JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s special teams came up big in the Gator Bowl, scoring twice as the Gators beat Ohio State 24-17 on Monday in a game between Urban Meyer’s old team and his future one.
Andre Debose returned a kickoff 99 yards — the longest scoring play in bowl history — and Chris Rainey blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown.
The speedsters helped the Gators (7-6) avoid their first losing season since 1979 and pick up some much-needed momentum after losing six of their previous eight games.
Ohio State (6-7) finished below .500 for the first time since 1986. The Buckeyes can take solace in knowing that Meyer, who officially takes over at Ohio State this week, will make it a priority to improve special teams. Meyer did that in his six seasons in Gainesville, and Rainey and Debose were two of his most prized recruits.
Ohio State fell to 0-10 in bowl games against teams from the Southeastern Conference. Yes, the Buckeyes beat Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl last year. But that victory was vacated.
The latest loss had everything to do with Florida’s speed.
The Gators dominated the defensive line of scrimmage. They had a season-high six sacks, harassing Braxton Miller on nearly every passing play. Jaye Howard and Sharrif Floyd were disruptive all afternoon.
Florida had similar success the last time it played Ohio State. The Gators were dominant on defense in a 41-14 win in the 2007 Bowl Championship Series national title game in Glendale, Ariz.
Debose and Rainey proved to be the difference in the much-hyped rematch that centered around Meyer.
Just after Ohio State tied the game at 7 on Miller’s 5-yard pass to DeVier Posey in the second quarter, Debose took the kickoff, made one cut to the outside and went untouched for his third career special teams touchdown. The Buckeyes never got close enough to even swipe at him, let alone make the tackle.
Florida was up 14-10 at halftime and essentially put the game out of reach on the opening possession of the third.
Rainey came off the left end and blocked Ben Buchanan’s punt. Seldom-used linebacker Graham Stewart scooped it up at the 14-yard line and scored the first touchdown of his career.
It was Rainey’s sixth blocked punt of his career, breaking the school and SEC record.
Rainey also ran for 71 yards on a warm and sunny day in Jacksonville. John Brantley completed 16 of 22 passes for 132 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. He had a 17-yard strike to Deonte Thompson in the first.
Jeff Demps added 31 yards on the ground.
Ohio State wasn’t nearly as effective.
Miller completed 18 of 23 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran 15 times for 20 yards. He completed an 11-yard TD pass to Jordan Hall with 57 seconds remaining. The Buckeyes failed to recover an onside kick, and Florida ran out the clock for its sixth bowl victory in the last seven years.
Ohio State’s Dan Herron ran for 82 yards, but also had a fumble. Posey finished with five catches for 37 yards.
Miller, a freshman, gives Meyer an experienced and improving quarterback for next season. The Buckeyes won’t be bowl eligible, though.
The NCAA hit Ohio State with a one-year bowl ban and additional penalties last month for violations stemming from players who exchanged jerseys, rings and other Buckeyes memorabilia for cash and tattoos. The violations cost coach Jim Tressel his job, and the Buckeyes turned things over to interim coach Luke Fickell.
The Buckeyes lost four in a row to end the season.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.