Florida players jumped around on the sideline, then rushed the field in celebration.
It was more like a collective sigh of relief.
The sixth-ranked Gators staved off the biggest upset in school history Saturday, but couldn’t get the help needed to win the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division.
Jelani Jenkins returned a blocked punt 36 yards for a touchdown with 2 seconds remaining, capping the comeback and giving Florida a 27-20 victory against Louisiana-Lafayette.
”I’m speechless,” said Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, who blocked the kick. ”I’ve never seen a game end like that. We overcome adversity. That’s what we do.”
The Gators (9-1) needed Auburn to upset Georgia later in the day, but the Bulldogs won 38-0 and clinched a spot in the league title game.
No one, though, was thinking about that game late in this one.
Florida did little on offense most of the day and looked to be in serious trouble when quarterback Jeff Driskel left the game with a sprained right ankle.
The Rajin’ Cajuns (5-4) led 17-13 in the third quarter after Alonzo Harris’ 2-yard run and a blocked punt for a touchdown on the ensuing drive. Brett Baer’s 22-yard field goal – a huge stand for Florida’s defense – made it 20-13 early in the fourth.
But Florida backup Jacoby Brissett rallied the Gators. After a shaky start that included two sacks and a near interception in his first four throws, Brissett found tight end Jordan Reed down the middle for a 39-yard gain and then hit Quinton Dunbar for 3-yard score with 1:42 remaining.
”It’s difficult to come in during the middle of a series for a quarterback,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. ”I think he did a fantastic job.”
ULL was content to run out the clock and play for overtime.
Purifoy had other thoughts. One of Florida’s fastest players, Purifoy sprinted off the edge and got his right hand on Baer’s punt as the final few seconds ticked off the clock. Jenkins picked up the deflection and went untouched the other way.
Florida players and coaches erupted on the sideline, knowing the significance of the situation.
”Anytime you see the seventh-ranked team in the country storm the field like they won the Super Bowl to beat you, you know you’re doing some good things,” ULL coach Mark Hudspeth said.
But players questioned Hudspeth’s late-game decisions.
With the game tied at 20 and 1:40 remaining, the Rajin’ Cajuns ran three times before the fateful punt.
”There is a lot of pain in the locker room because we knew that we had that game in our hands and we let it slip away,” ULL receiver Bradley Brown said. ”The thing that we didn’t understand was why we didn’t go for it with a minute and 40 seconds left on the clock because we are a two-minute team.”
The Gators were coming off eight consecutive games against SEC foes and were supposed to get a break against a middle-of-the-pack team from the Sun Belt Conference. Louisiana-Lafayette was a 27-point underdog, was paid $950,000 to be Florida’s homecoming opponent and hadn’t beaten a ranked team in 16 years.
That didn’t matter at Florida Field, where the Rajin’ Cajuns played smart and waited for the Gators to self-destruct.
Florida was flagged 10 times for 79 yards, including two costly ones on ULL’s lone touchdown drive. Lerentee McCray was penalized for being off side on a third-down play that likely would have forced a punt, and Purifoy was called pass interference on another third-down pass.
”As a player you’ve got to look in the mirror and realize you’ve got to be smarter than that,” Muschamp said.
Those came on the heels on Clay Burton’s dropped pass in the end zone early in the third. Reed got the ball on an end around and floated it to the sideline, but Burton couldn’t haul it in, and Florida settled for a field goal and a 13-3 lead.
The lead seemed safe considering it was about how Florida has played all season.
The Gators had 158 yards and nine first downs at halftime, and most of those came on a late drive just before the break. Driskel found Trey Burton all alone for a 2-yard score with 7 seconds left, capping an 85-yard drive.
Driskel completed 13 of 16 passes for 98 yards and a touchdown. He added 76 yards rushing and was sacked three times.
Brissett was 6 of 8 passing for 64 yards, with a TD. He was sacked twice.
”That’s what you dream about, no matter who it’s against,” Brissett said. ”I had to make sure when I got my chance that I didn’t make a fool of myself. I came out and did what I had to do.”
Mike Gillislee had with 45 yards rushing, his fifth consecutive game of less than 80.
The Gators finished with 311 yards against the 89th-ranked defense in the county, a unit that allowed 65 points against Oklahoma State in September.
But this game will be remembered for Purifoy’s block and Jenkins’ return.
”To win the game in that fashion certainly is credited to our character and our kids,” Muschamp said.