GAINESVILLE -- Defense wins championships, and after throttling South Carolina 44-11 on Saturday, Florida is one win away from a trip to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
The Gators defense has been the team’s strength this season, holding opponents to 12.1 points per game. Florida held top-10 opponents LSU and South Carolina to 17 combined points and zero touchdowns. The unit was especially effective Saturday, forcing four turnovers and four sacks while holding the Gamecocks to just 36 rushing yards and 191 yards of total offense.
Florida coach Will Muschamp said stopping the run was crucial.
“That’s where it all starts for us,” he said. “If we’re able to do that and create a one-dimensional game … that kind of plays into our hands.”
South Carolina had just six first downs in the second half and went three-and-out on four of its six possessions.
Thanks in large part to punter Kyle Christy, the Gators had an average starting field position at the 50-yard line.
Christy averaged 54.3 yards on seven punts, with all seven going for at least 51 yards. Punting from inside Florida’s 20-yard line in the first quarter, Christy boomed a punt 62 yards to flip the field. His next punt was downed at the SC 6.
With a net average of 50.4, the hang time Christy achieved on his kicks also allowed the Gators’ coverage unit to make quick stops and created the opportunity for big plays, such as the strip of Gamecocks returner Ace Sanders midway through the second quarter. Florida recovered at the South Carolina 29 and scored six plays later.
Florida got a boost on both sides of the ball with the return of several key players from injury. Linebacker Jelani Jenkins (hamstring/thumb), defensive end Dominique Easley (knee) and offensive linemen Xavier Nixon (concussion), James Wilson (eye) and Jonotthan Harrison (elbow) all started at their usual spots for the Gators.
Wide receivers Frankie Hammond and Quinton Dunbar and safety Jabari Gorman, all players from Miami, had big plays for the Gators.
After Burton’s strip set the offense up inside South Carolina territory, quarterback Jeff Driskel found Dunbar on a third-and-6 play from the SC 13. Dunbar caught the ball and made two defenders miss to score his second touchdown of the season. He finished with two catches for 29 yards and the score.
Hammond caught his third touchdown of the year late in the third quarter on a drive that was extended by another pivotal third-down catch from Dunbar. Hammond finished with two catches for 16 yards and the touchdown.
Gorman picked up his first career interception off South Carolina backup quarterback Dylan Thompson in the fourth quarter to help seal the victory.
This and that
Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett of Palm Beach Dwyer will not be able to take a redshirt this season after appearing in the fourth quarter on Saturday. … Florida struggled with penalties, especially early, racking up seven for 74 yards. … Running back Mike Gillislee had his worst game of the season, rushing for just 47 yards on 19 carries for a 1.9 average. … Florida was a perfect 6 for 6 in the red zone with six touchdowns until taking a knee to run out the clock while inside the 20.