Florida quarterback Austin Appleby dropped back on first-and-10 in the red zone and found Ahmad Fulwood alone in one-on-one coverage downfield.
The Gators’ makeshift offensive line, already down three starters, gave the graduate transfer enough time against South Carolina’s defense to heave a fade pass off his back foot to the left side of the end zone toward the senior wide receiver.
As the ball landed in Fulwood’s hands to give the No. 22 Gators a two-touchdown advantage midway through the second quarter Saturday, the announced crowd of 89,614 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium rose to its feet in jubilation and celebrated the success of an offense that had fallen dormant for the past two weeks.
But the Gators had more to celebrate after their 20-7 win over the Gamecocks. Florida’s offense clicked on all cylinders, and an injury-depleted defense held its own in the Gators’ home finale to send the team’s seniors out on a high note and turn former UF coach Will Muschamp’s return to The Swamp into a sour reunion.
And with the win — a much-needed win in the players’ eyes after a humbling 31-10 road loss at Arkansas the week before — Florida (7-2, 5-2) can wrap up the Southeastern Conference East title for the second year in a row with either a win next weekend against LSU or with a Tennessee loss in one of its two final conference games.
“There wasn’t a panic,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “There were times a year ago where if something went wrong, you’d have thought the sky was falling. And I never saw that. Guys understand what they’re doing. They understand when they don’t do it well all the time, it’s fixable. That’s the good thing.”
The offense rallied around Appleby, starting in place of the injured Luke Del Rio. The 6-4, 240-pound quarterback finished the game with 201 yards on 17-of-21 passing and a pair of touchdown passes. Appleby made the tough passes and showcased his mobility, running for 34 yards on six carries.
Sophomore running back Jordan Scarlett, a former St. Thomas Aquinas standout, led Florida’s run game with a career-high 134 rushing yards on 20 carries.
And all of this came with Florida playing a third-string offensive lineman at center and a backup at left guard for the majority of the game.
“It’s the stuff that we’ve been running all year. We just executed,” Appleby said. “We want to run the ball on early downs. We want to use some misdirection, mess up the reads of the defense, mess up their eyes. Just continue to do what we do.”
The only thing that stopped the offense was a trio of turnovers — two fumbles and a late first-half interception.
The two fumbles came with Florida inside the 25-yard line, and Appleby’s lone interception stopped Florida from increasing its 14-0 halftime lead.
“You’re not gonna win many doing that,” McElwain said.
The defense, which was without starting linebackers Alex Anzalone and Jarrad Davis from the onset and had two more starters in Bryan Cox Jr. and Marcus Maye go down with injuries during the game, shut down the Gamecocks (5-5, 3-5).
UF limited South Carolina to 256 yards — 151 of which came on the Gamecocks’ final two drives — and sacked freshman quarterback Jake Bentley five times. UF forced two turnovers, a Taven Bryan strip sack and a Marcell Harris interception, and held South Carolina scoreless until the final nine minutes of the game.
“I feel like a lot of times that we’ve had great games is when we really got penetration [and] start hitting the quarterback,” said defensive lineman Joey Ivie, who had two sacks and was one of nine Florida starters on defense who Muschamp signed to play at UF. “Anytime you start hitting the quarterback early, it’s definitely going to help in the long run.”
South Carolina’s lone points came on a 1-yard run from David Williams midway through the fourth quarter. It capped an 11-play, 80-yard drive — a drive where Florida was called for pass interference at midfield and the Gamecocks converted a fourth-and-6 to set up the touchdown run.
THIS AND THAT
▪ Florida finished the season undefeated at home for the first time since 2012 and outscored opponents 161-35 in five contests held at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
▪ UF’s offense has scored on its opening drive twice this season. Appleby was the starting quarterback in both of those games.