COLUMBIA, S.C. — One could say this Florida loss wasn’t quite as ugly as the previous couple, but that’s only because it would be hard for any team to keep up that pace.
The Gators managed to get into the end zone a couple times Saturday at South Carolina, racked up three interceptions and a fumble recovery and even provided some fourth quarter drama.
This wasn’t the same lifeless performance the defense gave last week, but it wasn’t a good one either. The offense showed persistence despite another in-game quarterback change, but it wasn’t enough.
After losing by 35 and 29 points the last two weeks, Florida at least kept some suspense until the end in this 28-20 loss to the Gamecocks, and the fact that’s a veritable compliment at this point highlights what this season has become.
Two months ago this is a game Florida should have expected to win rather than simply surprising many by actually keeping it close.
In the end, the slide continues, five straight losses and an all-too familiar script.
Another dropped punt, plenty more missed tackles, gaping rushing lanes and uncontested touchdowns for the opposition, untimely dropped passes, etc., etc.
The Gamecocks somehow came into the day with an offense ranked lower than Florida’s, checking it at No. 113 nationally with 335.2 yards per game. Not that it showed with the ease with which the they moved up and down the field.
South Carolina already had more than 400 yards by the time the third quarter ended and went on to finish with a season-high 469 yards.
Even when things went right for Florida on Saturday, they still went wrong.
Freshman cornerback C.J. Henderson intercepted South Carolina QB Jake Bentley in the first quarter and returned it 24 yards to the 1, but he fumbled before crossing the goal line, the Gamecocks recovered and brought it all the way back to the point of the catch, resulting in a net gain for the hosts.
The defense managed to stall that drive nonetheless, but for the second week in a row Brandon Powell dropped a punt to give the opponent position and a prime scoring opportunity. If there was a moment for Florida to seize any momentum in this game it came when safety Chauncey Gardner Jr. cut in front of the receiver for an interception and 46-yard return to erase that special teams miscue.
But no, there was no turning point for the Gators — not on Saturday and not for this season.
South Carolina’s Mon Denson scooted through the middle with no resistance for a 24-yard touchdown run (the first of his career) and a 14-0 Gamecocks lead on the hosts’ next possession.
The tone was set.
Quarterback Malik Zaire finally had a designed rushing play called for him, took it for 23 yards and injured his knee. After sitting out a play and returning, he crumbled to the ground in pain untouched and gave way to redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks.
Franks actually did some nice things Saturday, contributing to a pair of touchdown drives. On the second, he unfurled one of his signature heaves down the field with running back Mark Thompson standing wide open in front of the goal line. Tight end Moral Stephens was close enough to go for the ball too and ended up hauling it in while crashing into Thompson.
Unbelievably, given the Gators’ luck this season, Stephens held on to it and Thompson rushed in for a 1-yard touchdown to make it a 28-20 game late in the fourth quarter.
But the comeback ended with a little more than a minute remaining when South Carolina intercepted Franks on a pass tipped at the line.
It never truly seemed this game was in doubt. Not late in the first quarter, or even down the stretch in the fourth.
The Gators are now 3-6 with two regular-season games left. They are essentially assured of just their second losing season since 1980 barring wins in those two games and an unexpected bowl invite.
The next head coach will have quite a mess to clean up, as Florida is no longer just lagging behind on offense but now struggling perhaps even more on defense. Be it due to the injury attrition, the youth or whatever, the bottom line is it’s not good.
There are questions all over the field for Florida, including, realistically, whether the Gators will be able to change their fate next week against a UAB program playing its first season after a two-year hiatus.
Either way, the Gators can’t change the narrative of this season. It will go down as one of the most disappointing campaigns in three decades.
The next head coach has a tall task ahead of him, but also a very low bar to exceed as the Gators hit the reset button in a few weeks.
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