Florida defeated FSU for the first time in the Will Muschamp era, but Notre Dame’s win sealed the Gators’ BCS fate.
After putting away Florida State University, the Florida Gators boarded a bus for the two-hour ride to Gainesville hoping their smartphones were fully charged and the signal in remote north-central Florida was strong.
They had just won on the field, surging past FSU 37-26.
What they needed next was for Southern Cal to knock off No. 1 Notre Dame, an outcome that would likely have vaulted the No. 6 Gators, No. 4 in the BCS standings, into the BCS National Championship Game in Miami on Jan. 7.
UF coach Will Muschamp and his players intended to track the game on their phones.
Notre Dame’s 22-13 victory was the only bad news of the day.
After all, the Gators defeated the No. 10 Seminoles, going on a 24-point scoring spree in the fourth quarter to turn a 20-13 deficit into their third win of the season over a top-10 opponent. Florida is likely headed now to the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2
After resembling anything but a national championship hopeful over the previous four weeks, losing to Georgia and turning in sluggish victories over a trio of lesser opponents, the Gators looked the part at Doak Campbell Stadium.
Muschamp termed his first victory against FSU a “sexy” win afterward.
He would also take a jab at the Seminoles, who brought the nation’s No. 1 rushing defense into the showdown. The Gators amassed 244 yards on the ground — with running back Mike Gillislee going for 140 — prompting Muschamp to say the Gators had faced better this season.
“We had a lot of confidence coming in here being able to run the football,” Muschamp said. “We’ve run it well versus everybody. We’ve run it well versus better defenses.”
Take that Florida State. The Seminoles and Gators brought identical 10-1 records into the contest, but the Gators left no doubt as to which state school was superior. The Gators moved the football, controlled the clock (36:20 to 23:40 time of possession) and took advantage of five FSU turnovers, four by Seminoles quarterback EJ Manuel.
Manuel threw three interceptions.
But it was the fumble that hurt Manuel and the Seminoles the most.
The Gators had managed to fritter away a 13-0 first-half lead by giving up 20 unanswered points and bringing a sellout crowd to life. But early in the fourth quarter, freshman linebacker Antonio Morrison landed a punishing hit on Manuel that jarred the ball from his hands and left him injured.
“I unloaded on him,” said Morrison, who took over when Jelani Jenkins went out with an injury during the game.
Said Muschamp: “Antonio is a violent, physical football player. He’s a guy that knocks the ball off a lot of people.”
The Gators not only recovered the fumble, but also on the very next play Gillislee shot up the middle for a 37-yard touchdown run that put Florida back on top 23-20.
When Jeff Driskel found Quinton Dunbar on a 14-yard touchdown pass on the next possession, the Gators were on their way.
They extended the lead to 37-20 on Matt Jones’ 32-yard run to put the game out of reach.
Driskel, who missed the previous game with an ankle injury, appeared to be moving well on it Saturday. He not only completed 15 of 23 passes but also picked up 31 yards on one long run.
“It felt good [Saturday night]; I had a lot of adrenalin going,” Driskel said. “Near the end it started to wear off a little bit, and I started to feel it.”
Manuel and the Seminoles were feeling their own pain afterward.
“We just didn’t play well," said FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, who lost for the first time to an in-state rival.
Said Manuel, who missed a series after Morrison’s jarring hit: “[The Gators] were good. I’m not going to take anything from them.”
The Gators (11-1) weren’t taking anything away from themselves.
“Our résumé speaks for itself,” Muschamp said. “You guys have covered the Southeast. You have covered the SEC. You see where we have played, who we have played and the quality of football teams we’ve beaten. We will play anyone, anywhere.”