Gators leave Las Vegas in forgettable fashion

LAS VEGAS — They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

The Gators can live with that. They won’t care about what happened at Allegiant Stadium on Saturday in the Las Vegas Bowl, being hit over the head with a shovel, shot in the heart and buried somewhere outside the city limits in a remote part of the desert.

Yes, it was so forgettable. And no, it’s not that easy.

Not when the highlight of Florida’s 30-3 loss to Oregon State was a 40-yard field goal by Adam Mihalek with 37 seconds left that kept alive the Gators’ 34-year streak of not getting a clean sheet.

“I mean, what are the percentages of being successful on fourth and that?” Gators coach Billy Napier said afterward about the last-minute field goal on fourth-and-goal from Oregon State’s 23-yard line. “So, take the points. Give Adam a chance to gain some experience.”

The Gators finished Napier’s first season at the helm with a 6-7 record, the same record as last season when a loss to UCF in the Gasparilla Bowl dropped the Gators below .500.

Adam Mihalek prepares for his 40-yard field goal in the final seconds of Saturday’s loss to Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl. (Photo: Hannah White/UAA Communications)

The game was close at halftime despite the Gators managing just 2 yards of offense in the second quarter after 91 in the opening quarter of the transition quarterback Jack Miller III first career start. Miller drove the Gators to Oregon State’s 31 on Florida’s second drive of the game, but a third-and-6 turned into third-and-16 after back-to-back false starts by offensive linemen Kamryn Waites (making his first career start) and Kingsley Eguakun. Mihalek missed a 52-yard field goal wide left on fourth down, and the Beavers drove 65 yards in eight plays on the ensuing possession. Oregon State took a 7-0 lead on an 8-yard touchdown run by Tyjon Lindsey.

Mistakes and missed opportunities proved to be a recurring theme for the Gators in their lowest-scoring bowl game since being shut out by Maryland in the 1975 Gator Bowl.

The Gators committed 11 penalties for 82 yards. The Beavers sacked Miller four times. Punt Jeremy Crawshaw had a punt blocked in the third quarter when the ball deflected off a teammate and the two-headed rushing attack Montrell Johnson Jr. (14 yards) and Trevor Etienne (14 yards) combined for 28 yards on 19 carries. Oregon State also converted a critical fake punt that led to a score. On Florida’s only scoring drive, the Gators had a first-and-goal at Oregon State’s 6 after Miller connected Thai Chiaokhiao-Bowman for 38 meters. They went backwards from there.

It was such a day in front of an announced crowd of 29,750.

The Gators said all week how much they enjoyed the bowl trip to Vegas, but Saturday wasn’t the last scene they envisioned. As the Beavers and their fans celebrated their first win over a Southeastern Conference opponent other than two against Missouri when the Tigers were in the Big 12, the Gators stumbled to the locker room with a third straight bowl loss.

“It’s my job to have the team ready to play and we weren’t as ready to play as we needed to be,” Napier said. “The things that disappoint me are the penalties, some situational mistakes in the game, certainly a lot of things we can do from a coaching perspective. I think we hung in on defense. We didn’t produce a lot on offense, but I thought our defensive players hung in there a while.”

The Gators were still in the game at halftime, trailing 10-0 Jordan Young blocked a 33-yard field goal attempt by Everett Hayes on the final play of the first half. But instead of charging back in the third quarter, the Gators stuck in neutral, gaining 5 yards on nine plays.

Meanwhile, the Beavers extended their lead to 23-0 on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Ben Gulbranson to Silas Bolden and a 7-yard run by Gulbranson. Oregon State (10-3) put the game away early in the fourth quarter when a 2-yard touchdown run by Jam Griffin capped a 13-play, 98-yard drive.

Leading up to Saturday’s game, most of the headlines centered on Florida arriving in Las Vegas without a starting quarterback Anthony Richardson (declared for the NFL Draft) and a total of 21 players who appeared in a game this season due to opt-outs, transfers or waivers.

In the end, none of it worked. Miller, the third-year freshman who transferred from Ohio State after last season, settled after a three-and-out to open the game to finish 13 of 22 for 180 yards.

“I think Jack showed some grit,” Napier said. “You think about what he was asked to do, obviously he had the thumb injury at the end of training camp to come back four or five weeks ago, basically the first time he started and just reps to get ready for this game.

“What I’m thinking about is maybe things we can do as a staff to maybe help him, that players around him play better, he can play better, but more importantly, we can coach better. It’s a tough dynamic and one that he took on themselves.”

Miller was under constant pressure, and when the running game was shut down (39 yards on 33 attempts), the Beavers limited the Gators to a season-low 219 yards of total offense. The Beavers reached 10 wins for just the third time in program history and the first time in 16 years.

For the Gators, it was a disappointing end to the season after a dominating 38-6 home win over South Carolina five weeks ago dropped them to 6-4. Florida finished the regular season with losses at Vanderbilt and Florida State.

Senior defensive tackle Gervon Dexter, who played Saturday after declaring for the NFL Draft, is confident the program is headed in the right direction under Napier despite what the scoreboard said Saturday.

The losing seasons are Florida’s first since the Carter administration when the Gators went 4-7 in Doug Dickey’s final season (1978) and 0-10-1 in Charley Pell’s first season (1979). The Gators are a program in transition right now.

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Gators quarterback Jack Miller III threw for 180 yards in his first career start on Saturday. (Photo: Hannah White/UAA Communications)

“There was a lot of emotion,” Dexter said of the locker room after the game where Napier recognized the team’s veteran leaders for their contributions in his first season. “But mainly I’m just proud to be here. Honestly, just seeing the transition from last year to this year, I’m just proud of it. I feel like we left it better than we got it.”

Fourth-year junior receiver Ricky Pearsall led the Gators with four catches for 65 yards, the identical totals he posted last season in the Las Vegas Bowl as a member of Arizona State’s team that lost to Wisconsin. Pearsall said he has not decided if he will return, but that he enjoyed his first season at UF and sees brighter days ahead.

“I think we can look back on it and see what we’ve done all year. Fighting to the end is something this team has done,” Pearsall said. “You can’t really teach effort, and I think that’s something really important that we can build on going into next year. We have a lot of young guys that are hungry and excited to play, so I think Gator Nation should be excited about the future here.”

Napier will turn his full attention to National Signing Day on Wednesday. The Gators have a recruiting class that is currently ranked in the top 10 nationally.

His first season crashed at the finish line, but if the Gators can continue to recruit well, the highlight of their next bowl game might not be a last-second field goal to extend their NCAA record shutout streak to 436 games.

But first, Napier paid tribute to his first team in Florida one last time.

“Sometimes I think the outcome doesn’t necessarily reflect the growth we’ve seen,” Napier said. “I think our issues on the field have been execution-specific. I think we’re always working on the culture part, but we’ve made a ton of progress in that area. What I observed in that locker room compared to some of the things we observed maybe when we first got here, it’s a completely different ball club.”

The next step is to field a club that ends with a winning record.

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