GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In times like these, there is no neutral ground.
Fans are on one side of the fence or the other.
The Gators are down. Down lower than they have been since a man could wear a leisure suit and not get laughed at.
On one side of the fence are those fans that want to kick them while they’re down, only interested in the final score regardless of circumstances. On the other side are those who want to lift them up, aware that this Florida team is unlike any other in recent memory.
As for the Florida team that lost 19-14 at South Carolina on Saturday night, if you want to kick those Gators, then you probably hate chocolate ice cream and would complain about having to pay taxes if you hit a $100 million lottery jackpot.
Few gave the Gators much chance here Saturday night at sold-out Williams-Brice Stadium. The No. 11-ranked Gamecocks remain in the hunt to win the SEC East. The Gators want to get through a week without having a player scheduled for season-ending surgery.
At first it felt as though Saturday’s game might be a repeat of the four previous ones when the Gators fell behind early and were unable to put up much of a fight other than against Georgia.
The Gamecocks took the opening drive and marched 70 yards on 10 plays. They led 3-0 after Elliott Fry kicked a 25-yard field goal, the first of four field goals for Fry.
However, with redshirt freshman quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg making his first career start the Gators used a creative run game to take a 14-6 lead into halftime thanks to a pair of Kelvin Taylor touchdown runs (20 and 29 yards).
“We weren’t going to put a lot on him as far as asking him to do a bunch of different things,” Gators coach Will Muschamp said of the plan with Mornhinweg under center.
It was obvious from the start Florida’s game plan: run a lot, pass a little, try to limit costly mistakes and rely on the defense to pull off the biggest win of the season.
The plan worked until Fry’s third field goal of the game put South Carolina ahead 16-14 with 6:43 remaining. Still, the Gators had a shot, even after Fry’s fourth field goal — Florida turned the ball over on downs on a fourth-and-13 pass from Trey Burton to Leon Orr that dropped incomplete — put the Gamecocks up 19-14 with 2:16 remaining.
Starting at their 26, Mornhinweg completed three consecutive passes to move the Gators to South Carolina’s 48. On first-and-10, he rolled to his right away from pressure but instead of throwing the ball out of bounds to live another play, Mornhinweg threw a pass to South Carolina’s Jimmy Legree to end Florida’s upset bid.
The Gamecocks ran out the clock, their hopes of an SEC East title still on the table.
“This was a wonderful win for South Carolina,” Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said. “The fans were super, screaming and yelling. That made it tough on the Gators.”
Meanwhile, Muschamp stood up for his team amidst the critics who have blasted the Gators for the past month. The loss was Florida’s fifth in a row, the program’s longest losing streak since 1979.
It also further dented their hopes of a 23rd consecutive bowl bid. The Gators now must win their final two regular-season games — both at home against Georgia Southern and No. 2-ranked Florida State — to become bowl-eligible.
“It’s real,” Muschamp said of the frustration. “It’s frustrating for that locker room. These kids have fought their butts off. There is a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip, they really do.
“They’ve got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all the want. I’m great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with it. But those kids don’t. They really don’t. They fought their butts off. And they continue to fight and play hard. Nobody has ever questioned their efforts.”
The injury-depleted Gators traveled to South Carolina with 51 scholarship players Saturday. They used their third starting quarterback in a season for the first time since 1997. They started their fourth and fifth offensive tackles on the depth chart. They played without leading tackler Antonio Morrison, who underwent season-ending knee surgery on Wednesday.
Florida’s injury list has continued to grow from early in fall camp, which has been well documented. Often lost in the public discourse are the adjustments that must be made in the wake of each injury.
The Gators have said the right things and refused to blame the mounting losses on injuries. But while they have spoken of their resilience, they showed it more Saturday than at any point in the season.
“I felt the unity and the cohesiveness from the team out there,” center Jon Harrison said. “You could just tell because we came out with more energy and more juice starting in the first quarter. Although the season hasn’t been great, you can definitely see we’re trying to build our identity.”
With Morrison out, Michael Taylor slid over to start at middle linebacker.
Taylor was not pleased with another loss, but he walked out of the locker room with a renewed sense of purpose after the fight the Gators put up.
“We’ve got a lot of fighters and a lot of heart on this team,” Taylor said. “This is a game that everyone in this locker room feels we should have won. A lot of guys out there refused to quit.
“I feel we executed on a lot higher level than we have been the last couple of weeks. We’re hungry for a win. We’re going to get one soon.”
At this point, a win is the only way to bring fans on both sides of the fence closer.
As for the Gators, they put up the kind of fight Saturday that only close teams can.