University of Florida

Florida Gators fall to South Carolina after special-teams meltdowns

Florida's Hunter Joyer (41) fumbles the ball in front of South Carolina's Jonathan Walton (28) on a kickoff return during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Gainesville, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014. Joyner was able to recover his own fumble.
Florida's Hunter Joyer (41) fumbles the ball in front of South Carolina's Jonathan Walton (28) on a kickoff return during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Gainesville, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014. Joyner was able to recover his own fumble. AP

Florida aimed to “take back The Swamp” on Saturday afternoon.

Instead, the man who nicknamed the place proved he still owns it.

Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks stunned the Gators 23-20 in overtime, as UF’s special teams collapsed late.

Gamecocks quarterback Dylan Thompson scored on a 4-yard keeper, punctuating Florida’s epic meltdown.

“We had every opportunity to win,” embattled coach Will Muschamp said.

“And we didn’t.”

It was a new low for Muschamp.

Florida’s beleaguered coach — who lost at home for the third consecutive game and eighth time in four seasons — was four minutes, or even 36 seconds, away from likely retaining his job for next season.

Instead, the hot-seat coach is assuredly done, as Florida (5-4) is no longer in contention for Atlanta and must win one of its final two games just to reach bowl eligibility.

“I’m getting a little old when you start feeling sorry for the other coach,” said Spurrier, who is buddies with Muschamp and might have coached his final game in The Swamp.

“I hope they keep him.”

Florida held a 17-7 lead with 3:31 to play in the fourth quarter, hoping to ice the game with a 33-yard field goal. But South Carolina (5-5) blocked Frankie Velez’s low kick.

Chaos ensued.

The Gators’ defense, stout most of the afternoon, actually put out the fire.

Again.

And it still wasn’t enough.

Florida’s grit-and-grind offense couldn’t run out the clock, punting on fourth down with just under 40 seconds to play. The Gamecocks, with no timeouts, needed a miracle.

The Gators gladly obliged.

South Carolina blocked the punt, and three plays later tailback Mike Davis tied the score, jumping on a fumble in the end zone.

Florida was forced to settle for a field goal in overtime, and South Carolina then marched into the red zone against UF’s winded defense, ending its four-game losing streak.

“Getting two kicks blocked will lose you a football game,” Muschamp said.

“I don’t know what else to say other than that. … We put ourselves in a position to win the game. We had our opportunities. We get the punt off, you win the game.”

The Gators trailed for the fourth consecutive game.

South Carolina rolled early, scoring 10 points on 151 yards to start the game. But Florida’s stingy defense eventually woke up, stifling the Gamecocks’ explosive offense the rest of the afternoon (just 200 yards over the final three quarters).

Florida stayed composed, rallying for 17 unanswered points.

Freshman quarterback Treon Harris knotted the score at 10-all in the closing seconds of the first half, connecting with sophomore wideout Demarcus Robinson for an 11-yard touchdown.

The Gators didn’t even pretend to be balanced Saturday — 80 percent of UF’s plays were runs — as the Gamecocks’ porous defense struggled to slow Harris’ wheels.

The former Miami Booker T. Washington star rushed for 111 yards on 20 carries. Florida punched USC for 250 yards on the ground.

Still, a lack of a passing threat and ineffective play-calling on third down (3 for 14) magnified Florida’s already-thin margin for error.

“We were effective running the ball for the most part,” Muschamp said. “Third down is what really hurt us. We didn’t convert on third down. We were moving the ball, but we didn’t maintain possession. That was a killer.”

UF was unable to take advantage of a South Carolina fumble late in the third quarter. Harris coughed up the football on a short keeper on the very next possession.

Florida’s entire locker room “hurt,” with wideout Latroy Pittman saying, “It’s a gut check. I can't even really explain the feeling. It hurts so much to work so hard and you know you did things to put yourself in a position to win the game, and at the end of the day we didn't just get the job done.’’

NOTES

UF sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis (knee) was injured on the opening kickoff and did not return. … The Gators were down a pair of safeties: sophomore starter Keanu Neal (high-ankle sprain) and freshman Duke Dawson (turf toe). … Florida was flagged 10 times for 75 yards.

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