Florida pitched its second shutout of the season with a 38-0 win over Towson. It may not have been as smooth as many hoped, but it was efficient, and a solid win over a good FCS team while sitting at least 6 starters due to various injuries.
The Tigers’ offense actually generated two 12-play drives in the first half, exposing what has been the only real problem to date for the Gator defense – getting off of the field on 3rd down. Their dual-threat QB hurt the Gators by consistently escaping pressure and scrambling for some first downs. The pass defense was never truly threatened, but the run defense again had some lapses between the tackles. If this is a harbinger of similar things Auburn does (and better), that could be bad news.
Florida’s offense was solid, but not spectacular. Kyle Trask again was very efficient, going 18-20 and 2 TDs but only 188 yards, as Towson refused to bring their safeties into the box. Unfortunately, the running game was only average (again), struggling with blocking between the tackles and still suffering from missed assignments. Dameon Pierce came on in the second half to provide a spark at RB, and is pushing for more carries.
The preseason is now officially over, as the calendar rolls into October and the schedule suddenly changes from weak to the toughest in the country. Florida faces 3 Top 10 teams in their next 4 games, starting with the Auburn Tigers/War Eagles/Plainsmen/whatever visiting the Swamp for the first time since 2007.
Auburn’s defense starts with an excellent D-Line, led by Derrick Brown. Their line is big, fast, and experienced. This is a bad matchup for Florida’s weakest unit, the O-Line. I have not seen the improvement expected after 5 games, so at this point Coach Mullen has to scheme around them. Since the run blocking is not very good, I’m expecting the Gators to throw often on 1st and 2nd down. If the O-Line can give Trask just enough time, the WRs and TEs can make plays. The drawback, though, is that this could generate some quick 3-and-out series, forcing the defense into extended action and possibly causing them to wear down in the second half. Execution has to be crisp. Trask has to make quick, decisive decisions with the ball. Slow-developing plays won’t work against the Tigers. Trying to pound the running game between the tackles likely won’t work, so some edge plays like jet sweeps have to be in the game plan. I’m hoping that Mullen has been sandbagging in regards to his play sheet all season and has held some good plays in reserve for this game.
Florida’s defense also has a tough matchup against a senior-laden Auburn O-Line. The tackle rotation has to play it’s best game of the year defending the power running game led by leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow, while the DEs need to set the edge and guard against jet sweeps and QB runs form Bo Nix. Nix is a true freshman, but now has had the chance to play in two big games against Oregon and at Texas A&M. We’ll see if Coach Grantham also has been holding some looks and blitzes in reserve for this game in order to confuse the young QB and the O-Line blocking schemes. I expect a lot of pressure near the LOS while putting the CBs and safeties on an island in more man coverage. Marco Wilson and CJH (returning from injury) have to provide some lockdown coverage, and Trey Dean has to improve his coverage at the Star position. Seth Williams is by far Auburn’s most dangerous WR and has good size – he needs to be taken out of the game as often as possible. The Gator front seven also benefits from the return of DE Jabari Zuniga and LB Ventrell Miller from injury. Finally, the defense has to ignore a lot of the ‘eye candy’ from Auburn – motion, weird formations, the ‘sugar’ huddle (which is nothing more than a quick-snap set), etc. Stay focused, and play your assignments. Make the QB uncomfortable, and force some mistakes and hopefully a few turnovers.
Florida’s special teams have been excellent so far, and have to be near perfect this week. Flipping the field and forcing Auburn to drive the length of the field is imperative, as is execution of any FG opportunities. It’s time (hopefully) for a big return in the kicking game to pop up for the Gators to provide a short field and generate some easier points.
It’s Homecoming week, with all of the added excitement to go along with the first visit by ESPN’s Game Day since 2012 and the Gators wearing throwback uniforms from the 1960s. It will be a sellout crowd for the biggest home game of the season, as Florida has its chance to make a statement on the national stage. No one really has a good feel for how good (or not) the Gators are right now, given the weakness of their opponents to date. Florida has not been pushed other than the 4th quarter of their opener against Miami and then the 4th quarter comeback at Kentucky. That could be a disadvantage going into this game, as Auburn has already defeated Oregon on a neutral field and won at Texas A&M.
