LAS VEGAS — They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
The Gators can live with that. They won’t mind if what transpired at Allegiant Stadium on Saturday in the Las Vegas Bowl is knocked over the head with a shovel, shot in the heart, and buried somewhere outside city limits in a remote part of the desert.
Yes, it was that 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 being blanked on the scoreboard.
“I mean, what are the percentages of having success on fourth and that?” Gators coach Billy Napier said afterward of 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 get some experience.”
The Gators ended Napier’s first season in charge with a 6-7 record, the same record as last season when a loss to UCF in the Gasparilla Bowl dropped the Gators under .500.
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 in transfer quarterback Jack Miller III’s first career start. Miller drove the Gators to Oregon State’s 31 on Florida’s second series of the game, but a third-and-6 turned into third-and-16 after back-to-back false starts by offensive linemen Camryn 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 on 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 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. Punter Jeremy Crawshaw had a punt blocked in the third quarter when the ball deflected off a teammate and the two-headed rushing attack of 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 with Thai Chiaokhiao-Bowman for 38 yards. They went backwards from there.
It was that kind of day in front of an announced crowd of 29,750.
The Gators said all week how much they enjoyed their bowl trip to Vegas, but Saturday was not the final 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 consecutive 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 do think we hung in there on defense. We didn’t produce much on offense, but I thought our defensive players hung in there for a while.”
The Gators were still in the game at halftime, trailing 10-0 after 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 remained stuck in neutral, gaining 5 yards on nine plays.
Meanwhile, the Beavers increased 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.
In the lead-up to Saturday’s game, most of the headlines centered on Florida arriving in Las Vegas without starting quarterback Anthony Richardson (declared for NFL Draft) and 21 total players who appeared in a game this season due to opt-outs, transfers, or dismissals.
In the end, none of that seemed to matter. Miller, the third-year freshman who transferred from Ohio State after last season, settled in 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 had the thumb injury at the end of training camp to get back four or five weeks ago, really the first time to start and just reps to get ready for this game.
“What I think 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.”
Miller was under constant pressure, and with the running game 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 only 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 dominant 38-6 home win over South Carolina five weeks ago put them at 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 back-to-back 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 now as then.
“It was a lot of emotions,” Dexter said of the postgame locker room where Napier recognized the team’s veteran leaders for their contributions in his first season. “But I’m mainly just proud of being 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 put up 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 at it and see what we’ve been doing all year. Fighting to the end is something this team has been doing,” Pearsall said. “You can’t really teach effort, and I think that’s something really important that we can build off of going into next year. We got 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 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 streak of not being shut out to 436 games.
But first, Napier paid tribute to his inaugural Florida team one final time.
“Sometimes I think the result doesn’t necessarily show the growth we’ve observed,” 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 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 ball club that finishes with a winning record.