GAINESVILLE — What appeared in the first 15 minutes to be one of Florida's most embarrassing losses ever — much less of this tumultuous season — turned into a bowl-clinching victory Saturday afternoon.
Florida fell behind 22-7 in the first quarter, then scored 20 consecutive points to close the first half, eventually pulling away for a 54-32 win over Division I-AA Furman at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The victory allowed the Gators (6-5) to become bowl-eligible and ensured they finish the regular season no worse than .500.
"As ugly as the victory may be for us, in my opinion the most pleasing part of the win was the fact that nobody panicked on the sidelines," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "We just kept playing, kept hanging in there and made the adjustments defensively. We kept playing on offense. The special teams did a nice job. We just continued to hang in.
"Nothing's easy. We certainly don't make it that way."
To earn the win, UF did two things well that it hadn't all season: get consistent big plays on offense and come from behind.
Furman (6-5) scored 22 points in a span of 7:08 during the first quarter, including two on a safety following an errant snap by Jonotthan Harrison.
But Florida's struggling offense rebounded in the second quarter.
Down 22-7, freshman fullback Hunter Joyer, a former Wesley Chapel and Tampa Catholic standout, scored on a 1-yard run.
On the Gators' next possession senior John Brantley connected with sophomore Andre Debose for an 80-yard touchdown pass to pull within 22-20 with 5:42 remaining in the half. Brantley and Debose later hooked up for a 64-yard touchdown pass.
"We needed to be able to hit some chunk plays to get the defense off of us a little bit and help out with other areas," Muschamp said. "Certainly John being able to do that was critical."
Brantley finished with career highs of 329 yards and four touchdowns and said it was a satisfying day after so much turmoil.
"You have to give Furman a lot of credit," Brantley said. "They came in here and played us hard, played us well. We just kept fighting. We knew things would go our way if we kept calm and collected, and it did."
After giving up 196 yards of offense in the first quarter, including touchdown passes of 31 and 47 yards, the Gators made some adjustments. The players credited Furman for using an offensive scheme they hadn't shown before.
"They came out and schemed us pretty good and caught us off guard," junior nose tackle Omar Hunter said. "We definitely weren't ready for them and some of the stuff they came out and ran. They executed very well. But the coaches got together, talked about it, and we made the proper adjustments."
The Gators gave up 446 yards but forced turnovers when they needed them. Leading by just eight points, freshman safety De'Ante Saunders returned an interception 25 yards to make it 47-32 2:08 into the fourth quarter. Then with four minutes remaining, linebacker Jelani Jenkins returned an interception of Jeff Forcier 77 yards to seal the win. It was the second-longest interception return by a Gator linebacker, behind Darren Hambrick's 81-yarder in 1994.
The victory came in front of a much smaller crowd than Florida's players are accustomed to. While the official attendance was listed as 84,674, the stadium actually resembled a spring game — with thousands of empty seats.
"It was weird," Hunter said. "I can't remember a time where it's been that empty. But we're struggling a little bit right now, and that's what happens when you struggle."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/gator.