Gators take a big bite out of Gamecocks’ title dreams

Third-ranked Florida moved one step closer to winning the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division on Saturday afternoon by beating ninth-ranked South Carolina 44-11 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. If the Gators beat Georgia next Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla., they will win the East for the first time since 2009.

The Gamecocks clinched the East for the first time in 2010 by winning 36-14 at Florida. It was South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier’s first win in three tries while leading the Gamecocks against Florida, his former employer.

The Gators (7-0, 6-0 SEC) made sure Spurrier’s fourth trip back to Gainesville wasn’t nearly as pleasant. Florida led South Carolina (6-2, 4-2) for the entire game. Things were so bad for the Gamecocks that Spurrier replaced quarterback Connor Shaw with Dylan Thompson to start the second half, with Florida leading 21-6.

The Gamecocks, who were coming off a loss at LSU, now need Florida to lose its final two SEC games, among other things, to win the East via tiebreaker. In short, it is a long shot for South Carolina, which has never won the SEC. The week after playing its rivalry game against Georgia, Florida hosts Missouri.

Florida pulled away to start the second half, when its offense looked much more efficient than it did in the first half. The Gators marched 59 yards on their first drive of the second half to score a touchdown and take a 27-8 lead, after the extra point was blocked and returned for two points. The Gators added a 44-yard touchdown drive to go up 37-8 with 14 seconds left in the third quarter.

The Gamecocks were down 15 points at the half because of major struggles by their offense and, more so, their special teams. Florida ran 26 plays for 29 yards in the first half, South Carolina 39 for 103. Despite Florida’s point total, the game was a defensive battle, as expected, in the first half. Florida had five three-and-outs on eight drives, South Carolina three on seven drives.

A fourth poor drive of those seven was South Carolina’s first of the game, and it didn’t even have a chance to go three-and-out. The Gamecocks’ problems started on the first snap, when Loucheiz Purifoy came on a cornerback blitz and knocked the ball away from quarterback Connor Shaw. Florida took over at South Carolina’s 2 and needed just three plays to score a touchdown.

The Gamecocks were going to go three plays and out on their next drive, but Florida roughed the snapper for a 15-yard penalty, giving South Carolina new life at its own 40. Two plays later, Shaw slid for two yards on second-and-7, but linebacker Jelani Jenkins hit him high and late for another 15-yard penalty. South Carolina cashed in by getting a 35-yard field goal to cut Florida’s lead to 7-3 with 7:03 left in the first quarter.

Florida went three-and-out on its next three drives — for minus-7, minus-5 and minus-12 yards. Meanwhile, South Carolina had a 45-yard field goal blocked with 8:07 left in the first half. That was only the start of South Carolina’s special teams problems.

Florida went three-and-out, for the fourth straight time, on its next possession. But Ace Sanders was stripped on the punt return, giving Florida the ball at South Carolina’s 29 and leading to a six-play touchdown drive and a 14-3 lead for the Gators with three minutes left in the first half.

On the Gators’ ensuing kickoff, South Carolina’s Damiere Byrd was stripped. It was just the third kickoff return of Byrd’s career and second of the season. Bruce Ellington usually returns South Carolina’s kickoffs. Florida got the ball at South Carolina’s 1 after the strip and needed two plays to score a touchdown and go up 21-3 with 2:02 left in the first half.

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