Photo Courtesy of UF's Sports Information Department

Gators Survive Shootout With South Carolina For First Road Win

After an 0-2 start away from The Swamp, the Florida Gators football team has finally won a game on the road.  They did it in style, too.

Florida survived a Saturday afternoon nail-biter against the South Carolina Gamecocks for their first road victory of the 2023 season. The Gators overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to secure a 41-39 win. Florida improves to a 5-2 overall and 3-1 in SEC play entering the open date before the game vs. Georgia.

Graham Mertz and Ricky Pearsall have displayed some strong chemistry throughout the season. But Saturday, the duo combined for a pair of historic performances to torch the Gamecocks’ secondary.

Mertz completed 30 of his 48 passes, throwing for three touchdowns, zero interceptions and a career-high 423 yards. Pearsall racked up career highs in catches (10) and receiving yards (166). In the final quarter of play, Mertz and Pearsall connected on six completions for 101 yards and the game-winning touchdown.

South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler turned in an impressive performance of his own. He went 23-for-30 on the day, throwing for 313 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Nonetheless, Rattler’s strong showing was not enough to power the Gamecocks (2-4, 1-3) past the Gators.

Gators and Gamecocks Exchange Blows Early On

Florida’s offense started off with a bang. Montrell Johnson Jr. hurdled over a South Carolina defender for a first down on the first offensive play of the game. From there, the Gators just kept rolling. Mertz landed Florida in enemy territory on the next play via a 24-yard deep ball to tight end Arlis Boardingham.

Trevor Etienne eventually finished off the drive with a 3-yard rushing touchdown. Mertz emphasized the team wanted to get off to a quick start on the offensive end and convert on third-down opportunities.

The Gators nearly forced a three-and-out in their first defensive appearance of the day as well. However, a costly pass interference call on Florida cornerback Jalen Kimber kept the Gamecocks’ offense on the field.

South Carolina took advantage of its second chance, with a pair of big runs from Mario Anderson setting up a short Rattler-to-Trey Knox touchdown.

Florida lost a bit of momentum in its subsequent drive, but still managed to come away with a 48-yard field goal from Trey Smack.

South Carolina, however, did not miss a beat on its second drive. Rattler opened things with a 55-yard bomb to Nyck Harbor. Four plays later, Juju McDowell sliced his way through the Florida defense for a 17-yard touchdown run. The Gamecocks led 14-10.

More Back-And-Forth Action In The First Half

Florida began to prioritize its air attack in the second quarter. But in spite of Mertz’s 59 passing yards throughout the drive, the Gamecocks forced the Gators to settle for another field goal. Following another knock from Smack that flew perfectly between the uprights, Florida now trailed 14-13.

After forcing the Gamecocks to punt for the first time on the day, the Gators suddenly got their swagger back. Etienne turned in another massive run for 28 yards. Mertz followed that up with a 45-yard bomb to Kahleil Jackson to plant Florida back into the red zone. Mertz and Jackson connected again two plays later on a 7-yard touchdown pass to reclaim the lead.

To add insult to injury, the Gators ended up going for two after a Gamecocks offsides penalty on the initial PAT. Florida went with some trickery on the two-point conversion, as Etienne lined up under center and took the snap. He found Hayden Hansen in the end zone, and the Gators were back in the driver’s seat with a 21-14 lead.

Rattler immediately responded with a 41-yard strike to Xavier Legette on the opening play of South Carolina’s fourth drive. The Gamecocks’ quarterback then found Anderson on a short pass, which the running back then turned into a 20-yard hurdling touchdown.

Gators Gain Some Ground

As the halftime break loomed, both squads turned in a pair of quick drives that ended in punts. However, with less than two minutes left on the clock, Mertz found Pearsall on a 26-yard pass to get the Gators within the South Carolina 30-yard line.

After some wise clock management from Florida, Smack nailed his third field goal of the day from 28 yards out. As the Gators returned to the locker room for the halftime break, they held a 24-21 lead.

