GAINESVILLE — The Florida Gators could not have scripted much of a better start than the one they had Saturday night against No. 5 Florida State.
Their new, inexperienced starting quarterback was poised and accurate while FSU’s struggled. They watched their opponent make the kind of mind-numbing mistakes — delay of game penalties, sloppy special teams — that derailed themselves through most of the first 11 games. They got fortuitous bounces and fortuitous calls, won the battle for hidden yardage, finally played the blend of complementary football Billy Napier has been promising and even got an emotional boost by honoring Tim Tebow.
It still wasn’t enough to avoid a 24-15 loss to the Seminoles. All the progress Florida showed unraveled, again. Florida (5-7) watched its shot at bowl eligibility slip away with every missed tackle, whiffed block and bad penalty. Then the Gators had to watch the Seminoles (12-0) celebrate a perfect regular season on their home field.
But arguably the worst part about it was how predictable it all was. Florida led in each of the final five games this season — and lost them all. The Gators went up 7-0 on Georgia before giving up 36 points in a row. Florida led Arkansas by a field goal with 3 minutes left, led LSU by four midway through the third quarter and led Missouri by a point with 1:36 left.
Loss, loss, loss, loss.
Add one more after Saturday, when Florida led 15-14 midway through the fourth quarter before another collapse to another rival.
“It’s been a little bit different each week,” Napier said.
This week’s result will sting longer because of how close the Gators seemed to a breakthrough triumph at the end of Napier’s second season. Through 19 minutes, Seminoles star receiver Keon Coleman had one target (an incompletion), and standout running back Trey Benson had one rush for minus-11 yards. Through 26 minutes, FSU had more penalty yards (17) than yards of offense (10).
Florida quarterback Max Brown didn’t look like a redshirt freshman making the first start of his college career. Brown — starting in place of Graham Mertz (collarbone injury) — completed six of his first seven passes with a pair of third-down conversions.
FSU quarterback Tate Rodemaker, however, did look like a quarterback making his second career start and first against a major-college opponent, in front of a wild crowd of 90,341 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Rodemaker — stepping in for Jordan Travis (leg injury) — missed on four of his first seven throws and was sacked for a safety.
Everything seemingly went Florida’s way, from a fumble that bounced out of bounds to a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty.
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FSU’s myriad uncharacteristic issues culminated in one disastrous sequence early in the second quarter. On fourth and 6 and its 29, FSU tried a fake punt — a direct snap to Preston Daniel, who ran left and had the first down and more … except the Seminoles snapped the ball too late. After the delay of game penalty (one of three through the first three quarters), FSU punted for real. It was shanked for 16 yards. It felt like the kind of lowlight reel we’ve seen from the Gators all season.
But what happened next ended up being crucial. Florida started at the FSU 40 but still only mustered a field goal out of the drive.
It wasn’t the only missed opportunity, either. The Gators started in FSU territory after the safety, then called a reverse flea flicker that backfired with an intentional grounding penalty and a momentum-sucking 14-yard loss.
The Gators let a top-five, playoff-contending team hang around because they simply failed to put FSU away.
“Look, we haven’t been able to finish,” Napier said. “That’s the bottom line.”
And it crossed every part of the team. The punt coverage unit allowed Coleman’s 34-yard return. Florida had more penalty yards in the fourth quarter alone (50) than yards of offense in the second half (48).
The defense crumbled in key moments, as it has too often this year — like the fourth-and-17 conversion it allowed last week at Missouri. This time it was: a fourth-and-3 slant from Rodemaker to Ja’Khi Douglas; a targeting call on Rodemaker’s third-and-14 scramble that would have otherwise come up short; an offsides penalty on second down in the closing minutes; and, finally, four missed attempts to tackle Benson on his game-clinching, 26-yard touchdown with 2:48 left.
The offense couldn’t make up for it. Its final seven plays across two series were four sacks, two incompletions and an interception by Kalen DeLoach.
It was a predictable end to a distressing season. The details change game to game, but the results don’t.
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