GAINESVILLE, Fla. – When they shook hands after the game, Florida coach Jim McElwain thanked South Carolina's Will Muschamp for what he left behind in Gainesville.
On defense anyway.
It didn't need to be said. After all, it was evident on the field.
Austin Appleby threw two touchdown passes, Jordan Scarlett ran for a career-high 134 yards and the 22nd-ranked Gators used another solid defensive effort to beat the Gamecocks 20-7 Saturday, moving closer to clinching the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division.
"I just said, No. 1, that there were some great defensive players here," McElwain said. "He just did an outstanding job."
The banged-up Gators (7-2, 5-2) can secure a spot in the league title game by winning at 19th-ranked LSU next week. It might be a long shot given Florida's injury situation.
McElwain lost nine starters the last two weeks, including four against the Gamecocks (5-5, 3-5). Safety Marcus Maye (arm) is out for the season, and it's uncertain whether defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. (ankle), center Tyler Jordan (ankle) and left tackle David Sharpe (leg) will be ready to play against the Tigers.
"You've got guys dropping left and right and new guys going in there," McElwain said. "I think we sold some extra programs because (fans) didn't know the numbers that were in there. Our new athletic director will be excited about that. It'll help the budget."
Florida did just enough to overcome the injuries.
Appleby found C'yontai Lewis for a 6-yard score in the first quarter and then floated a perfect pass to Ahmad Fulwood in the corner of the end zone in the second. Eddy Pineiro's two field goals in the third, including a 54-yarder, gave the Gators some breathing room.
Florida's defense did the rest, allowing just 256 yards while rebounding nicely from a 31-10 loss at Arkansas last week. Most of the players shutting down South Carolina were guys Muschamp signed during his four years (2011-14) in Gainesville.
"It's about the people," he said. "It's not about the logo. It's not about the buildings. It's relationships you build with people over a period of time. A lot of people that still work here at Florida that I'm very close with and always will be. As we move forward there will be less players involved, which is probably the better part for me because that's what I really care about."
Many thought Florida's former coach would pull off an upset in his return to Gainesville. Instead, the Gamecocks were shut out until scoring with 6:53 left. The loss snapped South Carolina's three-game winning streak.
Freshman quarterback Jake Bentley, who played so well in those victories, struggled in his first road start. Bentley completed 18 of 33 passes for 213 yards, with an interception and a fumble.
Appleby was slightly more efficient. The former Purdue starter, filling in for injured Luke Del Rio, was 17-of-21 passing for 201 yards. He threw an interception in the third quarter and fumbled a snap, committing two of the team's three turnovers.
"We could have had 40 points out there if we played the way we are capable of," Appleby said. "We will get it fixed."
Injuries have come in bunches of late for the Gators. Over the last two weeks they’ve lost five defensive starters and four on the other side of the ball. Some of them won't be back for next week's all-important game at LSU, leaving Florida to test its depth on the road.
Following Saturday’s win over South Carolina, McElwain announced that safety Marcus Maye will miss the rest of the season because of a broken left arm.
Maye, widely considered a first-round NFL draft pick, turned down a chance to leave early after last season and returned for his senior year.
McElwain says "I just feel horrible. But he's done so much. I mean his draft stock looking down the road has risen drastically because of how he's played. So this won't have any bearing on it."
SEC East Title: With a win over South Carolina, Florida had a chance to clinch the SEC East Title. They needed Kentucky to beat Tennessee. However it was the Volunteers who came out on top, beating the Wildcats 49-36. That means the SEC East is still up for grabs.