Gator Nation was ready to celebrate a big win over a bitter rival, with the extra bonus of ruining a potential championship season for Florida State. But……again……Lucy (er, Billy Napier) pulled the football away from Charlie Brown (er, Gator Nation) right before they could kick it, and instead we all fell on our ass (again) and watched a poorly-coached meltdown lead to another loss snatched from the jaws of victory.
After a fantastic start to the game, with the running game working and Max Brown getting just enough help to make some plays with both his arm and legs, the Gators had built up a 12-0 lead despite a missed FG and settling for a FG inside the red zone. The defense was more aggressive than ever since Napier became head coach, continuously blitzing backup QB Tate Rodemaker and putting the Semenholes in a world of hurt. Then, Napier went full-Napier, making one of the worst play calls I can remember in watching Gator football since 1973. Florida had just sacked Rodemaker for a safety and that 12-0 lead, and Trevor Etienne had returned the subsequent free kick all the way into FSU territory. With all of the momentum on it’s side and the crowd ready to celebrate extending the lead, Napier called for a double-reverse pitch back to the QB to attempt a long pass. This, after watching Brown run for his life with precious little time to throw even on quick routes because of a beaten up and, frankly, subpar O-line. Of course, the result was disastrous – an intentional grounding penalty that led to 2nd-and 24 and essentially killed all of the momentum gained up to then. Yes, Florida was able to pin down FSU at the 10-yard line after punting, but they were able to scratch together a TD drive near the end of the half, helped by 2 crucial penalties – one which led to the ejection of DL Jamari Lyons after spitting in an opponent’s face. You can’t make this sh……um……stuff up. Then shockingly, with less than a minute to work with, the Gators were able to get within easy FG range, just to have a lazy holding call on a running play force a FG attempt over 50 yards, which was missed.
Of course, F$U took the second half kickoff and quickly scored the go-ahead TD, and just like that all of the good work was wasted. Even after retaking the lead 15-14, you could see the same old conservative Napier playcalling in full effect, playing not to lose instead of staying aggressive. Even with all of the struggles of the O-line, they could still run the ball reasonably well. But Napier refused to give Brown any chance again of using his athleticism to make any effective pass plays by not rolling the pocket or continuing with some read option or RPO calls, and simply allowed the Criminole defense to choke off the offense. Unacceptable, and brutal. And an ongoing coaching/personality issue that I’m not sure any staff changes or players can overcome. Finally, the defense cracked in the 4th quarter, and didn’t help itself at all with some critical personal fouls and a VERY questionable pass-interference penalty on 3rd down early in FSU’s go-ahead TD drive.
And so, another long winter of discontent begins. There will certainly be coaching staff changes, recruiting class defections/changes, endless debate about who to blame and why, along with the usual hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth that accompanies all of that. In my opinion, Napier has effectively lost years 4 and 5 on his contract, and it’s do-or-die in year 3. And that will come with all of the aforementioned changes along with a BRUTAL schedule that potentially doesn’t lend itself to many wins nor much time to incorporate said changes. It’s DEFCON 1 time for Napier to himself take action to correct his own flaws and show if he can remake his staff and roster into a better, more cohesive group. HIs overall record at Florida now stands at 11-14, and 1-7 in rivalry games. That’s not going to cut it.
Florida is unfortunately in the swing-and-miss cycle of coaches that a handful of traditional powers have had to endure, with some of those schools never recovering. I’m not close to giving last rites to the football program, but it’s definitely in ICU and needs the right doctor and cure. Right now I’d say that the next specialist will be hired in around 52 weeks unless there’s a miracle recovery. It’s a shame, as so much of the struggles past 14 seasons have been due to self-inflicted wounds caused by the head coaches themselves.
I’ll be back in a month or two to discuss the 2024 recruiting class along with the staff changes that are sure to come and their potential impact. There will be a LOT to unpack on both fronts.