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 3 interceptions and a fumble recovery on defense and even provided some fourth-quarter drama — well, sort of.
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 yet again 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, but considering that’s a veritable compliment at this point only underscores what this season has become.
A few months ago, this is a game Florida should have expected to win rather than surprising many by actually managing to make it relatively close in the end. Then again, nobody could have seen all this coming.
Ultimately, the Gators’ slide continues with five straight losses now and an all-too familiar script.
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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 and averaging 335.2 yards per game. Not that it showed with the ease with which they moved up and down the field.
South Carolina already had 413 yards by the time the third quarter ended and went on to finish with a season-high 469.
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 and the Gamecocks recovered and brought it all the way back to the point of the pick, 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 chance 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 on the next play 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 and a 14-0 Gamecocks lead on the hosts’ next possession.
Less than a quarter into the game, the tone was set.
Quarterback Malik Zaire finally had a designed rushing play called for him midway through the second quarter, took it for 23 yards and injured his left knee. After sitting out a play and returning, he crumbled to the ground in pain untouched and gave way to redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks as the QB turnstile keeps spinning as swiftly as ever.
Franks actually did some nice things Saturday, contributing key completions to a pair of touchdown drives despite connecting on only 10 of 25 passes for 174 yards and an interception. (Again, the bar has been set low enough for that to qualify as encouraging) . On the second touchdown sequence, 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.
It would have been all-too fitting if their collision cost the Gators their biggest offensive play of the game, but fortunately Stephens held on to it and Thompson rushed in for a 1-yard touchdown to make it 28-20 with 3:43 left.
That said, the comeback soon 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 by the end of 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.
Are there mitigating factors? Sure.
Based on available injury information, Florida was down to 53 healthy and active scholarship players by the end of the game. That includes the nine players suspended since August and the unending injury toll that added Zaire, center T.J. McCoy (the second starting offensive lineman in as many weeks) and defensive tackle Elijah Conliffe (severity unknown) Saturday.
And the abrupt dismissal of head coach Jim McElwain a couple weeks ago only added to the tumult of the season.
Interim coach Randy Shannon praised the Gators for delivering what he saw as a strong response after questions about the players’ focus and investment arose last week at Missouri.
“They understand that togetherness means there’s one goal, it’s to win, and the guys did a good job of fighting and trying to get it done. Had a shot at the end of the game. That’s all we want to do is get a shot. Wasn’t good enough,” he said. “Was (it) the expectations of what this program wants? No. We wanted to win. I’m not going to sit up there and say it’s a moral victory. There’s no moral victories. We lost the game, but we’ve got to understand what’s the next deal we have to get done. We’ve got two home games.”
Maybe the Gators answered one question, but there are so many others that will up to the next head coach to address.
Maybe the next two games still matter to those in the locker room, which is good, but they won’t change the reality of what this program faces moving forward.
The next 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 numbers are what they are.
The Gators are giving up 28.3 points per game, which is the worst for the program since 1946. The worst in 71 years. Let that sink in for a moment. They’re giving up 382.9 yards per game with 1971 (384.0 YPG) the only year on record (with data available back to that 1946 season) that was worse.
The only thing that could push this season to a new nadir would be losing next week at home to Conference USA foe UAB, a program in its first season of football following a two-year hiatus.
Regardless of outcome the next two weeks, the Gators can’t change their 2017 narrative. It will go down as one of the most disappointing seasons in modern program history.
That’s the negative but realistic perspective. The positive is that Florida will mercifully hit the reset button in a couple weeks or so and immediately reignite optimism that the next head coach can vault the program up as quickly as it was brought down this fall.
After all, there’s only one direction to go from here.