GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A game only appears to unravel in a split second. It only seems that a moment's lapse in judgment results in a ball on the ground, a defense celebrating, a stadium shaking and an offense sprinting onto the field to punch in a touchdown before the visitors even have a chance to get their bearings and the viewers at home have a chance to adjust their lucky underwear.
South Carolina didn't begin to come apart the moment Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy blitzed and poked the ball away from Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw on South Carolina's first play from scrimmage Saturday. Sure, the Gators recovered on the two-yard line, scored on a Jeff Driskel-to-Jordan Reed pass on their third play and took a lead they would never relinquish en route to a 44-11 win. But the Gamecocks' downfall began much earlier.
It began in a meeting room inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium days earlier as Purifoy scanned videos of South Carolina's previous games, looking for Violators. A Violator, in the parlance of the Gators' defensive staff, is a ballcarrier who leaves the ball vulnerable. "They don't hold it high and tight like they're supposed to," Purifoy said. And the Gamecocks? "They were all Violators," Purifoy said. "You could tell."
The downfall continued at Florida's hotel Saturday morning when coach Will Muschamp met with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and suggested the Gators blitz on the first play. "I said, 'Let's bring the pressure,'" Muschamp said. "Dan, you don't have to talk him out of it. He doesn't worry about covering sometimes." Quinn made the specific call to bring Purifoy off the corner. As Purifoy approached, Shaw tried to escape. "He took a step in to try to make me bite. He made me bite, but he stuck the ball out," Purifoy said. "He shouldn't have done that." On the sideline, Muschamp celebrated. "It was a fantastic call," Muschamp said. "A good tone setter for the game."
The Violators kept violating, and the Gators were grateful they did. South Carolina's offense didn't come to play, but the Gamecocks' defense did. Florida gained 29 first-half yards and made two first downs. Yet the Gators led 21-6. All three touchdowns were set up by fumble recoveries.
The Purifoy strip, recovered by end Lerentee McCray, set up the first score. Florida scored its second touchdown after everything-back Trey Burton slammed old friend Ace Sanders -- Sanders is from Bradenton, Fla., only a short drive from Burton's hometown of Venice -- and knocked the ball loose. Burton recovered on the South Carolina 29-yard line, then helped as a wildcat quarterback as the Gators mounted their longest drive of the half and scored on a 13-yard pass from Driskel to Quinton Dunbar. The third came after Solomon Patton knocked the ball loose from South Carolina kickoff returner Damiere Byrd and Florida's Chris Johnson picked it up and returned it to the one-yard line. Two plays later, Driskel found Reed over the middle for a touchdown.
Florida's offense awakened after halftime. In the third quarter, the Gamecocks didn't make a first down, and Florida gained 133 yards. By the start of the fourth, it was already garbage time. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, standing in the bowels of the stadium he turned into one of college football's most feared venues, summed up the catastrophe as only he could. "The only thing you can hope is that your guys give it their best shot and not just lay the ball down and basically say 'Here, Florida. We don't want to win.' You guys take this fumble and this fumble and this fumble," Spurrier said. "So it was sad."
Sad because the winner of this game had control of the SEC East. Had South Carolina won Saturday, the Gamecocks would have been favored in the remainder of their SEC games. They might, given the right breaks, have been national title contenders. By halftime, they were merely broken. Florida, meanwhile, can clinch the SEC East by beating Georgia in Jacksonville next week. The Gators went 6-6 last year, and their rise from the outhouse to the penthouse has come exactly as Muschamp predicted it would when he took the job.
The Gators don't win pretty. They don't throw particularly well, but twice in three weeks, they have physically dominated defensive fronts loaded with early-round draft picks. Florida is tough. It plays punishing defense and stellar special teams. In fact, the biggest rock star inside the Gators' locker room Saturday might have been the guy who gets ignored on campus while his roommate, Driskel, gets besieged. Punter Kyle Christy may be able to walk down Stadium Drive unrecognized, but every opposing coach knows him. Saturday, Christy booted seven punts longer than 50 yards for a school-record 54.3-yard average. Florida's sluggish offense could have put its defense in a terrible first-half field position hole, but Christy wouldn't allow it. He kept booming kicks and flipping the field back in Florida's favor. "What a game-changer," Muschamp said of his no longer anonymous punter.
The Gators might remain No. 2 when the BCS standings are released Sunday night. They might get jumped by Oregon, which looked fantastic as it dismantled Arizona State Thursday. Muschamp does not care, because he knows it doesn't matter. "I sat with them Monday and said let's have a conversation about the BCS and the AP, the UPI, USA Today and all the polls," Muschamp said. "Is that going to help us win against South Carolina? Is any of that information going to help us prepare for the game. They all agreed that it wasn't going to help us. So we're not going to sit here and talk about it."
They won't talk about it this week, either. A win against the Bulldogs would provide a tangible reward that barely seemed possible two months ago. The Gators can dream even bigger, but if they're smart, they won't. If they're wise, they'll forget the noise, search the film for Violators and keep playing an ugly brand of football that makes their opponents look positively hideous.