GatorZone.com Senior Writer
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State had everything going its way. The Seminoles had the lead, had the momentum and had the clock on their side as the game entered the fourth quarter.
They also had the ball.
And then they didn’t.
FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel, having thrown for a touchdown and run for one another in a 17-point third quarter, was flushed from the pocket on a first-down play from his 42. Florida defensive end Lerentee McCray gave chase and dove, wrapping his arms around Manuel’s ankles and immobilizing him -- if on for a second -- like a tackling dummy.
That’s when Gators freshman linebacker Antonio Morrison came with the hit of the game in seventh-ranked UF’s 37-26 upset of the No. 10 Seminoles.
Maybe the hit of the year.
“I was right next to the play -- and I was like in shock, man,” junior UF defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said. “Once he got there, I was like, ‘Wow!’ That’s all there was to say.”
Junior defensive end Dominique Easley, who was trailing the play.
“I was coming to kill the guy myself,” he said.
Instead, Easley scooped up the loose football caused by the violent Morrison strike to give the Gators a first down in FSU territory.
On the very next play, senior tailback Mike Gillislee ripped through the heart of the FSU defense and ripped the heart out from the Seminoles and their sellout crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium by racing 37 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
“Changed everything,” senior nose tackle Omar Hunter said of the Morrison-Manuel collision. “The third quarter, it was rough. But we stuck together and kept telling each other keep our heads up and keep it together.”
What followed was Florida’s finest and most meaningful fourth quarter of the season. The Gators scored 24 straight points, barreling over and through an FSU unit ranked first in the nation in total defense, defense against the run and scoring defense. In the final period alone, UF amassed 128 yards, all but 17 on the ground.
This would seem as a good a time as any to remind UF fans -- like they’ve forgotten -- the Gators were outscored 86-59 in the fourth quarter last season, including 79-29 against Southeastern Conference opponents and Florida State. In 2012, they dominated opponents 115-30 in the fourth quarter, with an orange-and-blue exclamation point dotting things Saturday night.
How was that for a regular season finale?
And almost a year to the day (Nov. 26, 2011) that UF coach Will Muschamp announced he had a “soft football team” after losing to FSU 21-7 at Florida Field.
“I don’t want to say we don’t look at the scoreboard, ‘cause we do,” Muschamp said after capping just the fifth 11-win regular season in Florida history. “But our guys understand it’s about 60 minutes and how you continue to play and perform. We challenged our football team to win the fourth quarter and perform well with the game on the line.”
After Gillislee’s touchdown, Manuel was so shaken he took a series off in favor of backup Clint Trickett. FSU went three-and-out.
Marcus Roberson returned the ensuing punt 50 yards to the Seminoles 32. Five plays later, quarterback Jeff Driskel hit wideout Quinton Dunbar for a 14-yard touchdown pass to stretch the lead to 30-20.
FSU moved to UF’s 42 on the next possession, but Floyd sacked Manuel for a 16-yard loss and the Seminoles threw incomplete on a fourth-and-26 from their own 44.
Enter freshman tailback Matt Jones, summoned after Gillislee banged up a rib. All Jones did was carry for 14 yards, 13 and then 32 for a touchdown.
All told, the Gators rushed for 244 yards. Gillislee and Jones had 221 of those yards and combined to average 6.9 per carry.
“We took the game over in the fourth quarter,” offensive guard Jon Halapio said. “We did it when it mattered most.”
This was Florida physicality at its finest.
And the Gators finest hour -- finest quarter -- of a spectacular season.
“In the second half, they catch a little fire; they got a little surge going, got good field position,” Muschamp said. “Our guys just continued to press forward. Regardless of situation or the circumstances, they played [through]. You guys have been watching it all year.”
Yes, we have.