I’m going to stick with my preseason pick of an Auburn win. I do think the Gators will play their best game of the season to date, but sometimes the matchup style is just too much to overcome. It will take a complete game from all 3 phases to win, and it can be done. But I have watched enough SEC games over 45 years to know that if a team is overmatched on both sides of the LOS, it is usually too much to overcome.
Prediction: Auburn 24 Florida 20
The Gators made it 14 out of 15 in the series with a 34-3 win over a Tennessee team and program that is only a shell of its former self. Despite it being Kyle Trask’s first start and coming in with a poor running game and key players on defense out due to injuries, the Gators were never really threatened by the Vols.
Trask was very sharp early, leading the offense to a touchdown on its opening drive and using the middle of the field most of the day – a refreshing change. The offense bogged down for a lot of the first half after that due to the continued struggles of the O-Line in the running game. It was encouraging the see the final possession of the half-turn into a time-consuming drive ending with a 4th down TD run by Perine as time expired. That score gave Florida a 17-0 halftime lead and ended any real hope Tennessee might have had. In the second half, the Gators again scored on their opening drive which essentially ended the game. There were some hiccups, though, with Trask throwing 2 interceptions to end potential scoring drives. As I mentioned in the preview, I wasn’t surprised there were some bad throws mainly due to inexperience. Coach Mullen will help Trask in correcting these reads going forward. The O-line is still a work in progress – Coach Hevesy did move some guys around and insert some new players to see if some better combinations might be available going forward. It was interesting to see the running game show life after Emory Jones came in during the 4th quarter and led the offense to its last TD. Perhaps his running ability was the reason, but will that mean situational series and plays for each QB going forward?
The defense controlled the game except for one drive in the first half, and controlled the LOS most of the afternoon, never allowing either Vol QB the chance to become comfortable. Tennessee did get some good RAC yards from WR Jauan Jennings and hit a few draw plays, but never could establish any real continuity or any extended drives. The surprising QB change to start the 3rd quarter provided them a little spark, but once that drive was stopped and ended only with a FG, that was the last real threat from the Vols for the day. The young Gator CBs like Kaair Elam and Chester Kimbrough got extended action against two very good WRs in Jennings and Marquez Callaway, and that experience should help going forward. DE/Buck Jonathan Greenard was unstoppable (again) with 3 tipped passes and a forced fumble – he looks like an all-SEC player right now and will have the chance to shine nationally in October.
Next up for Florida is a visit by the Towson Tigers – the first of 4 groups of Tigers to play the Gators in 2019 (Auburn, LSU, and Missouri to come). Towson is led by QB Tom Flacco, younger brother of NFL QB Joe Flacco. He is a dual-threat player who also leads his team in rushing yards. The obvious key to this week’s game plan for the Gator defense is to limit his effectiveness and choke off any real offensive threats. Florida has Towson outmanned and should have little trouble controlling the LOS. The only thing that could hurt is lack of focus and sloppy tackling that could extend some drives. Towson is a ranked FCS team, though, and could give the Gators a few fits early until Florida asserts itself.
The Gator offense has the opportunity in this game to continue to work on personnel combinations on the O-line to see what will be the most effective starting group going forward. Stone Forsythe may see more snaps at RT while Richard Gouriage gets his chance at LG or LT. This unit has to step up its play and generate at least a mediocre running game in October, or the hope of a big season will be ended. Trask needs to clean up some of his reads, distribute the ball to more WRs other than Jefferson, Pitts, and Swain, and exercise a little more patience by checking down underneath instead of forcing some throws into double coverage. Trevon Grimes is too good a player to disappear in this offense and needs more touches. Jacob Copeland is starting to get more reps – while flashing some big-play potential, he can improve his blocking and concentration (he dropped a sure TD pass early in the 4th quarter on a go route).
This game should be decided by early in the 3rd quarter, so the staff can rest starters and hold out injured players like Zuniga and Henderson for the big games coming up in October. Trask should get the chance to continue to sharpen his game, and Emory Jones should get more snaps and the chance to pass the ball a little more to be better prepared as needed for any extended period going forward. I expect some sloppiness as some younger guys get playing time and the mental focus may be lacking a little with Auburn coming to the Swamp next week. Once again – NO INJURIES, PLEASE.
