Mississippi Review / Missouri Preview

The Swamp was the Swamp again Saturday night, as the Gators hammered Ole Miss and reminded the nation of what they can expect in the coming years as Florida rebuilds into a SEC power again. The Rebel players, coaches, and fans looked bewildered, as they have not seen what has been possibly the best home-field advantage in the country for 30 years until the Will Miss-champ era began and mercifully ended. They won a big game at Alabama 2 weeks ago, but ran into a defense and home crowd that can intimidate anyone. The atmosphere was electric, and the recruits at the game were treated to a great show for the second week in a row.

The entire offensive coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for developing such an efficient and successful game plan. They are still keeping things relatively simple, but the players are playing quicker and reducing the number of mistakes. Will Grier made some excellent reads and got the ball where it needed to be on time and in rhythm. Jake McGee is turning in to a clutch receiver and a weapon in the red zone. Demarcus Robinson – finally – got some chances to make some plays downfield, and he delivered. He still needs to run tougher and more north-south, but if he continues to make some big plays that won’t matter as much. Kelvin Taylor was a workhorse with 27 carries, and made just enough decent runs to help balance the offense. The OL is going to struggle all season in the running game, but so far they have opened up some lanes often enough to keep drives going. That has to continue with the schedule coming up the rest of October. The return of Martez Ivey from injury should help, and provide some depth.

The Gator defense made a statement to the nation and, more importantly, themselves. They dominated Ole Miss the entire night, punished the QB, got penetration often to blow up run and pass plays, and showed great speed in the front seven. Jon Bullard is all-SEC in my opinion to date, and has been disruptive every game. A lot of guys are getting quality snaps on the DL, and this is keeping them fresh. Jarrad Davis and Tank Morrison were all over the field at LB making big plays – I just hope they don’t get worn down or hurt. The coverage in the secondary was excellent – that was an explosive offense they shut down, despite the makeshift OL the Rebels had to use. There are multiple Ole Miss WRs led by Laquon Treadwell that will be playing in the NFL some day, and they controlled them all night. The tackling was cleaned up, and they laid some big hits on the QB and WRs. The only quibble is a small one – they still allowed the QB to make good gains on the counter plays, but I have to believe part of that was simply allowing for that possibility while shutting down the other playmakers.

It’s off to Columbia to try and exorcise the demons of the past two games against Missouri. This will be a huge test of the maturity and leadership on this team. I know there will be some players that will overlook the Tigers, but hopefully the upperclassmen can focus most of the guys on just getting the job done this week. Actually, I hope the team isn’t too hyped up on trying to make up for the past 2 performances against Mizzou, and make silly mistakes trying to do too much. I don’t care how ugly it is, as long as the Gators get out of there with a win and move on.

The Tigers are struggling on offense, with QB Maty Mauk regressing from his play the previous season. It now looks like his suspension will continue, and true freshman Drew Lock will get thrown into the fire. Hopefully he presses, and the Gator defense hits him early and often as they have done to the opposing QB all season. They have lost a lot of talent on the O-Line and at WR, and have not replaced it with the same level of play. The main threats are RB is Ish Witter, and WRs Nate Brown and J’Mon Moore. The defense has already played against better talent, and if the guys come to play, they should be able to handle anything the Tigers throw at them. No need to overpursue and get caught by misdirection or any trick plays – just play solid straight-up defense and control the action.

The Gator offense now has something to fall back on in terms of confidence, as they can see in the past 5 quarters of play that they can indeed apply pressure to defenses and make plays. The Tigers have another solid defense, but have lost a lot of NFL talent on the D-Line over the past 2 seasons. As always, it starts with the Florida OL – keep Grier upright, try to generate at least 100 yards of rushing to stay balanced, and continue to improve on pass protection and picking up blitzes. Taylor has carried a big load at RB the past 2 weeks, and it would be nice to see Jordan Cronkrite be able to spell him for a bit without a significant drop off in production. The WRs need to continue to improve, as it’s always that much more difficult on the road to move the ball. Robinson’s confidence has to be on the upswing after a big game, and that should take some attention away from the other WRs. Look for the TEs to continue to be relied upon to convert 3rd downs and be a check-down option for Grier. As long as he continues to play smart and understand that making the safe throw and settling for short gains is OK, the offense should do just enough.

