GAINESVILLE — Florida coach Will Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn were at the team hotel Saturday morning discussing strategy when the two came to a conclusion.
"Let's bring the pressure," Muschamp told Quinn.
They agreed, and that decision changed the complexion of the game against South Carolina from the start.
The No. 3 Gators forced three first-half turnovers and turned them into 21 points on their way to a 44-11 victory over the No. 9 Gamecocks in front of 90,833 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Florida (7-0, 6-0 SEC) is one win away from clinching its first SEC East title since 2009. It can get that win Saturday against Georgia in Jacksonville.
On the opening play of Saturday's game, cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy caused South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw to fumble. Senior linebacker Lerentee McCray recovered at the Gamecocks 2.
Three plays later, Jeff Driskel hit tight end Jordan Reed on a 3-yard pass, and 59 seconds into the game, the Gators led 7-0.
"I always tell the players, 'Play aggressive, and we're going to call it that way,' " Muschamp said. "Dan called it, and we went with it, And it was a fantastic call. It was a good tone-setter of the game.
"I am very proud of our football team and the effort we had. We did what we had to do to win the game."
Two more turnovers helped crush the Gamecocks before halftime. With Florida up 7-3, Ace Sanders — who entered second in the SEC in punt return — fumbled a punt that was recovered by Trey Burton. That led to a 13-yard touchdown from Driskel to Quinton Dunbar and 14-3 lead with 3:00 remaining in the half.
On the ensuing kickoff, Damiere Byrd fumbled, Chris Johnson recovered and returned it to the 1. That set up the second of Driskel's career-high four touchdown passes, a 1-yarder to Reed.
"When you get turnovers, it's easy to put points on the board, especially when you get the ball on the 1 and the 2," Driskel said. "So that's a great job by special teams, and when we get our opportunity, we scored touchdowns instead of field goals to get a lead and get a little comfortable."
Turnovers and special teams play were critical because the Gators struggled badly on offense in the first half, gaining just 29 yards.
"The only thing you can hope is that your guys give it their best shot and not just lay the ball down and basically say, 'Here, Florida, we don't want to win,' " South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. " 'You guys take this fumble and this fumble and this fumble. So it was sad.
"And on the other side, their defense stuffed us. They stopped our running game (36 yards) and passing game (155 yards)."
The Gators started the second half well, too. Leading 21-6, they went 59 yards in 10 plays over 6:00 capped by Omarius Hines' 6-yard touchdown run. Byron Jerideau blocked the extra point, and Victor Hampton returned it for two points. But Florida still led 28-6.
The defense took care of the rest.
After allowing 11 first downs during the first half, the Gators forced three-and-outs on both Gamecock possessions of the third quarter.
It was the second straight home game the Gators allowed fewer than 50 rushing yards. They have yet to allow an SEC opponent to score a touchdown at Florida Field this season and held South Carolina to 42.5 percent completion.
"(Special teams play) was our momentum, and we refused to give it back," defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said. "Even when things went wrong, they still couldn't get the momentum. We gave them something. Then we put our head back and the dirt and played ball."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]