Prediction: Florida 41 Towson 10
In the latest installment of a recently bizarre series, Florida managed to overcome some long odds and injuries to pull off another 4th quarter comeback at Kentucky, 29-21.
The win came at a huge cost, as Feleipe Franks suffered a dislocated ankle and possible broken fibula at the end of the 3rd quarter that will end his season. The Gators once again did not seem completely engaged mentally from the outset – Franks threw a terrible interception that ended a promising opening drive, the offense committed some untimely penalties, and the defense was pushed around for much of the game at the LOS while playing a soft coverage in the secondary to try and protect the true freshmen pressed into service. The performance of the defense through the first 3 quarters was perhaps the biggest disappointment. The defensive game plan by DC Todd Grantham was, at best, curious. Despite having to play some true freshmen CBs, they have talent, and the Wildcat WRs weren’t that special. The soft coverage allowed backup QB Sawyer Smith to look like Tom Brady until the deciding 4th quarter. The D-line was gashed at times by the running game, and it took a heroic performance by LB David Reese with 16 tackles – including 2 consecutive ones on 3rd- and 4th-and-1 right after the Franks injury and change of possession – to keep the game within reach for Kyle Trask to come off the bench and lead the comeback. As soon as Trask came in, there was an urgency displayed by both the offense and defense that had been missing. He immediately started by attacking a lesser-talented Wildcat secondary with quick, accurate throws that kept the pass rush away from him. The drive ended with a touchdown on a great play by Trask, an option pitch while he was being tackled to Perine to pull the Gators within 21-16. After an exchange of possessions, Shawn Davis made the second of his two interceptions with 8 minutes left to set up the Gators for the go-ahead drive. Trask again was the difference, finding Van Jefferson and Kyle Pitts for key completions and then finishing off the drive with a zone-read keeper and a 22-21 lead. The 2-point try failed, and left Kentucky 4 minutes to get into FG position for the win. Again, fortune smiled upon the Gators as a 35-yard FG missed with 58 seconds left. Florida then iced the game on 3rd down with a well-executed jet sweep handoff to Josh Hammond who made a 74-yard house call.
As I have said from the start, the lack of a running game is going to hurt in big games. The O-line was manhandled most of the evening, forcing the Gators to be more pass-heavy than Coach Mullen wishes. **Notice to Coach Mullen – the O-line ain’t gonna get much better this season, and Florida is going to have to be a passing team first going forward.** He’ll need to take advantage of what Trask can do best along with a host of quality WRs and an O-line that seems to be adequate in pass-blocking. Florida once again ran less than 60 plays, forcing the defense to hang on while starting to tire.
It’s now Trask’s turn to lead, and hopefully, he can be coached up for the meat of the schedule, starting with Tennessee. It’s gonna be really interesting going forward to see if Mullen is stubborn about the running game if it continues to struggle early in SEC games, or he starts by using the passing game to set up some runs later on. A lot of folks have been critical of Lamical Perine this year, but where the hell can he go when both the D-line and O-line are in the backfield? We’ll see if Coach Hevesy tinkers with the starting O-line, perhaps putting Richard Gouriage at LT and flipping Stone Forsythe to RT. Also, Brett Heggie may need to start seeing time at center, with Ethan White getting some reps at LG. Some semblance of a running game is still necessary to keep the offense on the field for more plays and provide some rest to the defense. In Florida’s favor is that Tennessee’s D-line is simply not very good right now, suffering from lack of talent and experience. I am hopeful that the offense rallies around Trask and runs the ball better this week.
The Volunteers come to the Swamp with a load of their own problems. They suffered an embarrassing loss in their home opener to an FCS school – Georgia St. – followed up by an overtime loss on Rocky Top to BYU after giving up a late lead. A win over UT-Chattanooga is little to be proud of, and you have to wonder what their confidence level truly is headed into their SEC opener to a team they have lost to 13 out of the last 14 games. On offense I expect QB Jarrett Guarantano to test the Gator secondary with their two best skill players in WRs Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway. Hopefully, CJ Henderson can return even in a limited role to help in covering these two. RB Ty Chandler is a good player, but the Volunteer O-line has struggled even more so than Florida’s to date. If the Gator defense can force Tennessee into being one-dimensional, it will be a long, painful afternoon for Guarantano. There are some injury concerns for the Florida defense, as DE Jabari Zuniga and LB Amari Burney both left the Kentucky game early and didn’t return. Those losses, plus CJH, were felt by the defense against Kentucky. Zuniga looks like he’s out for this week, so I am hoping that Burney and CJH can play at least a limited number of snaps.
