When he gathered his players earlier in the week to go over Saturday’s showdown against South Carolina, Florida Gators coach Will Muschamp told them to disregard the polls.
Never mind that the latest Associated Press ranking had UF at No. 3. Forget that the BCS rankings had the Gators positioned at No. 2.
“I sat with them Monday and I said, ‘OK, let’s have a conversation about the BCS and the AP and the UPI and the USA Today and all the polls,’ ” Muschamp said. “Is that going to help us win against South Carolina? And they all agreed, it wasn’t going to help us.”
The rising Gators on Saturday didn’t perform like an outfit overwhelmed by their own success, putting a 44-11 licking on No. 9 South Carolina that left UF one step closer to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game — and a possible showdown with top-ranked Alabama — in December.
A victory against Georgia on Saturday would make sure of it.
Even though they were outgained by the Gamecocks in terms of total yardage, the Gators (7-0, 6-0) remained unbeaten by turning four South Carolina (6-2, 4-2) turnovers into three touchdowns.
The biggest of those came on the game’s first play from scrimmage when blitzing defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy stripped the ball from quarterback Connor Shaw and the Gators recovered at the 2.
Three plays later, Jeff Driskel hit Jordan Reed on a touchdown pass and the Gators never looked back.
“You could tell they went downhill from there,” Purifoy said.
It was all part of the game plan. Muschamp said when he met Saturday morning with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, they decided to challenge South Carolina early.
“Let’s bring the pressure,” Muschamp said he told his assistant. “With Dan, you don’t have to talk him out of it. It was a good [blitz] call on his part.”
Two more first-half turnovers by South Carolina yielded a pair of touchdowns for the Gators. One came when Gamecocks punt returner Ace Sanders had the ball stripped out of his hands by Trey Burton. Another occurred when the Gamecocks fumbled the ensuing kickoff. The ball was recovered at the South Carolina 1. Driskel made the Gamecocks pay for their mistake with a short TD pass that put Florida ahead 21-7.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier was anguished by the costly errors.
“The only thing you can hope is that your guys give it their best shot and not just lay the ball down and basically say, ‘Here Florida, we don’t want to win,” he said. “You guys take this fumble and this fumble and this fumble.’ So it was sad.”
Driskel’s four touchdown passes for the game were the most by a Gators quarterback in a SEC game since Tim Tebow threw four against Kentucky in 2007. But the Gators still managed just 183 yards in total offense, fewer than USC’s 191 yards.
It was the turnovers, a weakness for the Gators last season, that made the difference Saturday, and which has become one of their defining strengths so far this season.
Florida ranked 113th in the nation last season with a minus12 turnover differential. Entering Saturday, however, they were 14th with a plus-7 differential that improved to plus-11 with three fumble recoveries and an interception.
“At every meeting, we spend a lot of time just talking about stripping the ball,” said Muschamp, who decided after last season that improvement had to be made in that area in order for the Gators to re-emerge as a national power.
Players like Purifoy have taken it to heart.
When the blitz was called on the game’s first play, he raced in from the outside and noticed immediately that Shaw wasn’t protecting the ball the way he should.
“He didn’t hold it high and tight like he’s supposed to,” said Purifoy, adding that the term for such transgressors is “violators.”
Purifoy popped the ball out, the Gators recovered, and the crowd of 90,833 was roaring.
Said Muschamp: “To get seven points immediately and kind of put them on their heels a little bit. You’re on the road. You’re in The Swamp. It make you think a little bit.”