COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP)—The best runner in the Southeastern Conference? Just ask Florida’s Ciatrick Fason—and get out of his way.
When teammate and Gators leading rusher DeShawn Wynn said the other day he’d gain 130 yards against the Gamecocks, Fason said, “Well, I’m going to get 150.”
Fason says all people want to talk are SEC tailbacks like Shaud Williams of Alabama, Cedric Cobbs of Arkansas and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams of Auburn. If Fason got their carries, he says, he’d have more than their yardage.
“If you put that to me, I think so,” Fason said.
And it’s not so hard to believe after Fason got a career-high 190 yards in 24-22 victory over South Carolina on Saturday, a win that clinched a share of the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division crown.
“I always have confidence in myself,” said Fason, who performance rescued the Gators (8-3, 6-2) sluggish passing attack. “I feel like I’m one of the best in the nation.”
He was certainly the best at Williams-Brice Stadium. He came in with only 52 carries and 349 yards through Florida’s first 10 games, and third on the depth chart behind Ran Carthon and Wynn. But with those two bottled up by South Carolina, Fason got the chance to shine.
“That just shows what he can do,” Florida left tackle Max Starks said.
Down 9-0, Fason has runs of 20 and 30 yards on the Gators’ first touchdown drive. Chris Leak ended the series with a 9-yard run into the end zone.
Fason had passed his previous high, 92 yards in the LSU win last month, by the third quarter and kept motoring to the end.
A winded Fason said it was the most carries he had since his days at Fletcher High School in Neptune Beach, Fla., where he was a Parade All-American.
Chris Leak scored on a 9-yard run and threw a 7-yard TD pass to Ben Troupe to help the Gators rally from a 16-7 halftime deficit for their fifth straight win this season—and 13th straight over the Gamecocks.
While they’ll do no worse than a tie with Tennessee and Georgia for first in the division, the Gators will need a lot of help to advance to the SEC title game for the first time under coach Ron Zook.
“We’ve done all we can,” Zook said.
First, the Gators needed to win at Williams-Brice Stadium, which they did— barely.
South Carolina’s Dondrial Pinkins scored on a 5-yard run with 10:04 to go to get within 24-22. The Gamecocks (5-6, 2-6) tried to run Pinkins again on the 2-point try, but defensive tackle Marcus Thomas stopped him short of the line.
“I knew he was short,” said Thomas, smiling. “He wasn’t in.”
The Gamecocks got the ball three more times down the stretch and could not get into Florida territory. The Gators’ Keiwan Ratliff got his ninth interception of the season on Pinkins’ desperation heave.
It was far from Leak’s best game—the freshman was 12-of-20 for 121 yards— but he made enough right decisions, such as handing the ball to Fason—to beat the Gamecocks, who fell to 0-8 the past two seasons in games that would have made them bowl eligible.
Troupe appeared to have a second touchdown catch later in the third quarter, but dropped a wide-open pass in the end zone. The Gators settled for Matt Leach’s 20-yard field goal to go ahead for good 17-16.
A fumbled pitch by Chavez Donnings on South Carolina’s next series gave Florida the ball at the Gamecocks 10. DeShawn Wynn needed one play for a touchdown run to put the Gators ahead 24-16.
“We could’ve won this definitely,” said Lou Holtz, whose team had never come closer than 17 points to Florida in four previous meetings.
The Gamecocks usually don’t have much success slowing down Florida. And with old defensive coordinator Charlie Strong returning in Florida blue and orange, they figured to have as tough a time as ever.
Leak was under pressure through much of the first half. Defensive end George Gause caught him in the back of the end zone for a safety, the Gamecocks first since 1996. Leak had only 48 yards passing in the first half.
And when Donnings had an electrifying 73-yard punt return to close the half, it looked as though the Gameocks might have a line on their first series win since 1939.
South Carolina played without leading rusher Demetris Summers, out with a concussion sustained in the last game at Arkansas. The running game bogged down, but the Gamecocks made their chances count.
After Gause’s safety, South Carolina went 57 yards in 10 plays for its first touchdown. Cory Boyd, replacing Summers, had a 1-yard TD run through the middle.