After 2 such lousy seasons, it’s hard not to get too excited about how this team is developing. But that’s just the time when a young team can stumble and lose a game it should win. The coaching staff has a different challenge this week in keeping the players focused on just the next game and simply doing their job each play. This isn’t the time for bad penalties and turnovers to allow the Tigers an early lead and to get the momentum. The trip to Missouri is a strange one – not a traditional SEC location, iffy weather, and quite frankly, not an impressive stadium or noisy crowd. If the Gators can replicate the start they enjoyed at Kentucky, that should be enough to get the ball rolling to an important road win. I fully expect the Tigers to throw everything they have into this game, including trick plays. Florida’s special teams could be the equalizer – they have been less than special so far this season, and were embarrassed by Missouri last year.

Florida 20 Missouri 13

New Mexico St. Review / East Carolina Preview

It was a promising start to the Jim McElwain era with a 61-13 manhandling of New Mexico St.  There was a great turnout by the fans and some real excitement back in the Swamp.  The past 2 seasons had really sucked the life out of the fan base and the players, and it was refreshing to see how excited they were and how it was reflected in the team’s play.

There were glimpses of what may be a functional offense this season, or at least indications that the offensive coaches actually have a plan on how to use the personnel they have effectively – as long as the offensive line can stay healthy and continue to develop as the season progresses.  Both Treon Harris and Will Grier were efficient, limited mistakes, and spread the ball around to many receivers – including the RBs and TEs.  While the stats were similar, Grier definitely looks more comfortable as a passer, and showed he has good athletic ability to make plays with his legs if necessary.  The WR play was sketchy, but not a complete surprise based on reports coming out of fall camp.  Unless Demarcus Robinson learns to run tougher, and some of the other WRs can shake loose of coverage, then OC Doug Nussmeier has little choice but to try and scheme plays to the TEs and RBs.  The OL did pretty well for the first game, getting lined up properly and not committing a rash of penalties.  However, I was disappointed in the run-blocking more than the pass protection, and this may bode ill as the schedule toughens.  There is not enough experience at QB or quality at WR to have to lean on the passing game too much.  I hope to see some better running lanes opened up this week, and the RB rotation of Kelvin Taylor, Jordan Scarlett, and Jordan Cronkrite looks to be ready for SEC competition.

The Gator defense did what was expected – control the running game (less a few well-executed plays), and shut down the NMSU passing game (less a few blown coverages by the backups, which should be corrected).  The second half showed the depth in both the DL and secondary, as Florida simply wore down the Aggies and shut them out, with very few net yards allowed.  Overall a solid performance that allowed the defensive staff to substitute liberally and get valuable snaps to the younger players while experimenting with different lineups and schemes to evaluate personnel.  Veterans like Jon Bullard and Vernon Hargreaves showed their leadership by making big plays, while young players such as Taven Bryan and Cece Jefferson on the DL showed a lot of promise.

Next up for Florida is East Carolina.  Florida is very familiar with the Pirates, as they defeated them in January in the bowl game.  ECU’s offense was one of the best in the country last season, led by senior QB Shane Carden and senior WR Justin Hardy, who was drafted into the NFL.  However, their projected new QB was injured in fall camp and is out for the season, to be replaced by a JUCO transfer with only a few weeks of practice.  While this will hurt their efficiency, the coaching and scheme are still in place that could challenge the Gator defense and make this game one that won’t be decided until the second half.  Fortunately the strength of Florida’s defense lies in the secondary, and they should be able to slow down the Pirates enough to allow the Gator offense to not worry about getting into a scoring contest and staying balanced.  I expect to see both Harris and Grier at QB again, but hopefully one of them moves ahead of the other and can be considered the starter going forward.  The running game needs to show improvement and consistency.

