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Tuesday, December 05, 2023

No. 25 Gators’ defense shines in win against Charlotte

Florida allowed just one touchdown against the 49ers

Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne runs the ball in the Gators' 22-7 win against the Charlotte 49ers Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.
Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne runs the ball in the Gators' 22-7 win against the Charlotte 49ers Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

The Gators came into their matchup against the Charlotte 49ers looking to build upon their upset win against the then-No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers. Florida marched into the red zone five times but only came away with a touchdown once.

“I think it's all easy to fix,” UF head coach Billy Napier said on the UF red zone woes. 

One such drive came in the second quarter when senior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall boosted an otherwise stagnant offense with arguably the best catch of the season so far.

Redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz floated a ball to him down the field and Pearsall rose up, stuck his arm out and caught the ball with one hand falling forward. Two Charlotte defenders collided with the senior receiver, but he managed to hold on for the 25-yard gain. 

“How about that catch?” Napier said. “He is one of the best receivers in the entire country.”

The highlight play helped UF get into the red zone but the Gators ended up settling for a field goal. Pearsall racked up 104 yards on six catches en route to a Florida victory.

“I think I’m a mismatch for any [defensive back],” Pearsall said. “That's just the mentality I’ve got to have.”

The No. 25 Florida Gators (3-1, 1-0 SEC) defeated the Charlotte 49ers (1-3, 0-0 AAC) 22-7 Saturday night in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Florida outgained Charlotte 396 yards to 210 yards in the game. 

“I’m proud of our team,” Napier said “We continued to fight.”

Napier emphasized how several things the team needs to correct going forward are technical issues.

The Gators’ third down woes continued as they converted just one of their nine conversion attempts and settled for five field goals — four of which came inside the red zone. 

“Got to get it better, that’s no doubt,” Napier said. 

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Mertz continued his accurate play as he completed 20-of-his-23 passes for 259 yards and one touchdown. 

The Gators' defense came out with an attitude as redshirt sophomore linebacker Scooby Williams forced a fumble as he got to the backfield for a tackle. The 49ers recovered their own fumble but went three-and-out on the first drive. 

Florida got whatever it wanted on its first drive of the game. Junior running back Montrell Johnson Jr. bowled his way through Charlotte defenders and picked up 38 yards on six carries.

Mertz capped off the nine-play, 95-yard drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to redshirt freshman tight end Arlis Boardingham, who caught his first career touchdown. 

“We think he can be a mismatch player,” Napier said. “Arlis stepped up and played really well in the game.”

UF quickly forced the 49ers off the field with another three-and-out on Charlotte’s second drive.

The Gators drove down into the red zone again — in part due to Pearsall’s spectacular catch in between three defenders — but settled for a 27-yard field goal from sophomore Trey Smack to make it 10-0.

“When the opportunity comes, I gotta come down with it any way possible,” Pearsall said on his one-handed catch.

Mertz picked apart the 49ers defense in the first quarter. He found freshman wide receiver Andy Jean open by the sideline for his first career reception and a 32-yard gain to the Charlotte 21-yard line to end the first quarter. 

The Gators drove down the field on a 91-yard drive but stalled in the red zone again as Mertz’s scramble fell short of the first down. Smack hit a 23-yard field goal to make it 13-0 early in the second quarter.

Charlotte failed to get anything going on the ensuing drive. 

Freshman safety Bryce Thornton made a bee-line to the quarterback on a safety blitz and sacked 49ers quarterback Trexler Ivey for a 12-yard loss. Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Caleb Banks got to the quarterback again and forced an errant throw to cause the three-and-out. 

The Gators scored on the next drive after Smack continued the field goal fest with a 54-yard field goal — his new career-long — to make it 16-0 mid-second quarter.

“That was probably the cleanest ball I’ve ever struck,” Smack said. “It felt really good.”

The 49ers managed their first scoring drive just before halftime. A series of quarterback keepers from senior quarterback Jalon Jones culminated in a seven-yard rushing touchdown to make it 16-7. 

Jones took off for another huge gain just before the half, but UF sophomore linebacker Shemar James broke through the offensive line for a sack to send the game to halftime with Florida in front. 

Charlotte forced a fumble after Mertz was hit on a passing play to begin the second half. Florida’s defense made up for the turnover and stood tall to force a fourth down. 

49ers kicker Kyle Cunanan missed the 55-yard field goal attempt to try and salvage points. 

The Gators drove back down the field on the next drive but settled for another field goal. Smack drilled a 36-yard field goal to make it 19-7 with 7:27 left in the third quarter.

Florida turned the ball over again late in the third quarter. Mertz threw a quick pass to sophomore wide receiver Caleb Douglas who stretched the ball outwards to try and convert a first down, but he fumbled it in the process.

The 49ers were forced into a 4th-and-1 but picked up the first down after redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Tyreak Sapp jumped offside. Jones found 49ers tight end Jake Clemons on a screen pass to get into UF territory. 

Banks and freshman edge rusher Kelby Collins exploded through the Charlotte offensive line and combined for a sack on Jones to force a punt. 

The Gators saw its second special teams' blunder of the game running only 10 men onto the field for the punt return. They only had 10 men on the field during Charlotte’s missed field goal earlier in the game. 

“I have all confidence in all the special teams guys we have,” Smack said. 

Smack hit his fifth field goal of the game after UF once again marched into the red zone but failed to convert a 3rd-and-1. 

The 49ers final attempts to mount a comeback were stifled by Florida’s defense as the Gators sealed its third straight win of the season. 

Florida will travel to Lexington, Kentucky to take on the Kentucky Wildcats Saturday. The game will kick off at noon and the game will be broadcast on either ESPN or SEC Network.

Contact Jackson Reyes at Follow him on Twitter @JacksnReyes.

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Jackson Reyes

Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.

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