GAINESVILLE — After No. 18 Florida escaped with a 31-28 thrilling win over USF, the Gators’ locker room didn’t feel like celebrating. The roars that bounced around the bowels of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium after the Week 1 win over Utah were nowhere to be heard or felt.
“It was kind of like we lost,” Gators running back Montrell Johnson said. “No one was really excited about the win.”
And no one on the other side was excited about the loss.
Yes, the Bulls (1-2) delivered the best performance of the Jeff Scott era. They deserve credit for having a chance to beat a top-20 team, in front of the third-largest crowd USF has ever seen (88,496). It was the proof-of-concept performance the Bulls desperately needed.
But it was a loss. A once-in-a-decade opportunity mishandled.
“It’s a heartbreaker because of how well we played the majority of the game,” Scott said. “It’s the first time I’ve really seen our team play at the level I think we’re capable of.”
His Bulls played better than almost anyone thought they were capable of — including at least one player on the opposing sideline.
Though UF coach Billy Napier followed the Nick Saban script of never looking past an opponent, Johnson said he didn’t think the Bulls “could play with us.”
The Bulls didn’t merely play with UF (2-1). They outplayed them for most of the game.
They had more total yards (402-329). They had more first downs (23-17). They executed better on third/fourth downs (10-17 vs. 3-8), too.
Specifically, USF dominated on the ground. The Bulls were creative with the run game, frequently using misdirection and quarterback Gerry Bohanon (102 rushing yards) to trick the Gators.
The final score wasn’t a fluke. If anything, it was Florida, not USF, that benefitted from fortuitous breaks, from a questionable personal foul on third down that kept a Gators touchdown drive going to a disastrous final sequence.
The result itself was a heartbreaking loss for the Bulls. But the overall performance was an unmistakable indication that USF may have finally turned the corner a quarter of the way through Scott’s pivotal third season. Just ask Napier.
“The South Florida team I watched (Saturday), I think’s a high-quality team …” Napier said. “We made it hard. A lot of that had to do with South Florida and their execution.”
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A lot of it. But not all of it.
And that explains the mixed emotions on the other side.
After two better-than-expected performances, the Gators’ defense regressed. Napier said most of the problems were related to execution, not scheme. The loss of veteran linebacker Ventrell Miller (who was in a walking boot) is a factor, too.
Though UF’s inability to stop the run was a relatively new problem, the other problem USF exposed Saturday night was familiar: Anthony Richardson interceptions.
He threw his third of the season when USF linebacker Dwayne Boyles picked him off in the third quarter to set up a Bulls touchdown. He threw another in the fourth quarter that was just as costly, as Armwood High alumnus Aarmaris Brown picked him off in the end zone.
“I’ve got to give my guy a better chance to attack the ball and score,” Richardson said.
Richardson’s defense bailed him out on the ensuing drive when Tre’Vez Johnson intercepted Bohanon to lead to the Gators’ game-winning touchdown run by Trevor Etienne.
But the concerns are starting to mount as Richardson’s dazzling performance against Utah moves deeper into the past. Through three games, Richardson has more tackles (two) than touchdown passes (zero). His mistakes are overshadowing his immense talent and harder-to-see progress, like how he checked to the play that sprung Johnson for a 62-yard touchdown run.
His picks ended up not mattering because of a wild final sequence. The Bulls drove 51 yards into the red zone with 44 seconds left and had a chance to win it — until a low snap doomed their touchdown hopes. Their shot of tying it ended with a mishandled hold on what would have been the game-tying field goal.
“We did enough to win,” Napier said.
But not enough for either side to celebrate.
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