GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida has reason to celebrate, although it’s not enough to elicit much reaction from coach Will Muschamp or his players.
Mike Gillislee took a screen pass and went 45 yards for a touchdown, and the No. 8 Gators used stifling defense to stave off Southeastern Conference newcomer Missouri 14-7 on Saturday.
Florida rebounded from a turnover-filled loss to rival Georgia, clinched at least a share of the SEC’s Eastern Division and eclipsed last season’s win total.
The Gators hardly seemed to care.
“I took this job understanding fully the expectation is to go to Atlanta and win a championship,” Muschamp said. “I’ve made my comment about how I feel about your season if that’s not accomplished. We’ve made strides, but we’re not where we want to be.”
Florida could still get there.
After Georgia beat Mississippi later Saturday, the Gators (8-1, 7-1 SEC) need the Bulldogs to lose to Auburn next week to clinch a spot in the league title game.
At times, Florida looked less than interested in staying in the SEC hunt. The Gators were shut out in the first half, managing 111 yards and failing to contain Missouri quarterback James Franklin.
But like it has in so many other games this season, Florida played considerably better in the second half.
The Gators turned two short fields into touchdowns, with Omarius Hines scoring on a 36-yard jet sweep to tie the game in the third before Gillislee put Florida ahead for good in the fourth.
“We gave up too many big plays,” said Will Ebner, a linebacker for Missouri (4-5, 1-5). “We put this loss on our back because we allowed them to score more points than our offense scored. We’re never going to blame someone else. You’ve got to have each other’s back. We shut them out the first half; why couldn’t we do it in the second half?”
Jeff Driskel lofted a pass to Gillislee in the right flat, and with two blockers out front, Gillislee made one cut and went untouched for his eighth score of the season.
The defense did the rest, stopping Missouri on six consecutive drives that ended in Florida territory.
“I always tell them, ‘You’re the firemen. Go put the fire out,’” Muschamp said. “I don’t care how bad it’s blazing. Go put it out. And regardless of the situations and circumstances, when you walk on the field, your job is to stop them. ... It’s an opportunity for greatness. You go out and make a stop on the goal line. You want to be great, be put in those situations and do it.”
Florida’s defense has done it all season, the main reason it’s in this position, and the offense needed to be bailed out again against Missouri.
The Gators finished with 276 yards, went 2 of 13 on third down and struggled to get anything going in the passing game.
Driskel completed 12 of 23 passes for 106 yards, with nearly half of that coming on the screen pass. Gillislee ran 16 times for 68 yards – his fourth consecutive game under 70 yards. And Florida’s offensive line was overmatched again.
“I’m a realist and I believe in being honest and calling it the way it is,” Muschamp said. “And when it stinks, it stinks. … We’ve been able to win and do what we had to do to win the games – I’m not trying to downgrade it at all. This football team has as much resolve as a football team that I’ve been around.”
That showed down the stretch on defense.
Josh Evans sealed the victory, intercepting Franklin’s fourth-down pass in the end zone with 5 seconds remaining. The Tigers drove to the 21-yard line, but had to try to make something happen as the clock wound down.
“That’s actually like a great feeling,” Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said. “Can their offense make big plays on a defense that’s coming? We’re relentless and that’s how we want to play and that’s how we strive to play every week.”
Franklin, who sprained his left knee against Vanderbilt on Oct. 6 and sat out all or part of the last two games, finished with four interceptions. He completed 24 of 51 passes for 236 yards. He overthrew open receivers much of the day and had less mobility than normal.
“We just couldn’t get any completions,” Franklin said. “I know (teammates) are trying to have my back, but we can’t turn the ball over four times.”
Still, Franklin ran for 29 yards and burned Florida several times with scrambles.
Florida was flat to start the game, no surprise since it was a noon start and came after a disappointing loss against Georgia. The Gators turned the ball over six times in the 17-9 loss that left them needing help to get to Atlanta.
They vowed to play better this week, but it didn’t exactly happen. They avoided turnovers, though, which is key for their grind-it-out style.
“When you have a defense like our defense has been playing, just don’t turn the ball over,” Driskel said. “We turned the ball over a lot against Georgia and we end up losing. It comes down to taking care of the ball and taking shots when they come.”