This is a step up in competition, and that will continue each week into October.  As long as Florida doesn’t suffer a key injury at QB or in the OL, the schedule sets up well to keep the team focused each week on the task at hand, and not to look ahead.  There should be another good crowd in the Swamp Saturday night, as the Gators try to continue to build momentum.

Prediction:  Florida 31      East Carolina 13

 

 

 

Gators Get Their Guy, Reach Deal with McElwain

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Jim McElwain is returning to the Southeastern Conference after three seasons as head coach at Colorado State.

The 52-year-old McElwain, who as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Alabama from 2008-11 helped the Crimson Tide win two national titles, has been hired to replace Will Muschamp.

Florida Athletics Director Jeremy Foley finalized an agreement with McElwain on Thursday and a press conference to introduce McElwain as the 24th head coach in Florida football history is scheduled for Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

“Coach McElwain was someone we targeted from the beginning of the search,’’ Foley said. “The more we worked through the process and did our due diligence, coupled with our meeting and conversations with him and those around him, it was obvious he is the right person to lead the Florida Gator football program.”

More at Gatorzone.com

Kentucky Review / Alabama Preview

Whew!  What could have been a comfortable win turned in a death struggle at the Swamp, with potentially the season and Will Muschamp’s future hanging in the balance.  While much is being made of the improvement of the Wildcats, not enough credit is being given to the Gators for not throwing in the towel like they likely would have last season, and to an offense that actually is showing signs of becoming SEC-level as the season progresses.

The youth and inexperience of the secondary showed it’s ugly side, as total breakdowns led to 2 long TD passes, allowing the Mildcats to stay in the game and give them hope for the upset.  Talk about fighting through your own mistakes – dropped interceptions, crazy penalties (the facemask in the 2nd OT period), and missed tackles almost lost this game.  And yet, the defense rose up in overtime, fought through the fatigue, and really showed mental toughness.  Despite allowing 300+ passing yards mostly due to 6 pass plays totaling 173 yards, the run defense really made Kentucky one-dimensional most of the night.  The D-Line played well, but only Dante Fowler provided consistent pressure on the QB – other DL have to improve in this area against the improved quality of opposition to come.  The linebackers has a solid game led by Tank Morrison’s 10 tackles, but weren’t challenged by the UK offense as they will be later, so the jury is still out.  It was the secondary that unfortunately received the most attention – both good and bad.  The CBs opposite Vernon Hargreaves had some struggles, and the new safeties suffered from some completely busted coverages.  At least the secondary recovered with 3 interceptions led by Keanu Neal’s 2, a pleasant change from last season.  Still, there is a lot of work to be done on the pass defense.

About the Gator offense.  Yes, the offense, which rolled up over 500 yards, featured a RB (Matt Jones) who rumbled for 159 yards, and featured an emerging star in WR Demarcus Robinson, who tied the Florida reception record of 15 catches (shared by Carlos Alvarez), had 215 receiving yards, and 2 TDs – a monster game.  Yet despite the gaudy stats, there is a lot of work still to do and areas to clean up.  Jeff Driskel looked tentative keeping the ball on the zone read all night, which cost the offense the chance to extend some drives.  Of larger concern is that he is still slow in getting rid of the ball to an open receiver occasionally, and still struggles picking up blitz packages.  He did show maturity on the play of the game – his TD pass to Robinson on 4th down in the 1st OT.  Perhaps the fact that this is the 3rd offense he’s had to learn in 4 years accounts for some issues, but his reluctance to run is still surprising unless he is under orders from the staff to protect himself and not force 2 true freshmen to take over – just like in 2011 when he was one of those freshmen (along with the departed Jacoby Brissett).  The O-Line was able to pound the inside running game when needed against a smaller Mildcat D-Line, and got a lot of work against pressure and blitzes as Kentucky came after Driskel early and often.  There are still issues with the guard play, especially in pass-protection against blitz packages.

