JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s Jaye Howard timed the snap perfectly, blew through two defenders and violently slammed Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller to the ground.
“I had a lot of frustrations, man,” Howard said. “Urban brought it out in me today.”
Urban Meyer’s future team got a good look at his former team, and the Buckeyes learned just how fast the Gators can be.
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Florida’s defense and special teams came up big in the Gator Bowl, recording six sacks and scoring twice as the Gators beat Ohio State 24-17 on Monday.
Andre Debose returned a kickoff 99 yards — the longest scoring play in bowl history — and Chris Rainey blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown.
The speedsters helped the Gators (7-6) avoid their first losing season since 1979 and pick up some much-needed momentum after losing six of their previous eight games.
“We don’t want to be remembered as the team that lost, so it was a big game for us,” Howard said. “Not only for the seniors, but the program as a whole. It’s a building block for next year.”
Ohio State (6-7) dropped four straight to finish below .500 for the first time since 1988, and lost seven games for the first time since 1897.
The Buckeyes can take solace in knowing that Meyer, who officially takes over for interim coach Luke Fickell at Ohio State this week, will make it a priority to improve special teams. Meyer did that in his six seasons in Gainesville, and Rainey and Debose were two of his most prized recruits.
“When you have two good teams play each other, it’s usually special teams that will make the difference,” Ohio State defensive back Tyler Moeller said. “That’s what it was today.”
Ohio State fell to 0-10 in bowl games against teams from the Southeastern Conference. Yes, the Buckeyes beat Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl last year. But that victory was vacated as part of NCAA sanctions.
The latest loss had everything to do with Florida’s speed.
The Gators dominated the defensive line of scrimmage. They had a season-high six sacks, harassing Braxton Miller on nearly every passing play. Howard and Sharrif Floyd were disruptive all afternoon.
Florida had similar success the last time it played Ohio State. The Gators were dominant on defense in a 41-14 win in the 2007 Bowl Championship Series national title game in Glendale, Ariz. Meyer was coaching Florida that night.
Debose and Rainey proved to be the difference in the much-hyped rematch that centered around Meyer.
Just after Ohio State tied the game at 7 on Miller’s 5-yard pass to DeVier Posey in the second quarter, Debose took the kickoff, made one cut to the outside and went untouched for his third career kickoff return for a touchdown. The Buckeyes never got close enough to even swipe at him, let alone make the tackle.
“It meant a lot to me,” Debose said. “I just tried to do anything that I can do to help the team. … There is no feeling like it.”
Florida was up 14-10 at halftime and essentially put the game out of reach on the opening possession of the third.
Rainey came off the left end and blocked Ben Buchanan’s punt. Seldom-used linebacker Graham Stewart scooped it up at the 14-yard line and scored the first touchdown of his career.
It was Rainey’s sixth blocked punt of his career, breaking the school and SEC record.
Rainey also ran for 71 yards on a warm and sunny day in Jacksonville. John Brantley completed 12 of 16 passes for 132 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. He had a 17-yard strike to Deonte Thompson in the first.
Ohio State wasn’t nearly as effective.
Miller completed 18 of 23 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran 15 times for 20 yards. He completed an 11-yard TD pass to Jordan Hall with 57 seconds remaining. The Buckeyes failed to recover an onside kick, and Florida ran out the clock for its sixth bowl victory in the last seven years, including four in a row.
Players doused Muschamp with ice water in the final seconds, but the coach later made it clear his team still has strides to make to get back to national prominence.
“The realization of this whole thing, if you want to see big pictures, in the last two years at the University of Florida, we’re 15-11, that’s unacceptable,” Muschamp said. “That’s what we are. … We’re one game (better than) last year. Sometimes I think you’ve got to put your realistic glasses on (to see) where you are as a program right at this point.
“It’s not where we’re going to be very long. I can assure you of that. Moving in the right direction.”
Ohio State has building blocks, too. Miller, a freshman, gives Meyer an experienced and improving quarterback for next season even though the Buckeyes won’t be bowl eligible.
“This whole season was a learning process,” Miller said. “I learned as the season went on. I could have played better. I’m anxious to get going for next year.”