Somehow, someway, when maybe only a few thought it even remotely possible, the Florida Gators turned a looming disaster into one of the greatest comeback wins in school history Saturday in The Swamp.
Down 31-14 late in the third quarter, and unable to stop a potent South Carolina offense up to that point, the Gators managed to pick themselves up off the turf and take command over the game’s final 19 minutes, rallying for an improbable 35-31 victory over the Gamecocks before a raucous crowd of 82,696.
“We were never fazed when we were down,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “That’s one of the things I love about this team. We’re never fazed when we’re down, we never flinch.
“It’s all about competing, continuing to compete. That’s the mentality of our guys.”
Even when things appeared dire — when UF went down 14-0 early in the game and by 17 late in the third quarter — the Gators kept competing and fighting and finding a way to stay in the game and eventually win it with a 21-0 run to end the game.
“Great win for us,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “Our guys kept battling. After a week ago (a 38-17 loss to Missouri), I said, ‘Let’s show everyone the team that we can be. Don’t dare take the field unless you expect to win the game.’
“You saw that today from a group of guys that expected to win the game for four quarters. Offense, defense, special teams, we made the plays we needed to make when we need to make them to win the game.
“Great mental toughness. Down 14-0 in the first half then down 17 late in the third quarter and to battle back and find a way to win was amazing for us.”
The victory ends UF’s two-game slump and moves the Gators to 7-3 overall and 5-3 in the SEC.
For so much of Saturday, it appeared the Gators were destined to lose their fourth game of the season, possibly by a lopsided margin.
But they refused to lose.
“We knew we were going to come back,” said running back Jordan Scarlett, who led a powerful UF ground game with 159 yards rushing. We’ve been in that situation before (trailing 21-3 at Vanderbilt a month ago and pulling out a win).
“It wasn’t like they’d been stopping us all game to the point we didn’t know what to do. We had plays, we were driving, we were executing. There was never any doubt in our minds. We just had to come together as a team.”
And they certainly did. After falling behind 31-14 with just 4:41 to play in the third quarter, the Gators hung together, kept competing, and started playing like the team they were earlier in the season in wins over LSU and Mississippi State.
The defense made key stops and camp up with a potential game-saving turnover (CJ Henderson’s interception with 3:21 to play). And the offense rolled up and down the field on the strength of the ground game, scoring three touchdowns over the game’s final 15:56.
The comeback started in the closing minute of the third quarter with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Franks to wide receiver Kadarius Toney that drew the Gators to within 10, 31-21.
Following a defensive stop, the offense, playing up-tempo, got rolling again, driving 89 yards for a touchdown, the score coming on a 23-yard run by Lamical Perine with 11:03 still left in the game.
Florida’s defense, which had given up some stunning big plays throughout the game, including an 89-yard pass play from quarterback Jake Bentley to wide receiver Deebo Samuel that set up the TD that put USC (5-4 and 4-4) up 31-14, responded with another stop.
And the offense then responded with another touchdown drive — the winning drive — that was set in motion with a 33-yard run by Toney. It ended with Franks diving into the end zone on a fourth-and-inches play with 4:09 remaining.
Mullen said there was never any doubt he was going for the touchdown on fourth down instead of settling for a game-tying field goal.
“That was an easy decision,” he said. “We wanted to win the game.”
And the Gators did. Somehow, someway.
“We talked about coming here as a team that gives relentless effort in everything we did,” Mullen said. “I think we played that way today. We got a little bit back to our identity.
“Are all our problems fixed? No, but we get to fix them with a smile on our face. Last week we had to fix them with a frown on our face.
“To see our guys come back and compete and have that energy in the stadium, all that together, is going to help push us ultimately to where we want to get to, which is back competing for championships on a consistent basis.”
For much of Saturday, the Gators did not play like champions. Not even close. But when they had to, they did.
“It’s all about the winning mentality,” said Franks, who threw for 161 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 36 yards and two TDs. “All our guys have that and that’s the kind of team I want to play for.”
Who: Idaho Vandals (4-6) vs. No. 19 Florida (7-3)
When: 12 p.m. Saturday
Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850