Cody Cousino / Photo editor
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators’ defense and special teams play was more than the Ohio State football team could contend with in the 2012 Gator Bowl.
Florida redshirt sophomore wide receiver Andre Debose scored on a 99-yard kickoff return and the Gators’ defense forced two turnovers and scored on a blocked punt to win the bowl game, 24-17.
“We didn’t get the job done,” OSU coach Luke Fickell said after the game. “Special teams … is obviously the glaring thing. The story of the game is going to be the big plays and most of them happened on special teams.”
OSU finished the season with a 6-7 record, the Buckeyes’ first losing record since 1988.
Monday’s game was tied at seven in the first half after Florida redshirt senior quarterback John Brantley and OSU freshman quarterback Braxton Miller completed touchdown passes to Florida redshirt senior Deonte Thompson and OSU senior wide receiver DeVier Posey, respectively.
Brantley finished the game 12-of-16 passing for 129 yards with an interception while Miller, the 2011 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, was 18-of-24 passing for 162 yards and two touchdowns.
The 7-7 tie was short-lived, as Debose ran untouched for a 99-yard score on the ensuing kickoff. The kick return, which was the third of Debose’s career, broke a 29-year-old Gator Bowl record for the longest kick return.
“When two good teams play each other, special teams is usually the difference,” said redshirt senior linebacker Tyler Moeller after the game. “They had a good kickoff return and they had a blocked punt for a touchdown. That was the difference.”
An OSU field goal narrowed the gap to 14-10, but Florida struck another blow on special teams soon after play resumed.
A punt by OSU redshirt junior punter Ben Buchanan was blocked by redshirt senior halfback Chris Rainey, and returned for a touchdown by freshman Graham Stewart to extend the Gators’ advantage to 21-10.
Fickell said the blocked punt changed his offensive game plan.
“That’s huge. I think that’s one of the bigger things all year that we haven’t done a great job of — putting our offense in some situation to do what they do well,” Fickell said. “Those (plays) don’t happen, and it’s obviously a different game.”
Meanwhile, OSU struggled to mount a comeback.
Miller was held to just 19 yards on 15 carries during the game and all OSU rushers were held to a combined 131 yards — the Buckeyes averaged 196 yards per game during the regular season.
“You’ve got to give (Florida) credit,” Fickell said. “They did a good job of keeping (Miller) in the pocket (and) not running by him on a lot of situations.”
Senior center Michael Brewster agreed.
“I think (Florida coach Will Muschamp) did a really good job of getting some blitzes ready that we hadn’t seen much on film,” Brewster said. “We really didn’t get into it until the second half, but you have to give them credit.”
Moeller intercepted a Brantley pass to give OSU possession inside Florida territory with 4:54 to play in the third quarter.
The Buckeyes fumbled their opportunity away — literally.
Posey fumbled after a 10-yard reception inside the Gators’ 40-yard line later in the drive. The fumble, which was the fifth of the day for both teams and the second by OSU, was recovered by Florida junior safety Josh Evans to end the Buckeyes’ potential scoring threat.
Florida then added to its lead with an 18-yard field goal by redshirt junior kicker Caleb Sturgis. That eight-play, 53-yard Gators drive that lasted 4:01 made the score 24-10 and took the game into the fourth quarter.
The Buckeyes made things interesting in the final minute of play, but only momentarily.
OSU junior running back Jordan Hall scored on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Miller to cut the deficit to 24-17 with 57 seconds to play. The Buckeyes then lined up for an onside kick, but the attempt was recovered by Florida, which then kneed the ball and ran the clock out to end the game.
Brewster said the loss was a hard one for the team.
“When you’re playing a good team and you lose the special teams battle and you lose the turnover margin, you’re going to have a hard day,” he said.
Urban Meyer, who was introduced as OSU’s new head coach on Nov. 28, will now take control of the team, along with other newly hired coaches.