GAINESVILLE _ Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin caught three touchdown passes from Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston as the Seminoles handed rival Florida its worst home loss in the 55 years of the annual series, 37-7, on Saturday.
The previous worst loss for the Gators (4-8) against the Seminoles was 37-9 in 1977. It was also the first time second-ranked FSU had beaten Florida in consecutive games in Gainesville. The series alternates from Gainesville to Tallahassee each year.
The biggest news of the day on Saturday probably came an hour before kickoff when Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley reiterated that Will Muschamp will be back in 2014 as head coach.
While Foley confirmed what he’d been saying for weeks, the Seminoles backed up the statement they had been expected to make on the field _ that they’re pretty good.
Florida State, 12-0 for the first time since the 1999 national title team, humbled rival Florida after a shaky start and is now just one win away from playing for the national championship. It also looks like only the negative publicity from an investigation for alleged sexual assault stands in the way of FSU’s Winston, who threw for 327 yards with Benjamin catching nine balls for 212 yards and all three TD passes, also locking up the Heisman.
The worst Gators’ loss in the series against FSU was 35 points in Tallahassee in 1988. This one wasn’t that bad. But it was close, in any ways.
Florida State’s obvious advantage in offensive talent, depth and athletes was overwhelming. In a historically bad year for the Gators finished up:
_ With the first losing season 1979’s 0-10-1 team.
_ The longest losing streak in one year (finishing with seven straight losses) since ‘79.
_ The first team to lose at home to Vanderbilt since 1945, the first squad to fall to a FCS (Division I-AA) level program in history, Georgia Southern.
It was the first time since 1987 and 1989 that Florida lost back-to-back games in the series in Gainesville. But for most of the first half, Florida’s faithful was able to avoid red-faced moments in a season even Muschamp has called “embarrassing.’’
The Gators looked like a team that actually gave the Seminoles a tough time. UF got a season-best 50-yard run from Trey Burton out of the Wildcat to the Seminoles’ 33 in its best first half drive. But FSU stopped it and Austin Hardin missed a 49-yard field goal wide right, making him 0-for-5 from outside the 40 this season.
Florida State then drove 35 yards in eight plays to take the lead for good on Robert Aguayo’s 49-yarder with 3:43 left in the opening quarter.
While the Florida defense did its part, though, the poor offense that has been below par all season prompting cries for the replacement of offensive coordinator Brent Pease couldn’t do much of anything against FSU. UF had 104 yards in the first half _ 54 total on the 23 other plays than Burton’s long run.
It’s already been speculated that Muschamp will seek a replacement for Pease, along with several other assistants.
Winston got going in the second quarter and led drives of 96 and 74 yards and the Gators seemed to melt after that. Both scored finished with Kelvin Benjamin on the receiving end of both first half TD passes _ covering 45 and 29 yards. That gave Benjamin 11 scoring receptions this season but he had one more in the second half, too.
Florida’s passing offense had 10 touchdowns scored in the air the entire year going into Saturday.
Winston’s first two TD throws gave him 34 for the year and put Florida State up 17-0 at halftime, which actually matched the Nevada game as the fewest points scored in the opening half all season by the ‘Noles. The Gators had allowed just six TD throws against it all season.
In the second half, Florida went backwards in the third quarter instead of towards the end zone. Third string QB Skyler Mornhinweg was hit midway through the quarter on a passing attempt and the ball came out, ruled a fumble and confirmed by the replay official.
Aguayo booted a 40-yarder to pad the Seminoles’ lead to 20-0. Devonta Freeman’s 12th TD run, this one coming from 11 yards out, made it 27-0 with 7:08 remaining in the third quarter.
The Gators’ Mornhinweg hit fullback Hunter Joyer on a 5-yard touchdown pass to finish off a 14-play drive that covered 83 yards early in the fourth quarter for UF’s only points. The touchdown enabled Florida to avoid being shut out for the first time since a 16-0 loss to Auburn on Oct. 29, 1998.
Winston’s third touchdown pass to Benjamin from four yards out finished off a 10-play, 79-yard drive for the final touchdown of the day for Florida State.