Gators Shoot Themselves In The Foot

COLUMBIA, SC --- There were no new ball plays drawn up in the dirt by the Old Ball Coach and there was no Emory and Henry or even a throwback to the quarterback off a double reverse. Instead of a game plan straight from the distorted mind of an evil genius, the Florida Gators got plain vanilla from a coach whose formula for victory was to simply eliminate costly mistakes.

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Steve Spurrier was supposed to chunk it all over the place against Florida's depleted and thin as a sheet of paper secondary. That's what he was supposed to do. That's exactly what the Gators game-planned defensively. There were prepared to chase receivers all over the field but instead, they got pounded between the tackles. One smash in the mouth after another left the Gators' SEC East title hopes in a bloody heap on the grass at Williams-Brice Stadium and had the Old Ball coach grinning sheepishly that his smoke and mirrors act bamboozled a fifth straight opponent.

"It's more fun [winning] when your team is not a dominating team," said Spurrier, now an improbable 7-3 after South Carolina's 30-22 victory. "It's neat the way our guys are winning. We are defying logic."

South Carolina didn't dominate but the Gamecocks didn't shoot themselves in the foot, either. They just carefully picked their spots to throw the ball and the rest of the time they let Mike Davis hammer the Gators between the tackles. Davis ran for 88 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries as part of a game plan that saw 36 running plays and only 17 passes.

"They played a lot of two-deep stuff with six or seen on the line of scrimmage so we felt our best chance was to run and not throw," said Spurrier.

Florida expected Spurrier to pick on Reggie Lewis, thrust into a starting role at corner after Vernell Brown broke his leg last week against Vanderbilt. Logic said that Spurrier would expose the inexperience of Lewis early and often but when the Gamecocks did throw the ball, it was usually the other side of the field where freshman Sidney Rice was matched up with Florida's best cover corner, Dee Webb.

Webb had a day to forget. He had a personal foul penalty and three pass interference calls in coverage against Rice. On South Carolina's second touchdown drive of the game, Rice beat Webb on passes of five, 12 and 19 yards. Rice had a 64-yard catch and run against Webb in the third quarter that set up the game-clinching touchdown.

Coming into the game Rice had 12 touchdown catches so it came as no surprise that the Gamecocks would find ways to get him the ball. The surprise was South Carolina's willingness to turn the ball over to its offensive line and Davis.

"We had a lot of time spent in coverage because we felt they were going to come out and throw the ball all over the place," said Florida Coach Urban Meyer. "I think they only threw the ball 17 times which was surprising."

Perhaps it shouldn't have been so surprising. In South Carolina's improbable five-game run in the SEC, the Gamecocks have been doing it mostly by avoiding turnovers and letting their defense do the hard work. The bend but don't break approach that worked so well the previous four weeks worked again Saturday against the Gators.

While South Carolina followed a formula that has proven successful, the Gators followed a formula that spelled disaster. Florida fell behind by double figures in the first half, the same disastrous approach that helped seal losses at Alabama and LSU. The Gators gave LSU a gift touchdown after a Chris Leak interception in the first quarter, then Florida missed a chance to take the lead when Chad Jackson dropped a sure touchdown pass from Leak at the South Carolina 10.

South Carolina's second touchdown was the offspring of a 22-yard punt by Eric Wilbur and two penalties, a 15-yard personal foul against Webb and a pass interference call against Webb in the end zone. A 33-yard punt by Wilbur gave South Carolina a short field that the Gamecocks converted into a 20-3 lead with 7:50 remaining in the first half.

The Gamecocks' final touchdown was set up by the 64-yard Blake Mitchell to Rice pass that should have been stopped after three or four yards but Webb missed the initial tackle and Kyle Jackson was in bad position.

Florida had a chance to come back from that score but second and inches at the Gamecock 45 became second and five on a false start by Steven Rissler and a hold on Randy Hand pushed it back 10 more yards.

"There were a lot of turning points in the game," said Meyer. "I still think that second down and one, we were probably going to take a shot right there, but it was second and one and we had a motion penalty and then a holding penalty back-to-back that put us at second and 16."

Florida had its chances, just as the Gators had chances against Alabama and LSU, but just like those two games, Florida found ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It's one thing to lose. It's another thing to lose a shot at a championship by giving away a game that could have been won.

It was obvious from his demeanor after the game that this one hurt deeply. He wasn't moved to the same emotion that he showed in the press room after the loss to LSU, but the hurt was every bit as obvious. He came to Florida expecting to win a championship in his first year on the job and he came to Columbia Saturday still in the hunt for the SEC East.

Losing the shot at a championship hurts. Losing it in the manner he did and the fact that it was to the Old Ball Coach made it sting even worse. Meyer is very much in charge. This is indeed his team. But until he can win championships --- and beat the Old Ball Coach --- the Spurrier shadow will be like the proverbial 500-pound gorilla on his back. Until he wins championships and beats Spurrier, he will surely coach every game against the Spurrier legacy.

Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect a championship in the first year but Meyer's hopes were high and with his high hopes came heightened expectations from the Gator nation. Losing Saturday doesn't put Meyer back to the drawing board, but it is a setback that he hadn't counted on.

"In my mind, it's a young program," said Meyer. "It's a program going through a lot of changes, a lot of growth and a few speed bumps along the way."

There are still some salvageable goals --- like beating Florida State and like winning a bowl game --- but even if the Gators win those two games, it will still be a season of what could have been and what might have been.

Meyer went undefeated at Utah last year with a team that made the most of its opportunities and didn't shoot itself in the foot. That's the formula Steve Spurrier used Saturday to beat Florida. We can talk all we want about Meyer's spread offense and Spurrier's passing game genius, but in the end, no matter the scheme, the teams that win championships and win big games do it by finding a way to miss when they take dead aim on their own feet.

The Florida Gators have an empty feeling in their stomach today because they gave a game away. The South Carolina Gamecocks have an improbable win because the only logical thing they did the entire game was avoid shooting themselves in the foot.

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