COLUMBIA, S.C. — Florida played its worst game of the year, appearing to follow a recipe for back-to-back losses precisely.
Bad weather forcing the team to rely more on the run game? Check. Missing two of the best defensive players in the country in edge rushers Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga? Check. Allowing over 200 yards rushing to the Gamecocks? You bet that’s a check.
And yet, when the clock hit zero, the Gators’ fourth quarter comeback held. They left Columbia, South Carolina, with a 38-27 win.
It was the kind of game that UF teams of old would have dropped. The offense — which has relied heavily on the passing game to move the chains in the past — leaned on its ground game Saturday instead, as it took a 75-yard touchdown run from Dameon Pierce to keep pace with South Carolina while trailing 17-10.
Florida didn’t lead until 9:54 remained in the game. Gamecocks running back Tavien Feaster exploded for 175 yards and a touchdown, and quarterback Ryan Hilinski made enough plays early in the game to keep control in South Carolina’s hands.
But where past Gators squads would have crumbled after a costly turnover like Kyle Trask’s interception on the opening drive of the third quarter (which led to a go-ahead Gamecocks touchdown), this team responded.
Trask likely logged his weakest start of the season, and his interception was a terribly thrown ball that sailed on his receiver, but he made the plays when it mattered.
On fourth and three in South Carolina territory, he found tight end Kyle Pitts for a 9-yard gain, which set up the score that would put the Gators ahead for good. He threw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter alone, notching a new career high in scores through the air with four.
Florida’s program under coach Dan Mullen has far from arrived. Its defense is still susceptible to big plays, its shoddy offensive line play limits Trask’s ability to move the ball, and its head-scratching mistakes interrupt its momentum.
But Mullen has proven his ability to win tough games. He’s shown he can pull out a W, even in matchups where the Gators were outplayed at times.
After all, he had already done so once this season against Kentucky.
UF far from dominated South Carolina on Saturday, and its Nov. 2 contest against Georgia will be a good litmus test for how far Mullen has taken the program in his 22 games.
But one thing is certain: Florida is no longer a team that loses games it shouldn’t.
Early December trips to Atlanta and College Football Playoff berths will come in due time if the program continues its upward trajectory. Those are worthy goals and should eventually be the expectation at Florida.
But for now, victories like Saturday’s can tell you just as much about how Mullen differs from his predecessors.
Follow Tyler Nettuno on Twitter @TylerNettuno. Contact him at [email protected]