South Carolina Football: Full notes on Florida loss

South Carolina football stars Spencer Rattler and Juice Wells were included on the preseason watch list for the Maxwell Award. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)
South Carolina football stars Spencer Rattler and Juice Wells were included on the preseason watch list for the Maxwell Award. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images) /
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In the leadup to South Carolina football’s matchup with the Florida Gators, October 14th, 2023 felt a lot like October 29th, 2022. For those who don’t have last year’s calendar memorized, that date was when the Gamecocks took on the Missouri Tigers in a sleepy, underwhelming game last season.

(For those wondering, Team South Carolina of Dawn Staley and Zia Cooke knocked off Team Florida’s Jevon Kearse and Titus O’Neil in the Johnsonville Charity Cornhole Challenge earlier in the morning.)

The weather was overcast. Despite a sellout, the stands were not full. The environment was quiet early (though, unlike that Missouri contest, the South Carolina football fans in attendance on Saturday stepped up in a big way once the game really got going). The national anthem was sung incorrectly (yes, this happened before last year’s Missouri game and this year’s Florida game).

Thankfully for the Gamecocks, the comparisons between that game and the one against UF ended there.

For a shorter summary of the Florida game, click here.

South Carolina Football vs. Florida:
A Game Summary

All the talk in the hour leading up to kickoff surrounded the new-look offensive line unit that the Gamecocks appeared set to play against the Gators. Freshmen Tree Babalade (left tackle) and Tro Baugh (right guard) stayed in place, and Nick Gargiulo (center) and Vershon Lee (right tackle) remained in the starting lineup but were in new spots. Trai Jones got his first start of the year at left guard.

The Gators received the opening kickoff, so South Carolina football fans had to wait a bit before checking out their new lineup of big fellas up front. Mitch Jeter’s opening kick was very short, and the Gators had good field position at the 35-yard line.

Florida picked up two first downs on two plays. A Montrell Johnson carry and an Arlis Boardingham catch-and-run put the Gators just outside the red zone. A few short gains later, and the Graham Mertz-led unit was in a 1st-and-goal situation. On 2nd down, Trevor Etienne (brother of former Clemson star Travis Etienne) plunged across the goal line, and the Gators led 7-0.

An ugly 3-and-out for the Gamecocks was erased by an unnecessary pass interference penalty from Florida. The very next snap saw Mario Anderson take a handoff and run right between blocks from Tree Babalade and Josh Simon (who started at tight end) for 30 yards. Then, three runs from Anderson and Spencer Rattler got the Gamecocks inside the 10.

From 12-personnel (one running back, two tight ends), Spencer Rattler found tight end Trey Knox in the back of the end zone to even the score 7-7. One of the key pass protection pickups on the play came from the other tight end Josh Simon.

Mertz led the UF offense down the field in a hurry on the next possession, and a Gamecock hold in the secondary made things even easier. Clayton White’s unit tightened up a bit, and benefitting from a dropped pass by running back Montrell Johnson, USC held Florida to a 48-yard Trey Smack field goal. 10-7 was the score after the kick with just over 4:00 left in the 1st quarter.

The moment so many Carolina fans have waited for happened on the next snap as Spencer Rattler found Nyck Harbor for a 55-yard gain. Harbor used his big body to shield off the defensive back and secure the catch like a power forward securing a fundamental rebound.

Just a few plays later, Dowell Loggains dialed up another off-tackle run (the same buck sweep that resulted in Mario Anderson’s 30-yard gain), but this time Juju McDowell took it in from 17 yards out, and South Carolina football led 14-10.

Ricky Pearsall showed why he is one of the best receivers in college football when he found the soft spot in the Carolina defense to extend the next drive on 3rd-and-long. The 1st quarter ended, and Gamecock safety Jalon Kilgore already had five tackles. When the 2nd period started, Kilgore made his 6th stop to force another UF field goal. Smack was good again to make the score 14-13.

On the ensuing drive, the Gamecocks had a 3rd-and-manageable coming out of a timeout, but center Nick Gargiulo rolled the snap past Spencer Rattler, and the drive was over. A booming Kai Kroeger punt helped flip the field, however, and backed up the Gators inside their own 20.

Freshman linebacker Pup Howard couldn’t make the stop on 2nd down, and Etienne carried the ball all the way down to the 50. On the next play, Mertz rolled right and found Kahleil Jackson for a 40-yard gain to give the Gators a 1st-and-goal. Two plays later, he found Jackson again, this time in the end zone, through decent coverage from Marcellas Dial. A completely lost USC defense then gave up a 2-point conversion to make the score 21-14 in favor of the visitors.

On the next play for the Carolina offense, Rattler found Legette who then turned upfield down the sideline for a 41-yard gain. A hold, a Rattler scramble, and an Anderson plunge set up a 3rd-and-6. Some Rattler magic on 3rd down saw #7 pull a Houdini act to escape a sack and find O’Mega Blake for the 1st down.

Two plays later, Mario Anderson did his best Super Mario impression when, after catching a pass in the flat, he hurdled a Florida defender and galloped into the end zone to tie the game at 21-21.

