These were the kind of games the Florida Gators used to somehow find a way to win. They were even doing it earlier this season.
But no more.
That fourth-quarter magic has been rubbed off, and now UF sees its season spiraling downward thanks to narrow back-to-back Swamp losses that have basically eliminated the Gators from the SEC East race.
After taking a 17-10 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter — a 6-yard touchdown run by Dre Massey that was set up by a remarkable 79-yard sprint across Florida Field by quarterback Feleipe Franks — the Gators could not hold on against surging Texas A&M.
The Aggies dominated the rest of the way, driving for three field goals by Daniel LaCamera, the game-winner coming with only 58 seconds remaining from 33 yards out to send the Gators to a 19-17 loss before 86,114 fans in The Swamp.
Any hopes for another last-second comeback ended quickly for the Gators, when Feleipe Franks threw an interception over the middle to A&M linebacker Tyrel Dodson on the first play after LaCamera’s winning kick.
“They played hard,” UF coach Jim McElwain said of his players. “Our guys played hard. We didn’t make a couple of plays down the stretch that we needed to make. They left it all out there.
“I believe in these guys, and I will continue to do that. We’ll continue to push and try to get better. We’ve got a lot of ball left.”
The loss drops the Gators to 3-3 overall, their worst start since 1986, and 3-2 in the SEC. A&M improves to 5-2 and 3-1.
Just like a week ago in the 17-16 loss to LSU, the Gators had nothing left down the stretch in the fourth quarter, with the Aggies dominating on both sides of the ball and outscoring the Gators 9-0 over the game’s final 14:54.
Other than his 79-yard run that set up the Massey touchdown, it was another tough game for the beleaguered Franks, who threw for only 129 yards, was intercepted twice, sacked five times and had problems converting third downs, especially in the fourth quarter.
“I can do a better job in a lot of aspects,” Franks said. “Ultimately, it’s my job to get the offense moving. There were some series here and there where I didn’t make it happen. Ultimately, it’s on me.
“The plan was there. Just here and there, there were a couple of things we needed to do better. It falls on me. I’ve got to do a better job.”
For the struggling offense, it was a fairly productive overall night, with the Gators out-gaining the Aggies 371 yards to 263. But UF again struggled on third down, converting only four of 15.
“Third downs in the second half, we needed to stay on the field to give us an opportunity to be successful,” McElwain said.
The defense, like the offense, had a difficult fourth quarter. After giving up only 80 yards and two first downs in the first half, the Aggies’ offense got on a roll in the fourth quarter, piling up 127 yards and hurting the Gators with some explosive plays.
The two playmakers the Gators were focused on containing — dual-threat quarterback Kellen Mond and wide receiver/returner Christian Kirk — broke loose in the fourth quarter.
Kirk set up one of the field goals with a 40-yard reception. Then set up the game winner with a 43-yard punt return.
Mond, who threw for 180 yards on only eight completions for the game, killed the Gators with his legs in the second half, setting up his own 9-yard TD run with an 18-yard scramble late in the third quarter, then converting several crucial first downs with his scrambles and quarterback draws in the decisive fourth quarter.
“The defense played great in the first half, but they got a couple of explosives in the second half to flip the field,” McElwain said. “I give (the Aggies) credit. They took advantage of it. The defense did a pretty good job in the red area keeping them out of the end zone. It was a good call by them on the quarterback draw (for the TD in the third quarter).”
McElwain was upset that the Gators gave Kirk a chance to return a punt in the fourth quarter that launched the winning drive. He said earlier in the week that punter Johnny Townsend needed to kick the ball away from Kirk, or out of bounds.
“That’s what was supposed to happen and it didn’t,” McElwain said. “It came back and bit us.”
As for the performance of his quarterback, McElwain said Franks did some good things (obviously, the 79-yard run), but seemed to let the strong A&M pass rush get to him in the second half.
“We knew they were good pass rushers,” he said. “They did a good job rushing the quarterback and harassing us. He got a little jumpy in there at times.
“He made some good throws, knew where he was going with it. But the rush may have gotten to him a little bit.”
The Gators and Aggies are clearly heading in different directions.
Since losing the big lead in the season-opening loss, the Aggies have steadily improved and have won five of their last six games, the only loss coming against No. 1 Alabama a week ago.
“There have been a lot of doubters,” A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. “But we’ve believed in ourselves.”
Who: Florida vs. Georgia
When: 3:30 p.m. Oct. 28
Where: EverBank Field, Jacksonville
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850