GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Zach Carter made his way to one corner of the Swamp and found himself celebrating alongside the Florida band.
His next move? Directing, of course.
“I stayed on beat!" said Carter, one of 27 seniors playing their final game at Florida Field.
It was a fitting end for Carter and the Gators, who finally found some rhythm after a two-month roller-coaster ride that included coach Dan Mullen's firing.
Anthony Richardson came off the bench and led the Gators to a 24-21 victory over rival Florida State on Saturday that made them bowl eligible a week after Mullen's dismissal. Florida had lost nine of its previous 11 games against Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Richardson replaced turnover-prone Emory Jones early in third quarter and completed 5 of 7 passes for 55 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown to Justin Shorter that gave the Gators (6-6) some breathing room in a tight game.
Dameon Pierce took over from there, going untouched for a 2-yard score after running around and through the Seminoles (5-7). His touchdown came four plays after getting penalized 15 yards for continuing to participate without a helmet. Pierce finished with 62 yards on the ground.
“It's just means so much to send us out the right way, the seniors,” Pierce said. "All week, that was all we talked about, ‘Man, we’re going to send y'all out the right way.' And the seniors saying, ‘We going to go out the right way.’ Everybody had that same goal. Everybody worked toward that same goal. Just to see it pay off on the field.
“It might not have been as pretty as we wanted it to be, but there's beauty in it. I wouldn't want it easy. I like a hard-fought battle and that's what it was today.”
The Seminoles scored to make it close in the final minutes, but they badly botched an onside kick. Parker Grothaus essentially whiffed trying to hit the top of the ball, barely brushing it and knocking it off the tee. Florida took over and ran out the clock for their third straight victory in the series.
“I’ve never seen that before in my life,” said Florida's Greg Knox, who improved to 2-0 as an interim head coach. "That was a big one.”
Florida State, which entered the game as a 2½-point underdog despite winning its previous two games, will miss the postseason for the third time in four years.
“It’s a hard way to end the season because this is a team that continued to believe," FSU coach Mike Norvell said.
Added FSU quarterback Jordan Travis: “Losing sucks.”
Richardson declined to give a definitive decision on his future. Asked whether he is committed to staying at Florida, he responded “I'm a Gator.”
No one should be surprised to see Richardson wait until after Florida's next coach is announced to make his choice on staying or entering the transfer portal.
The game included a pregame skirmish, countless exchanges after the whistle and numerous mistakes — six turnovers and 22 penalties for 196 yards.
A 61-yard punt proved critical for both teams. FSU’s Ontaria Wilson muffed a fair catch on the booming punt, and Florida’s Xzavier Henderson pounced on the loose ball at the FSU 33.
Even more troubling for the ’Noles, they allowed Florida to convert on a third-and-21 play on the ensuing drive. Richardson found Malik Davis in the flat. Davis slipped a tackle and powered for the first down. Richardson’s TD pass to Shorter came five plays later.
FSU's Travis battled through a right shoulder injury that twice forced him out of the game. He ran for a 9-yard TD in the second and scampered for 34 more in the fourth to set up Treshaun Ward’s score.
Travis completed 18 of 29 passes for 202 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. He ran 17 times for 102 yards and was sacked four times — all by Brenton Cox.
“We had him out there scrambling for his life,” Florida's Carter said.
Florida State: The Seminoles have lost three in a row to Florida for the first time since Bobby Bowden and Urban Meyer roamed the sidelines. FSU can only hope to make up ground with its next recruiting class, which is currently ranked higher than Florida’s.
Florida: The Gators don’t want to wait long to fill their coaching void. Louisiana’s Billy Napier appears to be Florida’s top target although the Ragin’ Cajuns play next Saturday in the Sun Belt Conference championship game.
Florida State awaits spring practice and Norvell’s third season.
Florida has to determine if it will play in a bowl with a new coaching staff headed to Gainesville soon.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25. Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://apnews.com/cfbtop25