GAINESVILLE -- When Josh Evans closed his hands around the football with just five seconds left on the clock, the Gators could finally exhale.
Backed into a corner all afternoon, Florida’s defense made one final stand in its own end zone, picking off Missouri quarterback James Franklin for the fourth time and sealing a victory in a game that kept players and fans alike holding their breath. The Gators needed those four interceptions, a blocked field goal and four pivotal sacks to overcome yet another lackluster day offensively and beat the Tigers 14-7, keeping hope alive for a Southeastern Conference East division crown and trip to Atlanta.
“Guys continued to fight, continued to show their effort, their heart, their togetherness … and that was a real question when I came here,” coach Will Muschamp said. “We’ve won the close games this year. Last year, we were beaten by two better teams in LSU and Alabama. Other than that, we were in every game. We had opportunities in every game to win the game and didn’t get it done.”
Heading into halftime Saturday, Florida’s offense couldn’t have looked much worse. The Gators came out throwing to start the game, a departure from their ground-and-pound style to date, but the results were largely the same — they were outgained in the first quarter for the ninth consecutive game. The unit struggled to move the football and put points on the board throughout the half. Even after the defense set the offense up at the Missouri 19 following an interception, Florida lost 10 yards and the normally dependable placekicker Caleb Sturgis had his attempt blocked from 47 yards.
Then, running back Mike Gillislee, who had touched the ball more than 200 times this season, coughed it up, fumbling the ball at the UF 17. Missouri recovered and punched it in five plays later to take a 7-0 lead into halftime.
“I can’t really make excuses for that,” center Jonotthan Harrison said of the offense’s first half.
Luckily for the Gators, the defense came to play. It got the job done thanks to timely play after timely play despite being put in difficult situations. Muschamp said that’s expected.
“Our job is to make stops,” he said. “I always tell them: ‘You’re the firemen. Go put the fire out.’ I don’t care how bad it’s blazing. Go put it out. And regardless of the situations and circumstances, when you walk on the field your job is to stop them. … And that’s an attitude. It’s an opportunity for greatness, is the way I look at it. It’s an opportunity for greatness. You go out and make a stop on the goal line. You want to be great, be put in those situations and do it.”
There was plenty of fire in the second half.
After Florida put its first points on the board with a 36-yard touchdown run from Omarius Hines, Missouri took the ball and began to march right down the field trying to answer the Gators’ score. But kicker Andrew Baggett’s attempt from 25 was blocked by UF cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy to prevent the points.
After a three-and-out from the offense, the Tigers again marched down the field. But on first-and-10 from the UF 27, Franklin badly overthrew his intended receiver and safety Matt Elam intercepted the pass and returned it 42 yards to set up the offense near midfield. Just four plays later, Gillislee took a short screen pass 45 yards to pay dirt.
Now leading 14-7, Florida tried to turn to its ground game to wind out the clock. But again the offense could not be trusted, punting on back-to-back possessions before finally moving into position for the clinching field goal with less than 2:00 left on the clock. However, backup kicker Brad Phillips badly missed a short field goal. Missouri had life, and Florida’s defense had another fire to put out.
Evans’ interception clinched it, finally extinguishing all the flames.
“I really did feel at one point someone was going to break,” defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. “Either we were or they were. We love it when our back’s against the wall. We wouldn’t have it any other way. This team is so close, nothing gets us down.”