GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — When Steve Spurrier spoke to No. 18 Florida earlier in the week, he talked about how one player can affect the entire team.
The message stuck with Jalen Tabor, who wanted to be — and was — that guy Saturday.
Tabor and Quincy Wilson returned interceptions for touchdowns, helping No. 18 Florida beat Missouri 40-14 and move into first place in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division.
The cornerback tandem provided nearly as many highlights as either offense and seemingly saved the Gators (5-1, 3-1) from a fourth homecoming loss in the last seven years.
“Anytime you get a defensive score or a non-offensive score, it’s a momentum shift for the whole team,” Tabor said. “I felt like I did that for my team today.”
Tabor, widely considered a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft, squatted on a short pass by Drew Lock and went untouched for a 39-yard score in the second quarter. It was Tabor’s second Pick Six in as many years against the Tigers (2-4, 0-3). Not to be outdone, Wilson stepped in front of Sean Culkin on the ensuing possession, picked off Lock’s pass and went 78 yards the other way for his first career touchdown.
“When you’ve got two great corners like that, they’ve got to pick one side of the field,” Gators coach Jim McElwain said. “It’s like pick your poison. Where you going to go with it?”
Florida, at least early, looked like it might need both of them on a rainy day in the Swamp.
Playing for the first time in a month, Luke Del Rio threw three interceptions in his return from a sprained left knee. And the Gators were flagged for eight false starts.
“Knee felt great,” Del Rio said. “Brett Favre said it: Playing injured or hurt is not an excuse for playing poorly. The knee didn’t affect me at all. It was just bad decisions, bad throws.”
Florida’s defense once again bailed out a less-than-sharp offense, which has become an all-too-often occurrence in Gainesville.
Missouri went three-and-out on its first six possessions, and Lock threw for a meager 39 yards. The result was a ninth consecutive conference loss for the Tigers.
“It’s definitely one of the worst feelings as a quarterback when you can’t hold up your end,” Lock said. “It’s on you. You force your defense back out on the field and they can barely get off the field because they’re so tired. We’re out there making them play for 10 minutes at a time and that’s not right.”
Mizzou’s latest loss came after an off week in which coach Barry Odom retooled his defense in hopes of better results. The Tigers allowed 418 yards rushing in a 42-7 loss at LSU two weeks ago.
Florida finished with 523 yards.
“They took advantage of mistakes we made, and that’s what good teams do,” Odom said.
Tabor and Wilson have done that before and surely will again.
“It’s like a domino effect with those guys,” Florida defensive tackle CeCe Jefferson said. “If one gets one, the other’s guaranteed to get one. That was big, man. That was big. It definitely changed the momentum of the game. We were definitely rolling from there.”
Missouri: The Tigers will surely face more questions about an inept offense and a run-porous defense that has struggled to adjust to a new scheme.
Florida: Despite losing to rival Tennessee last month, the Gators now control their fate in the SEC East. But to win the division for the second consecutive year, Florida probably will need to beat Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina and LSU in consecutive weeks down the stretch.
Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis, the team’s leading tackler, injured his left ankle in the third quarter and had to be helped off the field. McElwain said Davis was getting tests to determine the severity, but said it was not broken.
McElwain gave the game ball to retiring athletic director Jeremy Foley. It was Foley’s final game at Florida Field. He officially steps down Nov. 1.
Florida should move up a few spots in the next AP poll . The Gators topped 500 yards for the second time this season and would have enjoyed an even easier time had it not been for four turnovers.
Missouri: Hosts Middle Tennessee next Saturday. The Tigers won the only other meeting, 41-40 in overtime in 2003.
Florida: Gets another off week before playing rival Georgia in nearby Jacksonville. The Gators have won 20 of the last 26 in the series.
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