Now it’s on to Alabama, which will be a huge road test and a very tough environment in which to pull off an upset.  While many of these Gators have big game experience from 2012, there are just as many newcomers who are contributors in 2014 that haven’t been in this environment before.

The Crimson Tide has lost a lot of quality personnel the past 2 seasons, and while still very talented, is not the same juggernaut as it was from 2008-2012.  Bama is breaking in 2 new QBs of their own, and it will be crucial to the Gators’ chances to see if they can rattle and confuse either Blake Sims or Jacob Coker (who transferred from F$U).  Make no mistake – the arrival of the biggest tool in football in Lame Kiffen won’t change Nick Satan’s ultimate preference of pounding the rock with a power running game, featuring the best RB rotation in the country.  TJ Yeldon, Derrick Henry, and Kenyon Drake make for a great group, even in a conference full of outstanding RBs.  Bama does have the luxury of also having an outstanding WR in Amari Cooper and a stud TE in OJ Howard to provide balance to the offense and not allow opponents to load up against the run……so far.  Sadly, the Gator front seven had not shown it can stand strong against a power running game since 2012, and this likely will tell the tale of this game.  If the Gators had the secondary of the previous 2 seasons, it could roll the dice and crowd the LOS – but with the mistakes shown last week, I don’t see this as a viable option unless the Gator staff decides to go down swinging and let the young guys try and survive on their own against the pass.  I expect to see more of the experienced Brian Poole at both CB and defending the slot.  Of larger concern is the coverage of the safeties, who were exposed last week.  Neal showed some flashes of becoming an excellent player in the future, but he, Jabari Gorman, and Marcus Maye have to improve in coverage – and quickly.  They have 2 great secondary coaches in Travaris Robinson and Will Muschamp to coach them up and clean up mistakes, but it takes time.

The Tide defense started showing cracks last season, and, while still very good at times. was overrated.  This year, West Virginia exposed even more weaknesses against both the run and pass, despite the perception that it’s a Nick Satan defense and that they can’t be beat – not true by a long shot.  The only way this can happen Saturday, though, is for the Florida O-Line to somehow find it’s footing and play better than it has in almost 2 seasons.  The play at the tackle positions and at center has been solid, but the guard play has left a lot to be desired.  Blitz pickups are a weakness, and Driskel hasn’t shown he can make adjustments well enough on his own to offset them yet.  That being said, I’m sure there are a lot of new looks and some wrinkles in the base sets that OC Kurt Roper has yet to reveal.  One area that has to be used in the passing game is the middle of the field and down the seams.  The loss of TE Jake McGee really hurts here, and someone will have to step into this role.  Quinton Dunbar and Robinson have the size to make tough catches, and TEs Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook have to elevate their play in this game.  At least the performance of Jones will make the Tide defense pay attention to the running game – actually showing some balance in the offensive attack for the first time in years has to make the job of the offense easier.

I believe that Florida has enough talent to stay with Alabama, but can they sustain a high level of play for 4 quarters in a hostile environment?  My feeling is that the weakness of the guard play on offense and the inexperience in the defensive secondary will be too much to overcome right now, but I really hope for a competitive effort, and perhaps a few surprises on offense that could make the game interesting well into the second half.  This game can be a huge building block going into the bye week, heading into the most important part of the schedule with Tennessee, LSU, Missouri, and Georgia coming up.

Prediction:  Alabama 34      Florida 17

 

S. Carolina Review / Ga. Southern Preview

The Gators gave a spirited effort at South Carolina, but the undermanned offense couldn’t generate the points needed in the second half as the losing streak reached 5 games.  It certainly looked like the players had not mailed it in for the rest of the season, as they played hard for 60 minutes.  The game plans for both offense and defense were good enough to win the game, but the lack of talent and having to go far into the depth chart on offense were too much to overcome.

