As Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois ran into the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown, untouched by Florida’s defense, with a minute to play on Saturday, reality began to sink in once again for Gators coach Jim McElwain.
One week ago, McElwain and his UF team stormed into Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and pulled off an upset for the ages against LSU to clinch the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division.
They wouldn’t repeat their heroics in Tallahassee.
The offense, once again, fell flat and the defense was only able to contain Florida State for so long as the Gators fell 31-13 to the Seminoles in a game that was more one-sided than the final score showed.
And now, Florida (8-3), down to No. 15 in Sunday’s AP poll and at arguably one of its lowest morale points of the season, has to prepare to face top-ranked and undefeated Alabama (12-0) in the SEC Championship Game, a David and Goliath-esque matchup in the heart of Atlanta.
“It’ll be a heck of a test,” McElwain said.
Even that is probably an understatement from UF’s second-year coach as he and the Gators try to avoid ending on a losing streak for the second straight season.
In less than a week, Florida will be facing the nation’s top defense, a Crimson Tide group that leads the country in average yards allowed (246.8 yards/game) and points allowed (11.4/game).
As for Florida’s offense, it ranks 114th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, two spots lower than McElwain’s inaugural season and just one spot higher than the low point of the Will Muschamp era.
Saturday was the melting point for the Gators.
UF managed a season-low 207 yards of offense against the Seminoles and failed to convert any of its 12 third-down attempts. The last time UF failed to move the chains on third down in a game at least once? Last year’s SEC Championship game against Alabama.
“We became stagnant,” McElwain said. “… We couldn’t block them up front. We couldn’t protect.”
Quarterback Austin Appleby completed 19 of his 35 pass attempts for 149 yards, a meager 4.3 yards per pass attempt. The graduate transfer from Purdue routinely locked onto his primary receiver and mistimed a few deep passes that could have changed the complexion of the game.
Twice his missed freshman Tyrie Cleveland, overthrowing him by a step the first time and then underthrowing the pass the second time. In the third quarter following a Chauncey Gardner interception, he missed Antonio Callaway on an our route near the end zone that would have given UF a touchdown. Florida settled for a field goal instead.
Appleby was also sacked six times, four of which came on third down and two of which resulted in lost fumbles and eventual FSU touchdowns.
Florida’s most productive drive of the game, a 9-play, 73-yard march down the field to open the game, ended when Appleby’s fourth-down pass was swatted down in the end zone.
“When that clock goes off you’re definitely maybe [going] through [your reads] quicker,” Appleby said. “When you’re able to stand in there and dig your back foot and you really can see through your progression … that’s my job. That’s why I’m here to stand in there. It takes guts to play quarterback, especially at this level with the pass rush. And that was an elite pass rush.”
FSU also had an elite running back in Dalvin Cook pace its offense. The junior and former Miami Central standout finished the game with 153 rushing yards and a touchdown.
“We emphasize [the rivalry], but we don’t over-emphasize it,” said FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, whose Seminoles have won their last four games each against UF and Miami. “... It’s important, but at the end of the day, it’s still one game and our guys understand that.”
Florida players will need to understand that mantra, too.
The Gators have less than a week until they goes up against Alabama, the juggernaut of college football.
“Obviously we all really wanted this win,” UF defensive lineman Joey Ivie said. “The right things didn’t fall in place. We didn’t do enough on both sides of the ball. … We just need to rally around each other and learn from this game.”