COLUMBIA, S.C. — Starting sluggish but finishing scintillating on a rainy, dreary afternoon, the Florida Gators now find themselves right where they wanted to be eight games into their season heading into a bye week and an upcoming SEC showdown against Georgia in two weeks.
Solidly in control of their own destiny in the SEC East.
They held onto their favorable position Saturday with a gritty 38-27 win over South Carolina before 78,883 that was fueled by a 21-0 run in the fourth quarter that saw the Gators go from three points down to 18 up with 4:02 left to play.
“Feels great. Love it,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “You know, you drew it up, said this is where you want to be in November. You’re heading into November in control of your own destiny and what’s going to happen. And that’s where we want to be, that’s where we expect to be at Florida.
“We’ve got a bye week. Chance to hopefully get some guys healthy. It’s good credit to the guys, our team, of next guy up to get us in this position with all the injuries we’ve had to deal with this year. But hopefully we get healthy. We’ve got a big break and have got a big three-game stretch after the bye to try to win the SEC East.”
The win improves the No. 9 Gators to 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the SEC. If Florida wins out the remainder of its SEC schedule — Georgia in Jacksonville, Vanderbilt at home and Missouri on the road — the Gators will be representing the East in the SEC Championship Game.
They’re in this position after beating the team that beat Georgia a week earlier.
It wasn’t easy. It was tough going all the way. And the Gators had to do it by coming from behind in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 20-17 going into the quarter, the Gators took the lead on a 25-yard TD pass from Kyle Trask to Freddie Swain, then pulled away with two more Trask touchdown passes — one to tight end Kyle Pitts from five yards out and the other to Trevon Grimes from the same distance.
In a game where a lot had gone wrong through the first three quarters, the Gators put it all together when the game was on the line in the fourth.
“Oh, I loved it,” said Trask, who threw for 200 yards and four touchdowns. “This is what you play for, just come into a hostile environment and take and earn everything that is on the field. We love playing games like this and I’m really proud of how our guys came together there at the end and executed at a high level.”
It was a total team effort in the fourth quarter.
The defense set up the second TD with a sack/strip by defensive end Zachary Carter that was recovered by tackle Kyee Campell on the USC 29 with 8:44 to play. And it set up the third with a stop on fourth-and-two from the Gamecocks 37 with 7:12 left in the game.
Five plays after the fourth-down stop, the Trask-to-Grimes TD connection put the game away at 38-20.
South Carolina scored a late touchdown (1:53 to play) on a four-yard pass from Ryan Hillinski to OrTre Smith to make it a 38-27 game.
“Good team win today, found a way to win,” Mullen said. “We’ve done that most of the year. We’ve been able to find ways to win as a team. Started really sloppy. Sloppy first half for us with execution.
“For the first three quarters of the game they really dominated field position, which is play to win. They kept us pinned deep, made us have to go the length of the field. Then they’d bend and then we’d punt and they won the field position game and did what they needed to.
“Fourth quarter we were able to flip that. We were able to create a turnover, create some positive drives, finish drives in the red zone. Really good finish to the game by our guys.”
It wasn’t a good start, with the Gators falling behind 7-0 on the game’s opening possession on a 1-yard run by Mon Denson that was set up by a 43-yard pass play on the second play of the drive.
The offense then came on and had a quick three-and-out.
But the Gators played a little bit on both sides of the ball after that and got to the halftime tied with the Gamecocks 10-10 thanks to a 48-yard field goal by Evan McPherson and a 37-yard TD pass from Trask to Jacob Copeland.
UF got off to another shaky start in the second half, falling quickly behind when the Gamecocks turned a Trask interception into a 21-yard TD run by Tavien Feaster.
But the Gators managed to flip the momentum on the very next play, when running back Dameon Pierce sprinted 75 yards for a touchdown.
The Gamecocks took a 20-17 lead into the fourth quarter following a 31-yard field goal by Parker White.
Entering the final 15 minutes, the Gators said they never doubted themselves.
“We expect to win every game that we play in,” senior linebacker David Reese said. “We’ve just got to execute the plan, the plan to win. We expect to win every game we play in. We’re Florida, that’s what we expect.”
The Gators made the plays they needed to make in the fourth quarter to win the game. The Gamecocks did not.
“If you have a lead in the fourth quarter you’ve got to make some plays,” USC coach Will Muschamp said. “We have to put our guys in a better position to be successful.”
Who: Florida vs. Georgia
When: 3:30 p.m. Nov. 2
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850