Florida’s offense couldn’t find its way into the end zone in the first half against Missouri.
So Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson took matters into their own hands.
The junior cornerbacks returned interceptions for touchdowns on back-to-back drives in the second quarter to lift the No. 18 Gators to a 40-14 win over the Tigers on a rain-soaked homecoming Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“Those were awesome things that pick everybody up,” UF coach Jim McElwain said.
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Tabor’s pick came one play after an underthrown Luke Del Rio pass landed in the hands of Missouri cornerback Aarion Penton.
Tabor eyed down Tigers quarterback Drew Lock, jumped a route on the right sideline and ran 39 yards untouched into the end zone. It was Tabor’s third career pick-six, which ties him for second with Ahmad Black and Keiwan Ratliff on Florida’s career list for interceptions returned for a touchdown.
One drive later, Wilson made a highlight of his own as his competitive nature kicked in.
Ten plays into what was Missouri’s most productive drive of the game to that point, the former Fort Lauderdale University School standout intercepted the pass on the left sideline in front of two Missouri receivers and ran 78 yards for a touchdown to send the announced crowd of 88,825 into a frenzy.
“I think Quincy was jealous,” McElwain said.
Wilson’s return was the sixth-longest pick-six return in Florida history and the longest since Black returned one 80 yards in Florida’s Outback Bowl win against Penn State on Jan. 1, 2011.
“Those two pick-sixes definitely killed their confidence,” Wilson said.
The Gators (5-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) also made sure Missouri (2-4, 0-3) stayed on its heels all game.
The Tigers mustered 363 yards of offense, with 160 coming on their final two drives. Lock, who entered the game leading the SEC in passing (335 yards per game), completed 4 of 18 passes for 39 yards. He turned the ball over three times. Missouri replaced Lock with Marvin Zanders on its final two drives. He led them to a touchdown on the first of those drives.
Of Missouri’s 17 drives, nine ended in three-and-outs and three ended in turnovers, including the two pick-sixes.
“There was great energy,” McElwain said. “Obviously, it starts with our defense. They did an unbelievable job shutting them down.”
As for Florida’s offense, it was erratic early with Del Rio starting his first game since sustaining a sprained MCL against North Texas on Sept. 17.
The redshirt sophomore threw for 236 yards on 18-of-38 passing, with a touchdown and three interceptions.
The offense found itself in Missouri territory on five consecutive drives to open the game. It came away with two field goals by Eddy Pineiro, a former Miami Sunset soccer standout.
“My knee didn’t affect me at all,” Del Rio said. “It was just bad decisions, bad throws.”
Del Rio and the offense found spurts of life late. In the third quarter, Del Rio hit freshman wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland down the middle of the field for a 20-yard touchdown pass. It capped off a five-play, 54-yard drive that also saw freshman Lamical Perine rip off a 31-yard run.
Two drives later, sophomore running back and former St. Thomas Aquinas standout Jordan Scarlett scored on a 33-yard rush.
Florida ended with 523 yards of offense, including a season-high 283 on the ground. Perine and Scarlett paced the run game with 106 and 101 yards, respectively. It’s the first time Florida had two 100-yard rushers in a game since its win against Georgia on Nov. 1, 2014.
UF sophomore receiver and former Booker T. Washington High standout Antonio Callaway capped the scoring by returning an onside kick 44 yards for a touchdown.
With No. 1 Alabama’s 49-10 win over No. 9 Tennessee, the Gators now control their destiny in the SEC East with four conference games remaining. Florida is the only team in the SEC East with less than two losses in conference play.
THIS AND THAT
▪ Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis injured his left leg during the third quarter. Davis had eight tackles and a quarterback hurry before exiting the game. He had a team-high 40 tackles heading into the game.
▪ UF honored its 2006 national championship football team at halftime.