The opening kickoff bounced out of bounds, giving the Gators the ball at the 40-yard line to start the game. That bit of bad luck would not end up hurting the Buckeyes after Adam Bellamy forced a fumble after Florida drove to the Ohio State 27, but a pair of major miscues later turned the game.
"We got a few turnovers defensively, but then again, the story of the game is going to be the big plays and most of them happened on special teams," head coach Luke Fickell said.
The first came only minutes after the Buckeyes appeared to have seized momentum with a 72-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter.
Florida wide receiver Andre Debose fielded the ensuing kickoff at the 1-yard line and followed teammate Jeff Demps up the sideline through a gaping hole in the Ohio State coverage unit. He turned on the jets and outraced a couple of Buckeyes who looked like they might gain an angle near midfield and finished with a 99-yard score that broke a 7-7 tie and energized Florida.
"I just followed Demps and he just kind of led me to the promised land," Debose said of his school-record third career kickoff return for a touchdown. It also set a Gator Bowl record.
Perhaps a more damaging blow came in the third quarter. The Buckeyes took the opening kickoff of the second half and drove to the Florida 49 before stalling. They lined up to punt with a chance for Ben Buchanan to pin the Gators deep in their own territory, but speedy running back Chris Rainey had other ideas.
He ran around the triumvirate of personal protectors and blocked Buchanan's kick from the punter's right side. The ball bounced back to the Ohio State 14 where Graham Stewart picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown that gave Florida a 21-10 lead with 11:14 left in the third quarter. With the Buckeyes having struggled on offense for much of the day and throughout the regular season, it gave the Gators a considerable cushion. That set the tone for much of the second half as Florida could remain conservative with its own sometimes toothless attack.
"They had a good kickoff return and a blocked punt for a touchdown," Ohio State nickel back Tyler Moeller said. "That was the difference in the game. We didn't get it done on special teams today."
He was on the punt team and saw a simple lack of execution.
"We just had to block our guys," Moeller said. "We had to do a better job of holding them up. Florida did a great job of squeezing in, using their speed to get in there and they got one on us."
Ohio State special teams coordinator Dick Tressel concurred.
"On the blocked punt we just missed a guy," he said. "Somebody beat a guy. I'm not sure about the kickoff return."
Tressel acknowledged the absence of players such as Orhian Johnson and Zach Domicone, a pair of veteran safeties who have contributed much on special teams this season, also hurt the Buckeyes along with the departure of Paul Haynes. Haynes had coordinated the kickoff coverage before leaving in December to become defensive coordinator at Arkansas. He was replaced by first-year assistant Mike Vrabel.
"It comes down to one-on-one battles," Fickell said. "That's what football's about. We didn't do a good enough job of winning the one-on-one battles. Ultimately you've got to get the guy down and give the defense a chance whether you get him 15 yards or give him 20 yards, that's the thing. They won the battles.
"When somebody blocks you, there is not a whole lot you can do about it other than win. Obviously punt-wise, they did a good job, but they beat us again."