No. 21 Florida Gators survive USF scare 31-28. Here are our takeaways.

Kevin Brockway
Gator Sports

The No. 21 Florida Gators survived an upset scare on Saturday night before an announced crowd of 88,496 at The Swamp, holding off USF 31-28.

USF, a 24.5-point underdog, had a chance to tie the game and force overtime, but kicker Spencer Shrader missed a 48-yard attempt in the closing seconds. A bad snap during USF's final drive caused the Bulls to lose 14 yards from their 19 to 33-yard line. Then, on the field goal attempt, another bad snap and bad hold on the play forced the kick to flutter wide right.

"We made it hard, but a lot of that had to do with South Florida, their execution," Florida coach Billy Napier said. 

USF (1-2) outgained Florida (2-1, 0-1 SEC) 402 to 329, but the Gators scored 17 points off three USF turnovers to hold off the hard-charging Bulls.

Florida scored three rushing touchdowns, including a 62-yard touchdown by Montrell Johnson, who finished with six carries for 103 yards. Trevor Etienne put Florida ahead to stay 31-28 on a 3-yard TD run with 5:05 left and from there, the defense held to lead the Gators to their 14th straight regular-season non-conference win.

Here are five takeaways from the game.

Florida Gators running back Montrell Johnson Jr. (2) takes off for a 62-yard touchdown run in the first half against South Florida on Saturday night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville. The Gators won, 31-28.

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Gators defense misses Ventrell Miller

Napier was concerned about communication on defense going into the USF game with starting linebacker Ventrell Miller out with a lower leg injury. His worries were justified.

USF rolled up 274 yards of offense in the first half, with 216 yards on the ground on 9.8 yards per carry. The tone was set early when Brian Battie broke through for a 20-yard run up the middle on a third-and-18 play in the first quarter.

Then, when USF went for it on a fourth-and-inches play from its own 35-yard line, linebackers Amari Burney and Antwaun Powell-Ryland Jr. failed to contain the edge on defense, allowing a 51-yard Battie run that set up another score. With Miller out, the Gators were relying on true freshman Shemar James and redshirt freshman Scooby Williams throughout the game at linebacker, with Burney and Powell-Ryland.

USF finished the game rushing for 286 yards on 6.2 yards per carry. 

"I don't know if you replace Ventrell Miller," Napier said. "His leadership, his ability to communicate and his production, there's a lot there. But two good young players to go with Amari Burney put it out there and competed tonight."

Florida Gators head coach Billy Napier talks with quarterback Anthony Richardson in the first half against South Florida on Saturday night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville.

Quarterback Anthony Richardson still shaky

Richardson, coming off a 14-for-35 outing against Kentucky, started out strong, completing a 20-yard pass to tight end Keon Zipperer and a 27-yard pass to wide receiver Trent Whittemore to go 7 of 9 in the first half for 73 yards.

But in the third quarter, Richardson threw his third interception of the season, which USF linebacker Dwayne Boles returned 37 yards down to the UF 18-yard line, setting up a touchdown that cut UF's lead to 24-21.

Richardson said USF didn't change much in coverage in the second half.

"They kept their defense pretty much the same, the same coverages," Richardson said. "It's just me trusting the routes and the combos, trusting the progression and just getting through it a little quicker. I was a little slow on a few plays, especially the first interception."

And in the fourth quarter, Richardson was picked in the end zone by USF cornerback Aarmaris Brown attempting a back shoulder fade pass to wide receiver Justin Shorter. Richardson checked out of a run play at the 3-yard line after Johnson had gashed the defense throughout the drive,

"I have no issue with the decision that he made to throw it," Napier said. "It's how he threw it. Tried to throw a back shoulder fade when that wasn't what was required."

Richardson wound up 10 of 18 for 112 yards with two interceptions and has yet to throw a TD pass in three games this season.

Defensive turnovers help Florida's cause

For as poorly as Florida played defensively against the run in the first half, the Gators were able to generate some big plays on defense in the first half.

Powell-Ryland Jr. forced a fumble that linebacker Shemar James recovered, setting up an early Florida field goal. Then, in the second quarter, cornerback Jalen Kimber returned an interception 39 yards for a TD, extending UF's lead to 24-10. It was Florida's first pick-six since Chauncey Gardner-Johnson returned an interception for a touchdown in the Peach Bowl against Michigan in 2018.

"I was happy about it but we've still got work to do," Kimber said. "Keep my head up, keep working, keep improving."

Making the feat even more impressive is that Kimber is playing with a cast on a broken hand he suffered in fall camp,

"The day after I broke my hand I actually learned how to catch with the cast," Kimber said. "Cause you can see it's kind of like a hand already so I just learned to catch with it and it fell right into my hands."

In the fourth quarter, defensive back Tre'Vez Johnson came up with an interception at USF's 28-yard line, which helped set up UF's go-ahead TD run by Etienne. Overall, UF scored 17 points off the three turnovers.

"That was the difference in the game, ultimately," Napier said. "You talk about the pick-six, you talk about an interception on the short field there, the possession where we took the lead. Turnovers are going to be critical every week ... We need to take care of the ball better, we threw it to the other team twice tonight, both of which are very correctable." 

Penalties still a problem

Florida was flagged for two personal fouls in the first half, one on starting right tackle Austin Barber and one on linebacker Derek Wingo on a kickoff return. A couple of pre-snap penalties stalled drives for the Gators in the third quarter. 

Third-quarter woes continue 

For the third straight week, Florida put up a goose egg in the third quarter. After UF's first offensive drive of the third quarter resulted in a Richardson interception, the next two were three-and-outs. Florida has been outscored 24-0 in the third quarter in three games this season. 

"We just have to start fast," Richardson said. "I feel like we're getting out there and just being a little lackadaisical and just coming out there in the third quarter. We've got to treat it as if it's the first quarter, get the ball moving, get some blocks, get some passes completed and get some good runs, and play a little faster and a little more physical."