After Florida’s humbling 31-10 loss on the road against Arkansas, the noise came back and the skeptics resurfaced.
Maybe, they thought, the SEC East-leading Gators aren’t as good as they seem.
The outside pressures swirling around the program gave UF coach Jim McElwain and his players two options: Give in or prove that they still have fight in them.
Saturday’s 20-7 win over South Carolina was a start in them making a case for the latter.
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“Here’s the one thing I do know,” McElwain said. “You come to the University of Florida, there’s noise in the system no matter what. And that’s the beauty of a place like this. You’ve got a bunch of people who care and a bunch that know football. And so, you know, the noise piece, you can see it didn’t bother our guys.”
And now, with No. 21 Florida’s SEC East hopes coming down to a Saturday showdown with No. 16 LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the Gators are going to need to avoid the noise one more time.
If UF defeats the Tigers on the road, it will clinch its second straight divisional title and face Alabama in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta on Dec. 3. Should UF lose to LSU, it will need Tennessee to lose to either Missouri or Vanderbilt in order to slip into the conference title game.
“I’m proud of the way that we played,” said quarterback Austin Appleby, who started in place of the injured Luke Del Rio on Saturday. “We left a lot out there and still with that it was a great team win.”
It was apparent in the offense. Appleby completed 81 percent of his passes (17 of 21) for 201 yards and two first-half touchdowns. Overall, the Gators (7-2, 5-2 SEC) racked up 372 yards, just the second time in the last five games UF has eclipsed the 250 yard mark.
And under Appleby, Florida’s offense was clicking right out of the gate. The graduate transfer from Purdue led Florida on a four-play, 56-yard drive capped by a 6-yard touchdown pass from Appleby to tight end C’yontai Lewis. On the third play of that drive, Appleby showcased his mobility on a read option in which he faked the handoff, rolled to his left, stiff-armed a defender, and raced down the left sideline for 33 yards.
It was just the second time this season UF scored on its first offensive drive. The other also came with Appleby at the helm against Tennessee on Sept. 24 — five games ago.
“He got us going early, which was good,” senior receiver Ahmad Fulwood said. “We haven’t started that fast in a while. To get us going real early with his feet, he did a great job. And after that, it was just our game from there.”
It was apparent in the defense.
Even without four starters for most of the game — linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone did not play, safety Marcus Maye broke his arm in the first quarter, and defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. was injured in the first half — Florida held South Carolina to 256 yards and just over four yards per play.
UF recorded a season-high 12 tackles-for-loss and held the Gamecocks to 43 rushing yards. It was the fourth time this year that UF held an opponent to less than 50 yards on the ground.
“Look, I’ve been doing this for a long time,” McElwain said, “and I just know that what we’re doing with this football team is the right thing.”
Now, the Gators need to do it again against LSU.
“This is a huge game,” defensive lineman Joey Ivie said. “This next game determines it all.”