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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Matt Campbell insisted earlier in the week this one would be no different, that the outcome of his team’s first encounter with the Southeastern Conference would hinge on six to eight plays.
Three of them kept the University of Toledo from hanging close.
Designs of producing a cliffhanger unraveled amid a poor pass by a senior captain, a bone-headed decision by another offensive leader, and a fruitless finish to the only red zone visit.
The Rockets beat the 23.5-point Vegas line but not No. 10 Florida, falling 24-6 and trailing by double digits the entire second half at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
It was the first time since the 2010 opener against Arizona that Toledo failed to produce a touchdown. That offense, in Tim Beckman’s second season, was still in its infancy and could be forgiven for that blank job. The 2013 version, with nine returning starters, has to be disappointed with such a listless effort. They failed to convert 12 of 13 third downs and controlled the ball about half the time — 39:48 to 20:12 — as Florida.
"First down and second down, we need to move the ball," quarterback Terrance Owens said. "We can’t be in third and long every drive. It’s going to hurt us."
Nine times the Rockets needed nine or more yards to convert on third down. Only once did they do it, rendering their uptempo offense to tortoise-like in contrast to the swift Gator defense.
"That tempo we saw today was nowhere close to what we saw on scout team," Florida linebacker Ronald Powell said.
The interception Owens threw late in the third quarter ended any real chance of Toledo upending the college football world and proving right the prediction made earlier in the day by ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit. Owens on third-and-9 forced a slant to Alonzo Russell that ended up in the wrong hands in Toledo territory. Prized Florida recruit Vernon Hargreaves beat the route and returned 15 yards to the 23. Five plays later the Gators led 24-6 when Jeff Driskel found fullback Gideon Ajagbe open in the flat.
"It was a tight window," Owens said. "I tried to force a go-to route. It was just a lack of execution."
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Asked to assess the play of Owens, whose ball often sailed over his receiver’s heads, Campbell said his senior was "pressing" in the second half. Owens was 17 of 38 for 155 yards. The Gators sacked him twice.
Florida, whose conservative-style offense rarely broke character, had TD drives in the first half of 84 yards (11 plays) and 83 yards (10 plays). Mack Brown (112 yards), filling in for the injured Matt Jones, capped the prolonged series with runs of 1 and 14 yards. The Gators, who upped their win streak in season openers to 24, led 17-3 at the break.
Florida outgained Toledo 415 to 205 and outrushed the Rockets 262 to 50.
"I think one word for that would be physical," linebacker Chase Murdock said. "They were pretty physical."
Toledo’s last drive of the first half and its first drive of the second half summarized the offense’s day. In Florida territory for just the second time in the first half, senior captain Bernard Reedy drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after he shoved an opponent after the whistle. Reedy, who earlier in the week caused a stir when he accused Florida’s defense of tiring late in the games, appeared to be a marked man. A Gator player knocked off Reedy’s helmet before the receiver responded.
Thus, a rare third-and-2 from the 39 — a few yards off from kicker Jeremiah Detmer’s comfort zone — instead became third-and-17 from the other side of the field.
"That piece of the puzzle, that’s discipline," Campbell said.
The next drive, early in the third quarter, was equally unnerving. Campbell successfully pleaded for defensive pass interference to bring the ball to midfield, and the Rockets for the first time started to roll. Owens found Dwight Macon for 14 yards, and then for 13. David Fluellen, whose nine carries on the day didn’t seem like enough the way the passing game floundered, ran 10 yards to UF’s 9. Owens threw incomplete for Fluellen on third down. He missed Fluellen against on fourth down when defensive lineman Dominique Easley timed the snap perfectly and burst into the backfield.
"It was loud there and he got a great jump," Fluellen said.
The Rockets settled for Detmer’s second field goal, upping his streak to 19. He made from 44 yards in the first half. A year ago Detmer was critical to an offense that sputtered often in the red zone.
Red zone execution is not currently a concern for the Rockets. They need to get there first.