Rattler picked up right where he left off in the second half. Facing heavy pressure from the Florida defense on a third-and-8, he found Legette on a 49-yard answered prayer. The Gators managed to prevent any more big plays on the drive, forcing the Gamecocks to settle for a 27-yard field goal.

Florida drove the ball down to the South Carolina 36-yard line before South Carolina halted them in their tracks. Smack returned to the field for his fourth field goal attempt of the game. Facing some strong winds, he drilled it through the uprights for a career-long 54-yard field goal to remain perfect on the day and reclaim the lead at 27-24.

South Carolina Strikes Back

Later on in the third quarter, Rattler broke out for a 26-yard scramble to flip the field for the Gamecocks. Anderson immediately followed him up with a 13-yard run of his own. On the final play of the quarter, Rattler went back to the air attack and found Knox on a 20-yard strike to make it a 1st-and-goal for the Gamecocks. Rattler then opened up the fourth quarter with a three-yard touchdown pass to McDowell.

Johnson stormed ahead on back-to-back first down runs for Florida to temporarily silence the South Carolina fans in attendance. But the crowd quickly came roaring back after the Gators’ offense stalled out. Smack subsequently missed the first field goal attempt of his collegiate career on a blocked 48-yard kick.

Rattler completed back-to-back bombs on the subsequent drive, with tight end Joshua Simon running over multiple Florida defenders en route to a 33-yard touchdown. A muffed snap on the point-after attempt kept the score at 37-27, but the Gators now faced their first two-score deficit of the day.

With their backs against the wall, the Gators offense got right back to work. Mertz and Pearsall connected on three passes for 46 yards. Boardingham played a key role in the drive as well. He kept the Gators alive with a 14-yard gain on a massive 4th-and-11 conversion. Eventually, he bobbled his way into the end zone on a four-yard touchdown grab to cut the deficit to 37-34.

Graham Mertz and Ricky Pearsall Save The Day

The Gamecocks went into clock management mode on the subsequent drive. They managed to burn just under two minutes from the clock before sending the ball back over to Florida. Mertz started off the drive with three consecutive incompletions. But on fourth down, he came through. Mertz found Pearsall on a 26-yard strike to keep Florida alive.

After another incompletion, the Gators secured back-to-back first downs on an 11-yard run from Johnson and a 22-yard bobbling catch from Eugene Wilson III. Johnson attempted to run through the Gamecocks defensive line on the next play, but he was quickly stuffed for a loss of five yards.

Then it happened. The magic moment. The play that Gators fans in attendance will tell their children and grandchildren about for years to come. With less than a minute on the clock, Mertz took the snap, stepped back and threw a dart down the middle of the field. Pearsall juked past his defender near the goal line, leaped into the air and came down with the catch. Touchdown, Gators.

The Gamecocks desperately attempted to string together a response, but instead, they surrendered their first turnover of the game. Rattler threw a deep ball that ended up intercepted by Miguel Mitchell. After Florida took three knees and Mertz willingly surrendered a safety to run out the clock, South Carolina fumbled the ball away on their final play of the game. As the clock hit 0:00, the Gators had officially clinched the 41-39 victory.

Napier was as excited as he has been regarding Florida’s performance. From the players to the coaching staff, he heaped praise upon how his squad had executed all week long, both in practice and on game day.

Following their massive victory in South Carolina, the Gators will have a bye week. When they return to the field on Oct. 28, Florida will face off against their longtime rivals, the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs. As the Gators get some time off this coming week, they will begin preparations for the so-called “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.”

About Jack Meyer

Jack Meyer is a third-year student at the University of Florida. He is majoring in Journalism and specializing in Sports and Media.

Check Also

Pat Dooley’s High Five: Florida’s Napier Shows Confidence

SEC Football Media Days/Week finally ended Thursday in Dallas, and I felt a little melancholy. …