GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Gators did it Saturday the way they have done it all season.
First, they did it with defense.
After Jacksonville State gained 76 yards on the game’s first play from scrimmage – a short pass from Marques Ivory to Kevyn Cooper that ended at UF’s 7-yard line – the Gamecocks gained only 166 yards on their final 56 plays (2.9 yards per play) in the Gators’ 23-0 win.
Florida’s defense clamped down as usual and added a score on Jon Bostic’s 7-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the third quarter. Florida allowed only 58 points (8.3 per game) all season at home.
“I don’t know if there’s a better defense in the country,’’ Florida coach Will Muschamp said after the Gators became the first team to shut out JSU in 12 years, a span of 133 games . “I think we’re playing very well.”
Next, the Gators did it with special teams.
Senior Caleb Sturgis hit field goals of 21, 44 and 47 yards, his last score set up by a 31-yard punt return by Marcus Roberson.
Finally, Florida sprinkled in some Mike Gillislee, Omarius Hines, Jordan Reed and others in Jacoby Brissett’s first start in place of injured starting quarterback Jeff Driskel. Gillislee was the star for the offense – 122 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown – and Brissett efficiently managed the game the way the coaches wanted.
Brissett finished 14 of 22 for 154 yards and no interceptions.
With the win the Gators improved to 10-1 – becoming just the seventh team in program history to win 10 of its first 11 games – and sent a group of 19 seniors off with a perfect home record (7-0) in their final game at The Swamp.
“To win in the SEC and to be undefeated at home, that’s tough,’’ senior nose tackle Omar Hunter said. “That’s very tough.”
The Gators made it look tougher than expected on some Saturdays this fall, most notably the season-opening win over Bowling Green and last week’s last-second victory over Louisiana. And while a portion of the fan base expected a 50-0 rout over the JSU Saturday, that’s not the way this Florida team is built.
Muschamp knew that from the start, and 10 wins in 11 games later, his view of this team hasn’t changed.
“Part of coaching and part of being a good coach is realizing who you are and what you are and what your players can do and what they can’t do,’’ Muschamp said. “I knew after spring identifying kind of what I thought we were going to be, and this is about what I thought. I thought we were going to be a team that’s going to have to grind it out a little bit offensively, that’s going to need to play very good defense, was going to need to stay injury-free.”
That pretty much sums up the way the No. 7-ranked Gators have won to climb back onto a national stage after back-to-back seasons that produced 15 wins and 11 losses.
They have had more injuries than they would have liked – the offensive line has especially been hit hard in the second half of the season – but the Gators are excellent defensively and on special teams, and good enough offensively other than the 17-9 loss to Georgia that cost them a perfect season to this point and a trip to the SEC Championship Game.
Brissett didn’t throw a touchdown pass against the Gamecocks but he had four completions of 20 yards, including a 30-yarder to Reed.
“We came out with a W,” Brissett said. “That’s good enough for me.”
The Gators, No. 6 in the BCS, have two games remaining and one shot at a BCS Bowl next week at No. 10 Florida State. The Gators have lost two in a row to the Seminoles and can make another statement during this comeback season by winning at FSU.
The Seminoles won 41-14 at Maryland and next week’s matchup at Doak Campbell Stadium will mark the first time in 12 years both the Gators and Seminoles are ranked in the top 10 at the time of their annual regular-season finale.
Gators Buck/linebacker Lerentee McCray was one of 19 seniors to say goodbye to The Swamp on Saturday.
“I can say everything I want to about missing the Swamp, but it won't feel right unless we beat Florida State,’’ McCray said. “We want 11-1.”
FSU’s defense is ranked among the nation’s best like Florida’s. They have a more experienced quarterback in E.J. Manuel and will be favored on their home field.
Meanwhile, the Gators will begin preparation uncertain if Driskel, Brissett or both will play quarterback. Driskel wore sweatpants and a T-shirt – but didn’t nee crutches – as he watched from the sidelines Saturday due to his sprained right ankle.
“It’s much better than it was,” Muschamp said of the ankle. “He’s off crutches. He’s not in a walking boot. We'll see how it progresses.”
The Gators finished with 356 yards against the Gamecocks, averaging 6.1 yards per play. Still, there were missed opportunities that the Gators likely will need to cash in on against FSU.
Muschamp said that will be a priority in practice before the Gators head to Tallahassee in search of their first win over the Seminoles since 2009 – Senior Day at The Swamp for Tim Tebow and the most successful group of Gators in program history.
“We need to continue to press forward, press forward offensively more than anything,’’ he said. “We need to be more consistently offensively. I know I have been saying that, and I know it’s a broken record, but we will continue to work at it.
“We need to get better.”