- Jeff Barlis, College Football
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Just when it appeared Florida's season of discontent could get no worse, it did.
The Gators lost to an FCS opponent for the first time in school history Saturday, and with that 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern, UF (4-7, 3-5 in the SEC) has its first losing season since 1979, as well as an end to a 22-year run of bowl games that was the longest active streak in the nation.
And Florida paid Georgia Southern $550,000 to schedule Saturday's contest.
Was it the worst loss in school history? The most humiliating? Does it matter at this point?
A season that began with promise and a 4-1 start has spiraled into a free fall with a six-game losing streak of which few inside the program can make sense. Facing the media Saturday and tasked with explaining another numbing low point, head coach Will Muschamp struggled to find new words or explanations for the state of his program.
"Very disappointed for our program," he said. "An embarrassment in this situation."
As usual, the primary culprit was an inept offense that came into the game ranked No. 111 out of 123 FBS teams in total offense and generated 279 yards (4.5 yards per play).
"You've got to be able to change the scoreboard, and we just struggled scoring points offensively," he said. "It's been a week-in, week-out occurrence, and it's my job to get it fixed, and we will get it fixed. ...
"We've just got to keep working at what we're doing. We're struggling offensively, and it has infected our entire team right now.”
On Saturday, however, Florida's defense shouldered as much of the blame, if not more, for another staggering loss.
Georgia Southern's 429 yards rushing were the fourth most Florida has allowed in school history. The Eagles also won without completing a pass (0-for-3).
Muschamp said earlier in the week that the Florida coaching staff began working on its defensive game plan for Georgia Southern in the offseason. But long running plays -- one each by GSU's quarterback (45 yards), tailback (66) and fullback (53) -- either scored or set up three of the Eagles' four touchdowns.
"It hurts," junior safety Cody Riggs said. "We didn't watch what we were supposed to be watching on certain plays, and those six, seven, eight plays are the ones that got them all of those yards."
It didn't help that Florida was playing without starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison. Or that backup Michael Taylor injured the MCL in his right knee in the second quarter and did not return. Or that Taylor's replacement, true freshman Alex Anzalone, separated his shoulder during the game.
Injuries handcuffed the Gators' offense, as well. Starting quarterback Tyler Murphy, the backup at the start of the season, missed his second straight game with a nagging shoulder injury, forcing the Gators to turn again to redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg.
But Florida was facing a team with similar injury problems. Georgia Southern, which plays within the FCS limit of 65 scholarships, has suffered 19 injuries this season, including 13 to starters. As a result, the Eagles have struggled to a 7-4 record (4-4 in the Southern Conference), including losses to Samford, Wofford and Appalachian State.
"I know [the Gators] have had a tough year. They've had a lot of injuries. So have we," GSU coach Jeff Monken said after his team stormed the field at Ben Hill Griffin stadium and lingered to enjoy the biggest win in program history. "We've got a lot of guys playing out there that weren't our starters at the beginning of the year and wouldn't have been starters right now had other guys been healthy. But we've continued to improve, and as those guys said, we've continued to fight."
The same cannot be said of Florida.
The Gators' patchwork offensive line struggled to run and pass block against its FCS foe, forcing a number of direct snaps, jet sweeps and wildcat plays in order to catch the defense off guard, despite the fact that the Eagles' starting defensive linemen averaged just over 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds. Mornhinweg had 6 yards passing at halftime. Florida rushed for 111 yards in the first half but just 46 in the second.
"We came out flat as a team," senior offensive guard Jon Halapio said. "We didn't play as a team today. We didn't communicate. We didn't block together. We didn't run the ball as efficient. That's something that we preached early on in the week, to not take this group of men lightly. They came out here and played their tails off. This was their bowl game. They had nothing to lose. We took them lightly, and we got outworked, outplayed, outphysicaled. You call it, it happened."
Now what happens at Florida is a week of preparation for arch-rival Florida State, followed by a merciful end to a painful season.
"As far as not going to a bowl game, I'm not gonna lie, I never would have seen that coming, coming to Florida," Riggs said. "That's very upsetting. A losing season, even though we were plagued by injuries, like I said, there's no excuses."
Without the excuse of injuries, however, the historic losses this season could throw into question the votes of confidence Muschamp received just more than a week ago from athletic director Jeremy Foley and UF president Bernie Machen.
Losing to Georgia Southern could have significant implications if the outcry from Florida fans is heard. Despite the negativity and the demoralizing losing streak, the Gators coaching staff still has the full faith of its players.
"We're not concerned," Riggs said. "I know that a lot of people around here have Coach Muschamp's back. He's a great coach, best coach I ever had. We're not worried about that. I've learned more under him than I have under any coach ever.
"Yeah, it's about winning. But some stuff you just can't control. We've had a lot of hardships this year. Not using that as an excuse again, but it's just a rough year for us."