No. 1 Florida tops South Carolina
As he watched South Carolina inch closer to a go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter, Florida coach Urban Meyer knew it was time for one of his Gators to make a play.
Defensive end Justin Trattou was more than ready.
Trattou made a game-changing interception and No. 1 Florida finished a perfect regular season in the Southeastern Conference with a 24-14 victory over South Carolina on Saturday.
Tim Tebow tied the SEC career touchdown mark and Florida (10-0, 8-0) went undefeated in the league for the first time since Steve Spurrier’s 1996 national champions.
“Every week, someone has to step up. It’s usually someone different every week,” said Trattou, a junior playing with a painful torn left biceps.
Gamecocks quarterback Stephen Garcia had closed the third quarter when he cut back around two pursuers to pick up a first down on fourth-and-two. South Carolina (6-5, 3-5) eventually got to the Gators’ 22, trailing 17-14 and ready to strike.
But Garcia’s pass was tipped and wound up in Trattou’s hand. The 6-foot-3, 265-pounder ran along the right sidelines as a wall of Florida defenders lined up to block during a 53-yard return.
“He looked kind of athletic there,” Tebow joked of Trattou.
Four plays later, Tebow made South Carolina pay with a 1-yard TD run that matched LSU great Kevin Faulk for most in the SEC at 53.
Trattou plays and practices with an injury most people would spend weeks rehabbing. He told Meyer after it happened in October that unless he needed surgery, he’d continue playing.
“If it’s a matter of dealing with a little pain here and there, it’s not going to keep me out,” Trattou said.
The Gators remained on track for a third national title in four years. They again called on their SEC-leading defense to save things against former coach Spurrier, who looked as if he’d figured out a few cracks in Florida’s front line.
Ahead 24-14 after Tebow’s score, Florida’s defense got after the Gamecocks. The Gators sacked Garcia four times in the fourth quarter. Joe Haden’s interception with two minutes left sealed Florida’s 20th straight victory – and fourth in a row over its former head ball coach.
“That turnover took a lot of steam” out of the Gamecocks, Spurrier said. “Give Florida credit. They played pretty well. I don’t know if by their standards they thought they played super.”
Meyer was simply happy to leave with a victory.
“We did not play perfect. I’m not sure we’ve played perfect in a while,” he said. “But that’s 20 in a row and I’m awful proud of the guys in there.”
The Gamecocks had lost four of their past five after starting the year 5-1. It’s the third time in Spurrier’s five seasons he’s finished with a sub-.500 SEC mark – something that never happened during his stellar run at Florida from 1990-2001.
Florida ends with two nonconference games against Florida International and Florida State, then faces Alabama in the SEC championship game in three weeks. A win there and the Gators again match Spurrier’s 1996 team.
Three years ago, defensive lineman Jarvis Moss blocked a field goal that saved Florida’s 17-16 win over South Carolina and, eventually, brought a national championship.
Tebow ended 14 of 25 for 199 yards passing, including a 68-yard touchdown throw to Riley Cooper.
Florida’s defense held South Carolina to 247 yards, the Gamecocks fewest in four games.
Tebow had led blowouts of Spurrier’s Gamecocks the past two years. In 2007, Tebow wrapped up the Heisman Trophy when he accounted for 424 yards and seven touchdowns in the 51-31 victory in the Gators’ last visit to Williams-Brice Stadium.
Then last season, Florida handed Spurrier the most-lopsided loss of his stellar career, 56-6.
Things looked like they might be as easy for the Gators this time, too, as they scored on their first three series. After Tebow’s touchdown pass to Cooper, Caleb Sturgis had a 32-yard field goal and Emmanuel Moody broke two tackles during his 17-yard scoring run.
That’s usually more than enough for Florida’s D, second in the country at just more than 10 points allowed a game.
But Spurrier, back in full command of the offense, found a way to make Florida sweat.
He called a fake punt on South Carolina’s opening series, Spencer Lanning throwing a perfect pass to wide open D.J. Swearinger. An illegal shift penalty, though, negated the first down.
The Gamecocks tied it at 7-all with a 14-play, 84-yard drive finished by Brian Maddox’s 1-yard TD run. It was the junior’s first score in eight games.
Garcia went 5 of 5 on South Carolina’s other first-half scoring drive, hitting Weslye Saunders with a 9-yard touchdown pass in the left corner of the end zone.
Garcia gave a military salute to the South Carolina sidelines after that score, keeping with the theme of the day.
The Gamecocks wore black camouflage jerseys with values such as “Courage,” “Integrity,” and “Service” on the back instead of names to honor veterans hurt defending the United States. The effort was sponsored by The Wounded Warrior Project and Under Armour.
Garcia had seemingly put himself in line as one of South Carolina’s alltime heroes with his late run. Two plays later, though, came Trattou’s interception.
“That’s not what we were trying to do,” Spurrier said. “After that we went backwards every time we touched it.”