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Football was back and then it got serious

Pat Dooley
Gator Sports
Florida wide receiver Kadarius Toney gets past South Carolina defensive back John Dixon (22) for a 57-yard touchdown run during the second half Saturday.

After more than three hours of trying to alternate between bites of food and slipping masks back on, the fans at The Swamp were having trouble with a little cottonmouth.

This wasn't because of the masks or that there was a celebrity cut-out in the seat next to them. They were downright worried in a game they thought had already been put away Saturday.

Hey, it's college football and these things happen, but for a team with such high expectations, this was getting out of hand.

South Carolina was already five-for-five on fourth-down conversions and was facing a sixth. As your minds wandered back to the night in Baton Rouge when the Gators couldn't stop Jacob Hester on a million fourth downs in 2007, the lips were getting dry and the heartbeat elevated.

Yes, South Carolina would still need an onside kick to have a chance, but just that the Gamecocks had a chance was enough to make your stomach turn.

Fortunately for the Gators, Collin Hill's throw on the run was just enough behind Shi Smith open in the end zone and the ball bounced harmlessly away.

"We made just enough plays," UF coach Dan Mullen said.

Of course, he also used words like "horrendous" and "terrible" to describe different aspects of the Gators' play on a beautiful day for football. And it started out so lovely.

Florida was rolling to an easy victory and Kyle Trask was up to 10 on the Touchdown Meter. Kyle Pitts had tied the career record for TD catches by a tight end and the defense seemed to be finding itself after a rough start.

But then things, as they tend to do in a conference game, got a little sideways. 

For the first 40 minutes and 16 seconds of game time, Trask seemed to be figuring out which player was going to take him out to dinner. Kadarius Toney had the most likely reservation, putting on a Percy Harvin show, the kind of show that makes you go to The Swamp even with the restrictions that were in place.

And this small crowd of 15K and change was making enough noise that it didn't feel like a scrimmage or the spring game. It felt like real football, even if not all of the people in the stands were real.

"The cut-outs seemed real excited," Mullen said. 

So we were able to ignore the deadness of the walk to the stadium and just watch football. And to see what these guys would show all of the people who have jumped on the bandwagon nationally.

Instead, they showed everybody what they can be and then what they might be. The "might be" is the scary part, because this defense allowed South Carolina to run 48 plays in the second half. 

And that's not going to get you any confetti rain.

We all know it's a simple game. You run the ball, you catch the ball, you tackle the man with the ball. You don't play like lollygaggers.

"We've got to be the hammer, not the nail," said linebacker Ventrell Miller. 

This is two weeks of sub-par tackling for the defense, but Mullen was also quick to point out that some of the problem was that the offense twice gave South Carolina turnovers and couldn't get late first downs that would have allowed everyone to breathe a little easier.

"I don't think we played that well on offense," Mullen said. 

It may sound like I'm picking at nits or going away from my mantra of winning by one. 

But that's what is different about a season where everything is different. It's a 10-game sprint and that makes it difficult not to look around every corner before you get to one.

Florida won by 14 on Saturday. Football was back in The Swamp. OK, so we did Zoom calls with people we could hit with water balloons, but that's what we did.

It felt right in so many ways. 

 As Mullen said Saturday, "It is what it is." 

We're just wondering what it will be.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

Florida linebacker Andrew Chatfield knocks a pass down Saturday from South Carolina quarterback Colin Hill at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.