GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Georgia Southern made its introduction to the Football Bowl Subdivision a year early.
The Eagles had their way with the Florida Gators on the ground and won their last game as a Football Championship Subdivision program 26-20 on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Georgia Southern (7-4) ran for 429 yards and didn’t complete a pass, while holding the Gators (4-7) to 279 yards of total offense.
“They made the plays today,” GSU coach Jeff Monken said about the defense. “They won the football game. Good defense won the football game.”
Florida marched 47 yards in the final 2 minutes, 47 seconds and made it to the 17-yard line, but passes from UF quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg on third and fourth down were denied by defensive backs Matt Dobson and Valdon Cooper as the game clock expired.
Senior Jerick McKinnon, who has been playing through a sprained ankle since an Oct. 26, loss at Appalachian State, scored the game-winning touchdown from 14 yards out with 2:57 remaining in the game.
“I just tried my best to block that out and play for my brothers,” McKinnon said about the pain he was experiencing throughout the game, “give them all I got one last time.”
Freshman kicker Younghoe Koo missed the extra point, the second miss of the day.
Senior fullback William Banks set up the score with a 53 yard run through the middle of the Florida defense. Banks rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown in his final game at GSU.
“It was a dream come true,” Banks said. “There were some big holes opening up, and we were able to take advantage of that.”
Banks was cleared to play after recovering from a concussion, but didn’t practice throughout the week.
McKinnon led the Eagles with 125 yards on only 9 carries. Redshirt freshman Kevin Ellison rushed 15 times for 118 yards and a pair of scores.
The Eagles averaged a bruising 7.9 yards per rush.
Florida coach Will Muschamp was questioned about his team’s discipline on defense.
“It’s not lack of discipline,” Muschamp said. “It’s just that this is what they do for a living. It’s hard to defend them.”
Georgia Southern started the game trailing 10-0, but scored 20 unanswered points.
Ellison scored on a one-play drive untouched from 45 yards out to cut it to 10-7 before the half.
The opening drive of the third quarter saw a 66 yard run by McKinnon. The Eagles converted on 4th-and-goal from the 1 with a touchdown on a keeper by Ellison to pull ahead 14-10.
After a Florida three-and-out -- the Gators punted five times to GSU’s two -- the Eagles struck again. A 16-yard run by slotback Tray Butler and a 10 yard run by Devin Scott set up the drive, which ended with a 3-yard Banks score and put GSU up 20-10.
“Every play is huge,” Banks said. “Football is a game of inches, and the coaches stress that. We just take it one play at a time. You got an assignment? Do your assignment as well as you can. Good things will happen.”
The Gators cut the GSU lead to seven with a 22-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, and tied the game on their longest play of the day -- a 46 yard pass from Mornhinweg to Soloman Patton. Mornhinweg, a freshman starting in his second game at Florida, completed 14 of 25 passes for 122 yards. The GSU defense had seven pass breakups and seven tackles for loss.
The Gators were led on the ground by Kelvin Taylor (22-92).
Florida marched the opening drive 63 yards on 13 plays, but stalled at the 10 with near interceptions by Darius Safford and Cooper. The Gators settled for a 27-yard field goal.
Georgia Southern’s first drive saw runs of 12 and 9 by Johnathan Bryant, but stalled at the UF 45. Punter Luke Cherry muffed the snap and Florida got the ball on the GSU 34, but the drive stalled again, and Cooper blocked a 39-yard field goal try by Frankie Velez.
The Eagles coughed it up when Bryant fumbled on the first play of the next drive, and Florida capitalized, this time with a 3-yard touchdown pass from Mornhinweg to Patton for a 10-0 lead.
The Eagles knocked on the door early in the second quarter, but a 17-yard run by
freshman Irving Huggins was put on the ground at the 2, and Florida recovered.
The Gators punted on their last three second-half drives.
With the loss, Florida is eliminated from bowl eligibility.
Georgia Southern will begin play in the Sun Belt Conference of the FBS in 2014.
NOTES: Florida had not lost a game to a non-BCS opponent in Gainesville since losing to Memphis State in 1988. … The Gators were 15-0 against FCS/I-AA competition prior to losing to Georgia Southern. … The 429 rushing yards by GSU were the fourth most allowed in UF history and the most since the Gators allowed 524 against Nebraska in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. … McKinnon’s brother, Lester Norwood, played football at Florida from 1998-2002. … GSU brothers Kyle and Kurt Oehlbeck grew up in Gainesville and are among 14 Eagles from Florida. … Georgia Southern is now 31-11 all time against opponents from the state of Florida, including a 10-1 record against Central Florida and a 2-0 record against South Florida.
Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-4908.