JACKSONVILLE — They won't be listed anywhere among the best, but at least the 2011 Florida football team won't be forever linked with the worst.
The beleaguered Gators, desperate to keep from becoming the first Florida team with a losing season in 33 years, mustered enough pride, defense and key special teams plays to earn a 24-17 Gator Bowl win over Ohio State in front of an announced crowd of 61,312 Monday afternoon at EverBank Field.
The postgame celebration that overtook the players and coaches on the field following the game gave an authentic glimpse of just how important the win was for Florida (7-6).
"We had an up-and-down season, and our biggest goal was to let the seniors go out with a big win and that's what we did," senior running back Chris Rainey said.
Monday's loss made the Buckeyes 0-2 against the Gators, and gave Ohio State its first losing season (6-7) since 1988 and first seven-loss season since 1897. Florida set a school record with four consecutive bowl wins, and ensured a 24th consecutive year with a winning record — the longest active streak in the nation.
"I think it was important for our players who put in an awful lot of work and effort to get some gratification of winning a football game against a good football team," first-year coach Will Muschamp said.
The Gators turned two Ohio State turnovers into 10 points, and Rainey blocked a punt that was recovered and returned 14 yards by freshman linebacker Graham Stewart for a touchdown to give Florida a 21-10 lead.
But a key special teams play turned the game for the Gators. With the score tied at 7 in the second quarter and neither team showing much offensive prowess, Florida sophomore receiver Andre Debose returned a kickoff 99 yards down the left sideline to give the Gators a 14-7 lead they never relinquished.
"Obviously we didn't get the job done," Ohio State interim coach Luke Fickell said. "First-half wise, I thought we were establishing things up front both offensively and defensively. But the big play is what kills us. Special teams is obviously the glaring thing."
The Gators had just 263 yards of total offense, and senior quarterback John Brantley was 12-of-16 for 132 yards and one touchdown — a 17-yard pass to Deonte Thompson in the first quarter for the Gators' first score.
The Gator defense was stellar, registering 12 tackles for loss (43 yards).
Muschamp said he was happy with the win, but reiterated this isn't the standard Florida expects, nor is the program going to stay down for long.
"I think the realization of this whole thing — if you really want to see the big picture — is in the last two years at the University of Florida, we are 15-11," Muschamp said. "That's unacceptable, but that's what we are. And it's been a staff that had a guy that won two national championships (Urban Meyer) and is a heck of a coach, but we are one game's difference from last year. We're 7-6, they were 8-5 last year.
"So sometimes I think you have to put your realistic glasses on with where you are and what you are as a program right at this point. And it's not where we're going to be very long. I can assure you of that. We're moving in the right direction. I'm very pleased with the attitude, effort and drive of our young men. They kept fighting in the game, and they did it the entire season. It wasn't always what we wanted.
"I've said it before and I mean it sincerely, we're not building a team, we're building a program. And that takes a foundation to start and you stay the course of what you're trying to do."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] Follow her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/gators.