Photo: Ricky Pearsall; Credit: Zach Goodall
It's an explosive night of offense in Tallahassee through 30 minutes.
The Florida Gators are taking on Florida State Seminoles in a Black Friday rendition of the annual Sunshine State Showdown.
Florida entered the matchup depleted at the wide receiver spot with Xzavier Henderson, Justin Shorter, Ja'Quavion Fraizars, Marcus Burke and Thai Chiaokhiao-Bowman being ruled out with respective injuries prior to the contest. Wideout Ricky Pearsall also entered the matchup on the injury report -- listed as questionable --, but he brought much-needed relief to the unit as he started the contest.
On defense, starting safety Rashad Torrence was a surprise inactive despite not being on the injury report this week. He exited the contest against Vanderbilt a week ago. The heart of the unit, LB Ventrell Miller, also felt the effects of the trip to Nashville as he served his first-half suspension due to a second-half targeting penalty.
Despite the shorthanded unit, the Gators are going toe to toe with the No. 16 Seminoles heading into the halftime break.
The first-half action started fast as linebacker Shemar James forced a fumble on Florida State's Ontario Wilson on the third play from scrimmage.
That flipped what looked to be a promising first drive for FSU into an excellent starting field position for the Gators. They were unable to capitalize.
After Florida turned the ball over on downs, failing to execute on the 4th and 2 pitch to the short side of the field, Trey Benson gashed the Gators' defense with runs of 45 and nine to move the ball 54 yards in 34 seconds.
He ran untouched into the end zone on the second play to take a 7-0 lead.
However, that didn't last long.
Freshman running back and kick returner Trevor Etienne re-energized the Florida unit with a 48-yard kick return to once again set up UF in positive field position.
This time, despite the lack of pieces at wideout, Napier dialed up a deep ball to the lone season-long starter in the lineup Ricky Pearsall on play one. Quarterback Anthony Richardson dropped back and put the ball on the money to Pearsall on the nine route to tie the game at seven apiece.
The fast-paced action continued as Florida's defense forced a fourth down stop of their own to give the offense the ball back.
Richardson endured an injury scare on that ensuing possession, hitting the grass in Doak Campbell Stadium after a rush for four up the middle. The ABC broadcast reported that Richardson was dealing with a hip injury on the sideline.
That forced backup Jalen Kitna to hit the playing field for five plays, where the Gators continued to find early success on the ground. Montrell Johnson and Etienne carried the load during the starting QBs absence.
Richardson re-entered the game as Florida punched the ball into the red zone. Two plays later, he found tight end Jonathan Odom in the right flats to give the Gators a 14-7 lead on their in-state rival.
However, the quarterback duel continued just a few minutes late as Travis made his presence felt on a quarterback keeper out of the read option. He took it 29 yards for a Seminoles touchdown to tie the contest at 14.
The two offenses combined to average 9.16 yards per play at that point.
Then, the first quarter came to a close.
Right out of the brief break for the end of the quarter, Richardson threw an interception to set up Florida State on the edge of the logo to drive down with an opportunity to retake the lead.
Florida forced a 3rd and 12 stop and Ryan Fitzgerald missed a field goal from 37 yards out to maintain the tie game to allow UF to take control at its own 20.
The Gators converted on third down after a false start penalty pushed them back to a 3rd and 5 with a rocket from Richardson to Pearsall over the middle for a gain of 32. The duo outdid itself on the following play as it connected once more for a 43-yard touchdown.
Pearsall ended the first half with four receptions, 135 yards and two touchdowns to support a depleted pass-catching corps. He caught all but one of Richardson's first-half completions.
The Noles answered once again on an eight-play, 74-yard drive behind the legs of Benson and Travis. That was highlighted by Travis evading Florida rushers in the backfield to escape three potential sacks on third down to push forward for a 10-yard run to the one-yard line.
He took it in for the score on the next play.
A 41-yard field goal from Adam Mihalek with under a minute remaining in the first half would be the difference at the break as the Gators lead 24-21.
UF will receive the second-half kickoff looking to extend the margin on their in-state rivals.
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