Fortunately, this game is at the Swamp, and that should be enough to help pull the Gators through. The only drawback is a noon kickoff, which typically helps the visiting team as the home team usually seems to sleepwalk early along with it’s fans. I can only hope the slow starts by the offense in every game so far can be addressed and corrected, because this team cannot continue to rely on second-half comebacks – especially with the schedule about to become extremely difficult in October. Since it’s Trask’s first start and he doesn’t have much live game experience, I expect some rough patches and perhaps an ugly interception along the way, but hopefully the team plays a solid game overall and the home field can make up for some of those inexperienced mistakes. This is a scenario where the special teams can really help both the offense and defense.
Prediction: Florida 27 Tennessee 17
The Gators took care of business with a 45-0 plucking of the SkyHawks in the home opener. This was a mismatch from the start, as the defense completely shut down the UTM attack, while the offense was nothing more than workmanlike. Plenty of young players were able to see extended action, as the coaching staff was able to clear the bench starting in the second half. The offense is still struggling to establish the running game – the right side of the O-line is still a weakness right now, and unless this improves starting this week with the SEC schedule, it will cost the team in the big games coming up. The offense ended the night with over 200 yards rushing, but that was deceiving, as many of those yards came after UTM was worn down and backups were playing. Once again the pass blocking was solid, allowing Franks to complete 25 of 27 passes, including 2 long TDs to Jefferson and Cleveland. The game plan was pretty vanilla with no disguises put on film for Kentucky to study. The defense controlled the LOS all night, only allowing a few long runs and one pass well after the game was settled and backups littered the field.
Unfortunately, the night didn’t go as well as planned, as both CJ Henderson and Kedarious Toney were injured in the 2nd quarter and never returned. It appears Toney will be out with a shoulder injury until at least the Auburn game, while CJH may miss this week and possibly the next with an ankle sprain. It’s the one thing I always hope doesn’t happen against these overmatched opponents – injuries to key players.
It’s on the Bluegrass State for the SEC opener against the Wildcats. Speaking of injuries, Kentucky received some bad news with the loss of starting QB Terry Wilson to a knee injury for the rest of 2019, so backup transfer Sawyer Smith gets thrown into the fire against a formidable Gator defense and pass rush. Head Coach Mark Stoops is saying that the offense really won’t change that much, but we’ll see. I expect the Wildcats to try and shorten the game by grinding out first downs with the running game featuring Kavosley Smoke and Asim Rose to keep the score close and try to steal a win late. If Florida can win first down, it will be a long night for Smith and their passing game, as the Gators lead the nation in sacks with 15 and have a host of pass rushers ready to deliver some pain. Smith is not the athlete nor runner that Wilson was, and that will hurt when plays start to break down. Brad Stewart returns from suspension this week and will be a welcome upgrade at safety. DC Todd Grantham should have some exotic packages dialed up for the new starting QB to apply constant pressure and confuse him with new looks. It will be interesting to see how aggressive he is calling the defense – does he come after the new QB early and often, or force him to make reads? The defense was been susceptible to screens and draws, and It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Kentucky use some of these.
On offense, I hope that Mullen isn’t too stubborn to go to the passing game early, especially if the running game continues to struggle. The Wildcats have a NG and DT each over 350 lbs., so perhaps running some misdirection and counters to get those big guys moving the wrong way could help. The deep passing game has really come along, and it may be decisive again this week. A few big plays to make some scoring drives easier could go a long way towards a win. I expect some throws to Perine to slow the pass rush, while Jacob Copeland gets the chance to fill in for Toney and show why he was one of the most highly-recruited athletes in the 2018 class.
The Gators should have no problem being highly motivated for this game, as they’ve had to listen for an entire year how they blew the 31-game winning streak in the series last year, at the Swamp, and how they were physically manhandled at the LOS.
This is a huge game for the Gators – take advantage of Kentucky’s injury problems and win the SEC opener before coming home for Tennessee. It’s time to finally start playing closer to expectations – especially on offense – and start building to a peak before the big games in October.