broke the plane to make it a 38-31 Gators lead with 10:35 left in the game. 

Florida State quickly relinquished possession. The ‘Noles took up just 1:34 of game clock before punting it back to the Gators.

Cue Trevor Etienne.

The true freshman phenom broke away from the trenches and took it 45-yards to the house for the game-tying touchdown. With just under eight minutes remaining the score was knotted up again at 38.

Etienne’s effort would be in vain, as Benson recorded his third touchdown on the other end for the 45-38 lead. Florida was seemingly helpless to stop FSU’s rushing approach.

Richardson lined up in the shotgun with under 2:30 remaining and down 45-38. He faced fourth-and-18 on his own 17. He fired towards redshirt sophomore wide receiver Caleb Douglas. The pass fell incomplete, but a pass interference call kept the game alive and brought Florida to the Seminoles’ 41.

Facing another third down, Richardson used his legs and found the edge for a crucial gain to move the chains. Richardson would be presented with his final fourth down chance, but the pass fell incomplete — the rest is now history.

“When you do it the right way and you come up short, it’s tough,” Napier said.

The Gators’ last stop of the season will be a bowl game. CBS Sports currently projects UF will take on UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl. It is the earliest bowl Florida is eligible for, kicking off Dec. 17 at 7:30 p.m. 

Contact Jackson Castellano at Follow him on Twitter @jaxacastellano.

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Jackson Castellano

Jackson Castellano is a third-year sports media journalism student and the Digital Managing Editor at The Alligator for Spring 2024. In the past, he's served as the Sports Editor, Assistant Sports Editor and a Sports Reporter covering Football, Men's basketball and Baseball.

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