TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – They had an opportunity to create separation on the scoreboard and tossed it away. They appeared on the verge of vanishing and stormed back. They made one last push in the final minute but came up empty.
Ultimately, the Gators suffered a familiar defeat in head coach Billy Napier‘s first season. Florida played well in spurts, stumbled at other times, and kept the game interesting until the final play.
Still, the story was the same when it was time for Napier to unpack his team’s 45-38 loss to No. 16 Florida State here late Friday night.
“The football wasn’t good enough,” he said. “There was a lot of good ball out there, but there was some things that we can do better. There’s no question.”
Six days after a small group of Vanderbilt fans rushed the field to celebrate a rare win over the Gators, thousands of garnet-and-gold-clad enthusiasts swept onto Bobby Bowden Field to savor FSU’s first win over the Gators since 2017. The Seminoles (9-3) snapped a three-game losing streak to the Gators (6-6) in the highest-scoring game in the rivalry’s history.
Florida arrived at Doak Campbell Stadium on Friday as the underdog, with five receivers ruled out due to injury. The Gators also played the first half with sixth-year senior linebacker Ventrell Millerthe team’s defensive leader and emotional heartbeat.
Beating the Seminoles figured to be a challenging endeavor for UF.
Still, the Gators led 24-21 at halftime behind three touchdown passes by quarterback Anthony Richardson and a 41-yard field goal by Adam Mihalek 42 seconds before halftime. The Seminoles took an early lead on Trey Benson’s 9-yard run early in the first quarter.
From there, the teams traded punches. Richardson hit Ricky Pearsall for a 52-yard score just 16 seconds after Benson’s run to tie the game. Florida took a 14-7 lead on its next drive when Richardson tossed a 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jonathan Odom.
But the star of the night was FSU quarterback Jordan Travis, who passed for 270 yards and one touchdown, and rushed for 83 yards and two scores. Travis scored on a 29-yard run to tie the game 14-14, and after Richardson connected with Pearsall for a 43-yard touchdown pass, Travis scored on a 1-yard run to make it 21-21. His touchdown came after a spectacular 10-yard run on third-and-10.
“His legs were the difference in the game,” Napier said. “He gave us fits all night.”
The game turned in FSU’s favor in the third quarter when Florida’s offense sputtered on three consecutive three-and-outs. Meanwhile, Travis made play after play following a 46-yard field goal by Ryan Fitzgerald that tied the game 24-24 with 8:53 left in the third quarter. The Seminoles outgained Florida 162-50 in the period.
Benson capped an eight-play, 66-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown to put FSU up 31-24, and Travis tossed a 6-yard pass to Kentron Poitier to extend FSU’s lead to 38-24 late in the third quarter.
The sold-out crowd sensed a rout, but the Gators again showed their resiliency.
Richardson, who was 5 of 7 for 151 yards in the first half, threw 11 consecutive incomplete passes after his 43-yarder to Pearsall.
“We just have to go back to the drawing board,” he said. “It was us not winning matchups. We talked about that all week.”
But Richardson got the offense going again by turning to running backs Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne. Johnson scored on a 1-yard run to cap a 13-play, 75-yard drive with 6:53 left. Following a defensive stop, Etienne raced 45 yards to tie the game 38-38 with 7:41 remaining.
The Seminoles responded, though, behind Travis and Benson. Travis rushed for seven yards on the game-winning drive and hit Johnny Wilson for a 21-yard gain. Treshaun Ward had two carries for 12 yards, and Benson carried the most significant load, scoring on a 17-yard run with 4:06 left for the final margin.
“What a game. That’s what this game is supposed to be,” FSU coach Mike Norvell said following his first win in three tries against Florida. “Energy, passion, incredible atmosphere.”
The teams combined for 48 first downs and 957 yards of total offense – FSU had 497 yards, and Florida gained 460.
But as Norvell basked in the victory, Napier answered questions about Florida’s end-of-season struggles. After winning at Texas A&M and crushing South Carolina at home, the Gators lost at Vanderbilt for the first time since 1988 and at FSU for the first time since 2016.
Richardson’s roller-coaster season remained a topic of conversation. He finished 9 of 27 for 198 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
“I saw a guy that competed. That’s what I saw,” Napier said. “I saw a guy that made some unbelievable plays as a runner, made some elite throws. When you’re playing a game like that, there’s going to be things that you can do better.”
The Gators will regroup and await their bowl destination in the week ahead. Like a year ago, Florida finished the regular season 6-6 and must win its bowl game to finish with a winning record.
The difference is that a year ago, the Gators beat Florida State. But while the outcome was not what the Gators wanted in the first Friday night game between the in-state rivals, Florida played much better than in its loss at Vanderbilt.
Napier stressed his appreciation of the team’s performance Friday and its growth throughout his first season in charge of the program.
“They showed up and put it on the line,” he said. “Tough one to swallow. “Been a lot of times in the season where they could have laid down and pointed fingers. They stayed together. This is a cutthroat game. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of this group.
“A lot of good out there. What I’m most proud of is how hard the players played in the game. They put it on the line across the board. It wasn’t always pretty. They played the game of football the right way. I’m proud of the intangibles that our team showed. In that locker room right now, there’s a lot of guys that are [hurting]. When you do it the right way, and you come up short, it’s tough.”