No. 3 Florida 44, No. 9 South Carolina 11. With AP Photos.By MARK LONGAP Sports Writer
South Carolina’s first play was a debacle.
Quarterback Connor Shaw fumbled, giving Florida the ball on the 2-yard line and setting up the first of four touchdown passes by Jeff Driskel.
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But it was hardly the only thing that went drastically wrong for the ninth-ranked Gamecocks in their 44-11 loss at No. 3 Florida on Saturday.
Coach Steve Spurrier held out starting running back Marcus Lattimore, benched Shaw and ended the night questioning his team’s commitment.
”We’ve got to reevaluate a lot of our personnel and get players out there who really want to play for South Carolina,” Spurrier said. ”Two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have thought this. We had a bad one today. LSU was bad (last week). This one was worse. We’ve got to regroup somehow.”
It might not be easy. The Gamecocks (6-2, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) were essentially eliminated in the Eastern Division race. Just to force a three-way tie, they need Florida to lose remaining games against Georgia and Missouri, and have the Bulldogs drop another conference game.
”It was embarrassing for us, very embarrassing the way we played,” Spurrier said.
Florida (7-0, 6-0) won this one with turnovers, stellar defense and more successful halftime adjustments that are making coach Will Muschamp and his staff seem like the right fit in Gainesville.
The Gators finished 7-6 last season, barely avoiding the program’s first losing season since 1979. The struggles had outsiders questioning whether Muschamp could get Florida back to national prominence.
He’s got the team there now – even if it hasn’t always been pretty.
The Gators managed just 29 yards and two first downs in the first half against South Carolina. But they led 21-6 thanks to three turnovers.
Loucheiz Purifoy knocked the ball out of Shaw’s hands on the first play. Lerentee McCray recovered, and Driskel hooked up with Jordan Reed to put the Gators up early.
It also was a sign of things to come for the Gamecocks, who had trouble holding onto the ball all afternoon.
Ace Sanders fumbled on a punt return that led to Driskel’s second TD pass. He found Quinton Dunbar for a 13-yard score. Dunbar spun out of DeVonte Holloman’s grasp before coasting across the goal line.
On the ensuing kickoff, Solomon Patton forced Damiere Byrd to fumble. Chris Johnson picked it up and nearly scored. He was stopped at the 1, setting up Driskel’s third TD pass to Reed. Driskel faked a handoff and found Reed alone in the back of the end zone, which made it 21-3.
”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. You guys take this fumble and this fumble and this fumble,”’ Spurrier said. ”So it was sad. And on the other side, their defense stuffed us.”
South Carolina failed to generate much offense. In fact, the Gamecocks managed two field goals in the first half thanks to penalties and returned a blocked extra point for two points in the third quarter.
Shaw completed 9 of 20 passes for 72 yards. He was replaced in the third quarter by Dylan Thompson. Thompson completed 8 of 20 passes for 83 yards, with an interception.
”Coach Spurrier told me at halftime we were going to make the change,” Shaw said. ”He told me I wasn’t getting the job done. I was completely supportive of him. Bottom line today, we just didn’t execute.”
The Gators put the game away by scoring on all three possessions in the third quarter, getting a 6-yard TD run by Omarius Hines, a field goal and a 6-yard pass from Driskel to Frankie Hammond Jr.
They made South Carolina’s defensive front, which dominated in the first half, look suspect. They also did a better job controlling standout end pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, who gave them fits early. And they kept South Carolina off balance with creative play-calling that included tight end Trey Burton in the wildcat.
Florida’s defense and special teams were even more impressive.
The Gators held South Carolina to 191 yards, including minus-1 in the third quarter. Lattimore, who didn’t start because of an injury, ran just three times for 13 yards.
”I feel great,” said Lattimore, who said his back had been bothering him. ”It’s not frustrating at all. We would have ran the ball, but we put ourselves in the hole and we had to throw the ball.”
And Florida dominated every aspect of special teams. In addition to the two forced fumbles, Kyle Christy had seven punts of at least 50 yards.
”We just haven’t played up to our potential,” Lattimore said. ”We just have to stay positive throughout the rest of the season and we’ll be fine.”