The rollercoaster 2016 regular season ended at it’s lowest, as Florida was run off the field of the Georgia Dome in the second half in an ugly 54-16 loss. After a great start including a touchdown drive to open the game and an immediate 3-and-out by the Gator defense, things quickly spiraled out of control. Two terrible interceptions by Austin Appleby, one of which was returned for a TD, and then a blocked punt returned for a TD reversed the momentum and forced the Gators to play catch up the rest of the afternoon.
On offense, Appleby was in an early holiday season mood where he giveth, and giveth, and giveth away. 26 for 39 and 2 TDs was good against a very tough defense, but the 3 crushing interceptions completely changed the complexion of the game and allowed Alabama to stay in their comfort zone on offense and defense. This was a microcosm of his career at both Purdue and Florida – occasional big plays offset by too many interceptions and inaccuracy. Despite the interceptions, the offensive game plan was a good one. Coaches Mac and Nussmeier devised a passing game that took advantage of soft coverage in the flats and openings over the middle in the intermediate zones that allowed drives to continue. Quick throws were working, but Appleby’s lack of accuracy and one terrible panicked throw over the middle showed again why he wasn’t the starter until LDR was hurt. The performance of the O-Line was a mixed bag – while they couldn’t sustain any running game, the pass-blocking was very good, allowing Appleby more time than expected to keep plays alive and convert some 3rd downs. Antonio Callaway was hot early on the first TD drive, but was slowed down afterward. Brandon Powell did a nice job of working the flats and underneath zones to convert some 3rd downs, and TE Andre Goolsby was rediscovered and made some clutch receptions along with a TD. Against such a strong team, though, there was no room for error, and the lack of a run threat put Florida behind the chains too often and didn’t allow the Gators to play keep-away from the Bama offense and apply even more pressure on Jalen Hurts to make plays.
The Gator defense came out hot with two consecutive 3-and-outs, but the Appleby turnovers plus the blocked punt return for a TD put them on their heels. In addition, falling behind by double digits took the pressure off of freshman QB Hurts, after the Gators had him rattled early. The avalanche of Bama points that followed from the Gator turnovers removed any realistic chance at an upset win. What momentum the Gators had taken back after their 92-yard TD drive at the end of the first half was lost when they failed to punch it in after another excellent drive early in the 3rd quarter. You could see the team’s spirit visibly broken after being stopped and then allowing a 98-yard TD drive which included a 3rd-and-19 conversion. That was the ballgame, and two late TDs by Bama were inconsequential. All of the injury losses were magnified against a powerful Crimson Tide running game.
Unfortunately the 2016 regular season ended in similar fashion to 2015 with 2 bad losses, and now questions abound about Coach Mac’s leadership, the direction of the program, and recruiting being stuck in neutral. Mac needs to make some difficult decisions, including changes in the staff, to spark recruiting and regain interest from some key recruits still on the board.
The bowl game against Iowa in Tampa is very important for Florida. Something positive needs to happen for the program to get the fan base back in the fold and for the last month leading up to National Signing Day. Normally a game of this stature really wouldn’t carry much weight, but these aren’t normal times for Florida. 7 years of bad QB play and ineffective offense have really affected the fan base and eroded the Gator brand. There will be a lot of cries to play one of the redshirted freshmen QBs to get them ready for 2017, but there’s no way you burn a redshirt at this point. Appleby will get the final start to the season with LDR backing him up. I would hope that after the debacle of the Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan after last season, the returning players and the staff have all the motivation they need to prevent a recurrence of that performance.
I’ll be back with the bowl preview late in December. Happy Holidays – it’s still great to be a Florida Gator!