GAINESVILLE — If Florida returns to national prominence under coach Billy Napier, remember Saturday’s 38-6 blowout of South Carolina as the moment his blueprint began to become reality.
The senior-day rout was the culmination of a fantastic eight-day stretch in which championship expectations started to look closer for the Gators. Where Napier’s people-first philosophy paid off in Florida’s biggest SEC win against a non-Vanderbilt team in six years. Where the complementary game plan meshed at a high level.
Where Florida began to look like Florida again.
“I knew this whole coaching staff had a great plan,” defensive back Trey Dean said. “Once it clicked, I knew it was going to be a sight to see.”
The plan clicked Saturday when Florida (6-4, 3-4 SEC) followed Napier’s formula to win. It averaged 10.4 yards per carry in the first half and finished with 374 yards rushing, its most against a conference opponent since a 2014 upset of Georgia.
Running backs Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne both ran for a touchdown and more than 100 yards apiece. Only a late sack of quarterback Anthony Richardson prevented Florida’s first trio of 100-yard rushers since James Massey, John L. Williams and Neal Anderson versus Cincinnati in 1984. Richardson finished with 96 yards in what could have been his final game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (the third-year sophomore said afterward that he hadn’t thought about whether he’d enter the NFL draft next year).
The defense did its part, too. A unit that was historically bad on third down through the first two months of this season stopped the Gamecocks (6-4, 3-4) on eight of their 11 chances.
South Carolina didn’t have more opportunities because Florida kept stealing the ball. The Gators forced three fumbles in the first four Gamecocks snaps of the third quarter. Armwood High alumnus Desmond Watson had one of them, yanking the ball from tight end Jaheim Bell to set up the first career touchdown catch by another Hillsborough County product, tight end Jonathan Odom of Jesuit High.
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“The people are improving,” Napier said, “and the football is improving.”
Napier, more than most coaches, puts a premium on the first part of that sentence. It sounds like coach-speak, but if you saw how the sideline erupted after Watson’s takeaway, you’d want to hear him out.
“You can’t fool players, and you certainly can’t fool your teammates,” Napier said. “I think that there’s been ownership at that level, there’s been leadership, there’s been challenges made.”
Odom saw that ownership take root at halftime last week at Texas A&M as Florida trailed 24-20. Players started commanding their position groups to correct problems before staffers could.
“Coaches didn’t have to say anything,” Odom said. “We’ve kept the momentum up until now.”
Since then, Florida has outscored its opponents 59-6 and hasn’t allowed an offensive touchdown.
As important, the Gators are keeping up momentum on the recruiting trail. The sold-out crowd included one of the nation’s top uncommitted prospects, five-star cornerback Desmond Ricks of Bradenton’s IMG Academy.
It also had four-star California quarterback Jaden Rashada, who flipped from Miami on Thursday. The No. 57 overall prospect is the top commit in the nation’s eighth-ranked class and would be the Gators’ highest-rated quarterback signee since Will Grier in 2014. Though oral commitments are nonbinding, Rashada represents the kind of recruiting battles Florida must win to become a power again.
To get there, Florida needs to keep building on the field, too, by beating teams that are much better than the ones it has thumped this month. Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies are a mess. Though South Carolina briefly entered the top 25 last month, it is just another middling SEC East team. Then again, Florida lost to one of those middling SEC East teams, Kentucky, in Week Two and barely beat another, Missouri, last month.
Winning back-to-back SEC games for the first time in two years isn’t cause for celebration at Florida. Neither is clinching bowl eligibility with the win. Expectations are much higher.
But every turnaround has to start somewhere.
Saturday is as good a time as any.
Contact Matt Baker at email@example.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.
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