COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Florida coach Billy Napier found quarterback Graham Mertz and receiver Ricky Pearsall, both transfers, after the game and hugged them hard.
“This,” Napier said, “is why you come to Florida.”
Mertz threw for a career-best 423 yards and three touchdowns, the last a 21-yard strike to Pearsall with 47 seconds left, as the Gators rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to beat South Carolina 41-39 on Saturday.
Pearsall had 10 catches for 166 yards, including the game-winner.
“I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” said Mertz, who spent the previous four seasons at Wisconsin.
The joy and the determination were evident after Florida fell behind 37-27 when Spencer Rattler threw his fourth TD pass, a 33-yard scoring toss to tight end Joshua Simon with 9:11 to play.
Pearsall, who was at Arizona State for three seasons before joining Florida (5-2, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) before last season, saw South Carolina fans doing the “Gator Chomp” in a mock celebration. He told his teammates, “We’re going to go down there and win.”
Plenty of things had to happen — just about all of them did.
Mertz cut into the lead with his 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Arlis Boardingham with 4:40 to play. Then the Gators D forced a punt after the Gamecocks advanced to midfield.
Mertz, who entered second nationally in completion percentage (80%), threw three incompletes and faced fourth-and-10. That’s when he found Pearsall for a 26-yard gain.
The drive stayed alive when a ball off Pearsall’s hands was caught in stride by teammate Eugene Wilson III who took it to the Gamecock 16. Two plays later, Mertz faked with his shoulder and Pearsall was wide open just past the goal line.
“We came here today to prove something,” Napier said. “What a way to win a ballgame.”
Safety Miguel Mitchell picked off Rattler on South Carolina’s final possession. The Gators took a safety with 4 seconds left for their second straight SEC win.
The comeback ruined a brilliant performance by South Carolina’s Rattler, who passed for 313 yards and four touchdowns.
The Gamecocks (2-4, 1-3) have lost two straight and three of their last four.
“Disappointed that we got a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and couldn’t finish it,” Rattler said. “That’s not like us.”
The Gamecocks trailed 27-24 on the last of four Trey Smack field goals midway through the third quarter. Two series later, Rattler led the go-ahead drive that included his 27-yard run into Florida territory and a 20-yard scoring toss to Trey Knox for a 31-27 lead.
Rattler was at it again the next time he got the ball, finishing a 70-yard drive with a 33-yard scoring toss to tight end Joshua Simon.
The first half was a classic shootout with the teams trading long drives and big plays. The teams combined for 521 yards and 26 first downs in a half where neither defense could make a stop.
Florida scored on four of its five first-half possessions and Smack’s fourth field goal, from 28 yards, sent the team into halftime ahead 24-21.
Rattler connected with four receivers on his touchdowns, including a 20-yard toss to tailback Mario Anderson where the Division II transfer leaped over safety Miguel Mitchell to reach the end zone.
Florida: The Gators pulled off the comeback behind Mertz. They shook off a lackluster first 20 minutes of the second half and got hot when it counted most.
South Carolina: During their bye week, the Gamecocks had hoped they could fix what went wrong in a 41-20 loss at Tennessee two weeks ago. It looked they had solved some problems before their pass rush got caught flat-footed at the end and let Mertz and the Gators pull off an unexpected rally.
South Carolina has probably seen enough from the Etienne family. Older brother Travis played four seasons at Clemson and in three wins over the Gamecocks (the rivals did not play the COVID-19 season of 2020), he rushed for 242 yards and five touchdowns. Younger brother Trevor, with the Gators, has posted 149 yards and two TDs in two wins over the Gamecocks.
Florida gets a week off before heading to Jacksonville to play No. 1 Georgia on Oct. 28.
South Carolina starts a two-game road trip at Missouri on Saturday.