GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida interim coach Greg Knox could sense something a little different from the Gators after their meeting in the team hotel on Saturday morning.
It had been a wild six weeks for Florida, filled with losses, adversity, and the dismissal of coach Dan Mullen last Sunday. Rather than give up on the season, Knox and his seniors led Florida to a 24-21 win over rival Florida State, clinching bowl eligibility while denying the Seminoles their own shot to get to six wins.
“We had a great senior class with some leadership,” Knox said. “They understood the situation they were in and we talked about opportunity in chaos. In a chaotic situation that started Sunday with Dan getting dismissed and me being put in place and then all the things coming from the outside that I think they pulled together and made them stronger. It made me stronger because I pulled with them and we held this thing together.
“And today when we watched our highlight video, we came out of that meeting at that hotel, I knew when we walked out of that room they were ready to play, and they were.”
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Headed into the game, Florida appeared to be the more beaten down team. In addition to playing without Mullen, Florida was also without its defensive coordinator and offensive line coach, fired after an embarrassing 40-17 loss to South Carolina as a way to make changes to stop the downward slide.
But that did not help the situation. Mullen was fired after a 24-23 overtime loss to Missouri last weekend to drop the Gators to 2-6 in SEC play. Florida had lost four of its previous five headed into the Florida State game, and the only win in that string was a highly ridiculed 70-52 win over FCS Samford.
Florida State, on the other hand, had gone 5-2 since an 0-4 start and seemed poised to get to six wins in what would have been a remarkable turnaround. What unfolded was a sloppy game between two teams that have made similar mistakes all season. The teams combined for 21 penalties and six turnovers, but Florida took control in the second half behind quarterback Anthony Richardson — who entered the game permanently after Emory Jones threw an interception in the end zone (his third of the day).
Richardson has been a fan favorite all season because of his ability to make big plays on the ground, and his entrance seemed to change the energy on the sideline and in the stands. Florida became the aggressor across the board, and Dameon Pierce ran hard, with 62 yards and a touchdown.
After Florida took a 24-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, Florida State fought back. Jordan Travis, playing with a clearly injured right throwing shoulder, did his best to get the Seminoles back in the game — leading two touchdown drives to close the gap to 24-21 with 49 seconds left.
The Seminoles lined up for the onside kick, but kicker Parker Grothaus mistakenly hit the ball as he attempted to swing his leg over it. The ball moved a few inches, and Florida State had no choice but to fall on it even though it did not travel the required 10 yards — effectively ending the game. Knox said afterward, “I’ve never seen that before in my life.”
Florida State coach Mike Norvell said special teams mistakes as a whole were one key reason they lost. The Seminoles lost a fumble on a muffed punt by Ontaria Wilson in the third quarter, which led to a Florida touchdown that broke open the game.
“There were some critical mistakes that were made,” Norvell said. “It’s not just one moment, not just one play but as a whole we need special teams to be something that’s a positive for us. There were too many times this year where I don’t know if we displayed the investment that we make and the time we put into it.”
Travis ended up finishing with 304 total yards and two touchdowns, but it was not enough against an inspired Florida defense, which has taken its share of criticism throughout the course of the season. Florida defensive lineman Antonio Valentino credited acting defensive coordinator Christian Robinson for the improvement.
“It doesn’t matter what the record is, the standard here is we don’t lose to Florida State,” Valentino said. “As a defense these last couple weeks we’ve really come together. If you notice, one guy makes a play, everybody’s coming to celebrate with him. In the early half of the season it kind of wasn’t like that all the time. C-Rob brought that up and was like, ‘Why isn’t it like this?’ So it was a conscious effort, all of us, to go in there and do that.”
As a result, Florida keeps is season alive for one more game.
“We knew what was at stake this game,” Florida defensive tackle Zachary Carter said. “They were fighting for a bowl. We were fighting for a bowl. We wanted it more. We wanted to get to that bowl.”