By Chris Harry
GatorZone Contributing Writer
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- On the second day of 2012, the Florida Gators and their fans partied like it was 2006. Remember that year? That was when the Gators routed Ohio State twice to capture football and basketball national championships.
Apparently, the big-game ownership deed of the Buckeyes is still valid.
But more than that, UF’s 24-17 victory over Ohio State Monday in the 67th Gator Bowl was like rolling out an orange and blue carpet into the next phase of the Will Muschamp era -- and that phase won’t include celebrations for finishing a season 7-6.
“[A record of] 7-6 is not acceptable at the University of Florida,” Muschamp said.
But it beats 6-7 any day, any year.
UF rode two special teams touchdowns, including a 99-yard kickoff return by Andre Debose, and a defense that sacked Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller six times to put a positive spin on an otherwise frustrating season before 61,312 at breezy and brisk EverBank Field.
Oh yeah, and it came against Urban Meyer’s new team.
Senior quarterback John Brantley threw a touchdown pass in his final game, classmate tailback Chris Rainey rushed for 72 yards and blocked a punt that freshman linebacker Graham Stewart scooped up and scored from 14 yards out, and the Gators defense tackled the Buckeyes (6-7) for losses 12 times.
“I had a lot of frustration,” said senior defensive tackle Jaye Howard, who had one particularly violent sack. “Urban brought it out in me.’’
So did Will.
The fiery first-year UF head coach was presented with a game ball for winning his first bowl game in the locker room afterward. But more than anything, this day was about the players a setting a tone for the future.
“We had our ups and downs,” said Brantley, a human roller coaster under center, who passed for 132 yards. “The last couple of years haven’t been the best ... but to get a good win against a good team like Ohio State, it almost makes the season kind of worth it. Just to go out and with a high note, for those young guys to go into the offseason.”
Brantley certainly had a hand in getting things going, but in that Brantley kind of way -- sandwiched between a pair of turnovers. The first giveaway came on a blindside sack by Adam Bellamy on the game's first possession and the other on a poor shotgun exchange and they kept Ohio State in the game.
Otherwise, the Gators might have been able to put some distance on the Buckeyes early, especially with Brantley starting out eight of his first 10 for 80 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown strike to Deonte Thompson to make 7-0 with 56 seconds to go in the first quarter.
On Ohio State’s next possession, tailback Dan Herron fumbled going to the ground after a run up the middle, with De’Ante Saunders recovering at the OSU 32, giving the Gators a great chance to go up two scores. But two plays later, Brantley muffed the center-quarterback exchange and Buckeyes defensive tackle John Simon returned the turnover favor.
Miller answered by driving Ohio State into Florida territory, the big hitter a 25-yard tight end screen to Jeff Heuerman, who rumbled down to the UF 32. Five plays later, Miller fired a 5-yard touchdown strike to Devier Posey, slanting from the right, that tied the score 7-7.
For a few seconds, that is.
That’s when Debose, voted game MVP, took the ensuing kickoff at his 1, hit a seam on the left sideline and went untouched 99 yards for the longest play -- of any kind -- in Gator Bowl history, pushing UF in front 14-7. It was Debose’s third career kickoff return for a touchdown, a school record.
“I saw the crease and hit it,” Debose said.
Down two possessions, the Buckeyes were forced to pass and get away from a running game that averaged 195.7 yards during the season but managed just 137 against the UF defense. Miller never looked comfortable going back to pass -- the Gators defensive front made sure of it -- and had a promising drive late in the first half stopped by Howard’s 11-yard sack.
OSU settled for Drew Basil’s 47-yard field goal to make it 14-10 at intermission.
“I thought, first half-wise, we were going to establish some things,” said Buckeyes coach Luke Fickell, whose team limited UF to just 263 yards. “The big plays is what killed us.”
Florida started the second half with a couple when Evans sacked Miller on a third-down play to force the punt that Rainey blocked off the foot of Ben Buchanan. The ball rolled backward and was scooped up by Stewart, who carried it 14 yards to a touchdown and 21-10 lead.
A 17-yard Caleb Sturgis field goal made it 24-10 early in the fourth quarter, with the Buckeyes scoring on an 11-yard Miller-to-Jordan Hall touchdown pass with 57 seconds to go. It was a rare moment of second-half excitement for the Ohio State fans and it didn't last very long.
The Gators recovered the ensuing onsides kick and the party was on.
“We appreciate your patience,” a miked-up Muschamp told the Florida fans who stuck around for the post-game fun. “And we’re going to have a much better football team next year.”