After giving up a 3rd down conversion, the Gamecock defense stiffened and forced a Florida punt, getting the ball back with about 2 1/2 minutes left in the half. Two Mario Anderson carries netted a 1st down, and Rattler had his first incompletion on a throwaway. A short carry and sack ended the drive, but a horrible Kai Kroeger punt gave Florida a chance to score with 1:24 to go in the half.

Mertz hit Pearsall for a ridiculous over-the-shoulder catch to get inside field goal range, and an O’Donnell Fortune pass interference flag moved UF inside the 20. Despite a bad snap on the try, Smack drilled another field goal to bring the score to 24-21 with just 3 seconds left to play. The Gamecocks took a knee to send the two teams to the locker room.

A gimpy Vershon Lee did not start the second half for the Carolina offensive line. Sidney Fugar took his place, and the offense continued moving the ball down the field against the Florida defense. A 42-yard backfoot bomb from Spencer Rattler to Xavier Legette was the drive’s best play, but USC could not get into the end zone. A Mitch Jeter field goal tied the game 24-24.

The next Florida drive was strange. Receiver Eugene Wilson picked up 40 yards on a rush and a reception, but then the Gators got cute, and a trick play resulted in an intentional grounding penalty. Because of the setback, the Gators had to settle for a 54-yard field goal attempt, but Smack lived up to his name and smacked the pigskin through the uprights again for his 4th make of the day. Florida led 27-24 halfway through the 3rd quarter.

A 3-and-out gave the ball back to Florida, but a nice Kroeger punt meant that Billy Napier’s squad would have to start at their own 22. After two first downs, Tyreek Johnson forced Mertz to turn back into Jordan Strachan where #7 crunched the Gator QB, setting them back enough to force a punt.

When the ‘Cocks got the ball toward the end of the 3rd period, Spencer Rattler took off through the teeth of the Florida defense for a gain of 26 yards. Anderson followed with 13 yards of his own. After two unsuccessful plays, Rattler found Knox for the 3rd down conversion, and USC was in a 1st-and-goal situation when the 3rd quarter ended.

It only took one play of 4th quarter action for the ‘Cocks to take the lead as Rattler found McDowell for the short completion and the 3-yard score. The Gamecocks were up 31-27 when the Gators took over.

Three first downs flipped the Gators from their own 25 to the Gamecocks’ 25 where the Gamecock blitz got home on 3rd down. In the mad scramble of bodies around Graham Mertz, Tonka Hemingway and TJ Sanders ended up with the sack to force another Smack field goal. This one, however, was blocked by Tyreek Johnson to preserve the USC lead.

On the ensuing drive, momentum stayed with the Gamecocks. After one first down, Spencer Rattler found Josh Simon on a nice play design from offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. Simon appeared set to get the first down, but he had his eyes on a bigger prize. #6 laid the hit stick to freshman safety Jordan Castell and then rumbled 20 more yards for the 33-yard score. A low snap killed the extra-point attempt, keeping the score at 37-27 in favor of USC.

Florida’s hopes of winning held on after a gritty drive with two 4th down conversions ended with an Arlis Boardingham juggling touchdown catch to bring the count to 37-34 with 4:40 left in the game.

With the botched extra-point looming large, the Gamecocks led by just three points (meaning a Florida field goal could tie the game and a Carolina field goal would not protect the lead from a UF touchdown), and USC only ran about two minutes off the clock before Florida forced the punt. Another poor kick from Kroeger gave Mertz and the UF offense the ball at the 25-yard line with 2:43 remaining and no timeouts.

The Gamecocks forced three straight incompletions (making Florida 0-6 on 3rd downs in the 2nd half), but they converted on 4th down (one of three conversions in the closing minutes of the game) as Mertz found Ricky Pearsall for a big gain. A ridiculous tip drill kept the drive alive as Eugene Wilson accidentally ended up with the ball. Two plays later, Mertz found Pearsall in the end zone to take the lead 41-37 with 47 seconds remaining.

A desperation heave from Spencer Rattler resulted in an interception with 20 seconds left, and South Carolina football fell to the Florida Gators (after an intentional safety) to drop to 2-4.

The Gamecock offense (especially Spencer Rattler, Xavier Legette, Mario Anderson, and the tight end duo of Josh Simon and Trey Knox) did everything it could to win this one, but the defense was horrible. A nice stretch of 3rd down defense saw the Gamecocks stop the Gators three times in a row, but UF converted all three 4th downs to make up for it, two of them on the game-winning touchdown drive.

The offensive line was better but still surrendered too much pressure to a bad pass rush team in Florida. Other than that, it’s hard to find much fault with anything for the offense.

The defense, on the other hand, stunk all night. Some individual players (Jalon Kilgore, Tonka Hemingway, TJ Sanders, Debo Williams, and Nick Emmanwori) had some solid stretches of play, but the unit was bad as a whole, especially in man coverage. Slot coverage (often the playing out-of-position Emmanwori) was a struggle for the fifth time in six games.

The game plan from defensive coordinator Clayton White was bad. The execution was bad. The tackling was bad. The coverage was bad. It was just bad. The run defense was pretty average, which, in a defensive effort like the one on Saturday, feels like a positive for a South Carolina football team that didn’t have any real “team positives” on that side of the ball.