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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Resilient Gators continue to fight despite mounting losses

Florida falls short in heartbreaking loss to Missouri

Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne carries the ball in the Gators’ 39-36 loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.
Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne carries the ball in the Gators’ 39-36 loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.

There’s seemingly no reason left for Florida to play hard. The Gators lost three games in a row, dropped to .500 on the season and were only playing for pride and a chance at a minor bowl game. 

These aren’t the stakes expected at a program with championship aspirations like Florida. But against the No. 11 Missouri Tigers Nov. 18, the Gators played one of their best games all season against their most challenging adversity. 

The Florida Gators (5-6, 3-5 SEC) fell to the No. 10 Missouri Tigers (9-2, 5-2 SEC) 33-31 after Mizzou quarterback Brady Cook led the Tigers down the field for a game-winning field goal with five seconds to play.

Florida started the game without redshirt sophomore tackle Austin Barber or redshirt junior center Kingsley Eguakun. Redshirt sophomore tackle Damieon George Jr. went down during the game. 

Most concerning of all, star redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz went down with a serious collarbone injury in the third quarter.

Yet, through the injuries and the disappointment of a season all but lost, the Gators still fought. Florida led by three with less than a minute to play. And then another gut punch in a year of moments to forget sunk Florida once again.

UF sat seconds away from securing a signature win for second-year head coach Billy Napier. Missouri faced a 4th-and-17 from its own territory with time ticking away. Cook scanned the field and found his favorite target, receiver Luther Burden III, wide-open for the first down.

“We’ve got multiple players in the area, and we’ve got four rushing, and he found the soft spot in the zone there,” Napier said postgame. “We had our opportunities for sure.”

The coverage bust led to more lapses in the secondary, and the Tigers rolled into chip-shot field goal range for Harrison Mevis to break Florida’s hearts. 

The disastrous final drive and heartbreaking field goal will forever define the Gators’ trip to Faurot Field this season, but it’s a testament to Napier’s team to have been in this position for heartbreak against a top opponent at this point in the year.

Brown only played in four games his entire college career before Mertz went down against Missouri. He’d thrown all of seven passes, with most of his action coming in the final minutes of blowout wins.

With Florida trailing in the second half, the Gators needed an unproven Brown to be the hero.

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“You're always one play away,” Brown said. “You've got to stay ready.”

Brown looked like an inexperienced quarterback early. He flubbed a handoff and fumbled the ball away, leading to a crucial Missouri touchdown. But the Tulsa, Oklahoma, product battled back from the turnover and led the Gators back.

He used his athleticism to open up the quarterback run game — he finished with 42 rushing yards — which also opened up rushing lanes for dynamic sophomore running back Trevor Etienne.

Etienne led the offense with 119 scrimmage yards and scored a crucial touchdown in the fourth quarter to keep the Gators in striking distance. Brown and Etienne combined to drive Florida down the field one final time for a field goal to take a lead with seconds to play.

While an injured offense rallied around a young quarterback, a maligned UF defense played one of its best games of the season for 59 minutes. Florida held one of the best offenses in the SEC to 33 — the second-fewest for Missouri in conference play — and routinely made key stops.

The Gators surrendered a program-record 702 yards against Louisiana State Nov. 11 but stifled the Tigers early. Mizzou scored just 13 points in the first half, and playmakers like Burden and receiver Theo Wease were relatively quiet early. 

“I think defensively, in particular, we bounced back and played a good half of football to start the game,” Napier said. 

Florida defenders flew to the football and forced stops in the red zone to limit scoring. Redshirt senior linebacker Teradja Mitchell highlighted an encouraging performance with a team-high seven tackles. 

Mitchell played an increased role with redshirt sophomore Scooby Williams dealing with an injury, and star sophomore Shemar James sidelined since Oct. 28.

Despite an encouraging performance and strong effort, Florida once again failed to cross the finish line. Missouri broke through in the second half, including a 77-yard touchdown to Wease and 62 passing yards from Cook on the game-winning field goal drive. 

The loss sank Florida below .500 for the season and to its third-straight losing season in conference play. A loss against Florida State in the season finale would clinch three straight losing seasons for the first time since the 1940s. 

But even as the losses continue to stack and a once-promising season spirals toward another failure, the Gators continue to fight.

“I’m proud of that group,” Napier said. “It’s a challenge to be prepared to play physically, mentally, and emotionally when you come up short a couple weeks in a row.”

Napier praised the team’s leadership in helping the team stay resilient and focused through adversity.

Florida will face one final battle this season as it hosts the No. 5 Florida State Seminoles Nov. 25. 

Both teams will deal with uncertainty at quarterback. While Florida awaits Mertz’s status, the Seminoles will be without sixth-year quarterback Jordan Travis who suffered a serious leg injury in FSU’s win over Northern Alabama Nov. 19.

Kickoff at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is slated for 7 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on ESPN.

Contact Topher Adams at Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.

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Topher Adams

Topher Adams is a fourth-year communications major and in his fourth semester with the Alligator. He previously covered football, baseball and women's basketball. He also enjoys professional lacrosse and Major League Soccer.

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