COLUMBIA, S.C. — They say an alligator moves faster in water than it does on land.
After Saturday, maybe the same can be said about this Florida Gators team.
As the rain began to fall in Columbia, South Carolina, No. 9 UF used 21 unanswered fourth quarter points to turn a three-point deficit into an 18-point lead in an eventual 38-27 win over the Gamecocks.
“Sloppy first half for us with execution,” coach Dan Mullen said. “Fourth quarter, I think we were able to flip that. We were able to create a turnover, create some positive drives, finish drives in the red zone. Really good finish to the game by our guys."
Perhaps the biggest play of the game occurred with around 10 minutes left and South Carolina clinging to a 20-17 lead. With the rain coming down the hardest it had all game, Mullen elected to go for it on fourth and three from the SC 34. The play initially looked like a disaster for Florida, as quarterback Kyle Trask was flushed out of the pocket, but he rolled to his left, avoided pressure and threaded the needle to tight end Kyle Pitts for a first down.
The gamble paid dividends on the very next play when Trask found a diving Freddie Swain in the end zone for a 25-yard score to give UF (7-1, 4-1 SEC) a 24-20 lead, its first of the game.
“In the conditions we’re in today, I don’t know if you want to go after (a field goal),” Mullen said. “You just have to get the ball to our playmakers, and we were able to do that.”
The Gamecocks (3-4, 2-3 SEC), coming off an upset of then-No. 3 Georgia last week, used a little trickery and some help from the Florida defense to open the game with a 75-yard touchdown drive.
South Carolina quarterback Ryan Hilinski — who left last week’s game with a knee injury — connected with wide receiver Bryan Edwards on a 41-yard flea-flicker on the game’s second play from scrimmage to set his team up deep inside UF territory.
The Florida defense looked like it had forced a field goal attempt after getting a stop on third and goal, but an offsides penalty on lineman Luke Ancrum — his second in three plays — gave the Gamecocks another chance, which Mon Denson converted with a one-yard touchdown run.
The two teams proceeded to trade punts and long field goals — kicker Evan McPherson hit a 48-yarder for Florida before Parker White one-upped him with a 49-yarder for SC — until UF got even early in the second quarter via a 37-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jacob Copeland.
Both defenses then dug in for the rest of the first half, which ended with the score tied at 10.
The sloppiness continued into the second half when Florida quarterback Kyle Trask overthrew receiver Freddie Swain on his second pass of the third quarter. The ball was intercepted, and the Gamecocks took advantage of the short field position just three snaps later with a 21-yard touchdown run from Tavien Feaster a play after defensive back C.J. Henderson dropped a potential interception in the end zone.
But it took just one play for Florida to respond.
Running back Dameon Pierce burst through a hole on the left side for a 75-yard touchdown to tie the game at 17. Pierce was aided on the play by the blocking of wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland, though South Carolina fans were furious at the referees for not calling a holding penalty.
White answered with another field goal, this time from 31 yards, to put the Gamecocks back ahead 20-17 entering the fourth quarter.
UF jumped ahead on Swain’s touchdown, and any hope of a South Carolina upset was eliminated on the next series, when Florida lineman Zachary Carter crushed Hilinski in the backfield, forcing a fumble that was recovered by lineman Kyree Campbell at the SC 29.
“I read the offensive tackle’s stance, and I just got off the ball,” Carter said. “I probably knew it was going to be play action. I just made the play for my team.”
The Gators took advantage of a defensive holding on a would-be interception — which provoked enraged South Carolina students to start throwing their rally towels into the end zone — and scored on a 5-yard touchdown reception by Pitts to go up 31-20.
The Florida defense, missing two of its best linemen in Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard, struggled to stop the run all afternoon. Hilinski was just 17 for 35 with 170 yards, but the Gamecocks ran for 217 yards on 43 carries, one yard short of the most UF has given up this year.
The good news for Florida is that Mullen is “optimistic” both his star linemen will be back for the team’s next game, a Nov. 2 showdown with Georgia that will likely decide the division.
“That game means everything,” Carter said.
Follow Sam Campisano on Twitter @samcampisano. Contact him at [email protected]