The first half performance of the offense was impressive, albeit they had an element of surprise with a QB who had never taken a college snap (and therefore no film to scout).  The unbalanced O-Line formation opened some holes even against a front stacked to stop them.  It seemed like those guys were pissed off at all of the ripping they’ve received (much of it deserved), and came out with an attitude I hope to see the last 2 games.  The direct snaps to the RBs were another wrinkle that yielded some big results.  Kelvin Taylor again showed why he’s the best RB on the team right now, breaking off some long runs and scoring 2 TDs.  The thing that prevented the offense from getting any points in the second half to possibly win the game was the painfully weak arm of Skyler Mornhinweg.  It’s hard to understand how he received a scholarship offer to a school like Florida with such a limited skill set – perhaps the fact that no one at the time wanted to sit as a backup to Jeff Driskel plus Brent Pease knowing his dad (NFL OC Marty) was enough to tip the scales.  The WRs were absolutely no factor, though no fault of their own – that game plan was more bland than vanilla, if such a thing exists.  And yet the Gators were right there at the end with a shot at the win.

The defense improved against the run, holding SEC leading rusher Mike Davis to only 58 yards – less than half his average for the season.  However, the long run from Davis’ backup from deep in Carolina territory that set up a FG seemed to turn the momentum in the 3rd quarter.  Overall the defense did an excellent job of containing the running of QB Connor Shaw, and did not allow the WRs to really do much.  The 4th down stand was gutsy – Jarrad Davis looks like a future stud at LB.  It was nice to see some penetration from the D-Line without having to resort to constant blitzing.  Enough was done to win this game with a functional offense doing it’s part.

This week Georgia Southern comes in with it’s triple-option attack, which is difficult for any defense to completely prepare for in one week.  I expect them to have some success running the ball, which makes it imperative that the defense firm up if the Eagles get near scoring territory, to take pressure off of the Gator offense.  I’m torn between wanting Tyler Murphy to get another full week of rest vs. getting some live reps before the last game of the season.  Ultimately it’s probably best if he dresses out, but doesn’t have to play.

It will be a difficult task to focus on this game, as the game vs. Florida $tate looms.  If the players show the same energy and focus they exhibited at South Carolina, things should be fine.  But when you’re dealing with young kids and the added distractions surrounding a coaching staff under siege and a hugely disappointing season, anything can happen (and has happened so far).  It’s another challenge for the staff this week to prepare these guys well, get the win, and then put everything into beating the Criminoles.

Prediction:  Florida 27        Ga. Southern 17

Florida 20 Georgia 23

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Todd Gurley scored twice in his first game in more than a month, helping Georgia beat rival Florida 23-20 on Saturday.

Gurley returned from an ankle injury and totaled 187 yards, finding the end zone on a 5-yard run and a 73-yard reception. The Bulldogs scored on their first four possessions, taking a 20-0 lead that looked as if it would be enough.

But the Gators rallied, taking advantage of a fumble, a safety and some questionable play… more

Florida 6 LSU 17

BATON ROUGE, La. — Les Miles repeatedly dismissed the notion that LSU’s defense was as vulnerable as it had looked recently.

For now, at least, he is a coach validated.

The Tigers were in Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy‘s face all game, batting down passes, racking up sacks and keeping their opponent out of the end zone for the first time all season.  more…

Florida 30 Arkansas 10

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Solomon Patton turned two short receptions into touchdowns, helping No. 18 Florida beat Arkansas 30-10 Saturday night.

The 5-foot-9 senior nicknamed “Solo” was pretty close to being a one-man show in the Swamp.

Patton finished with six catches for a career-high 124 yards. He also ran for a first down. But his longest gains went the distance and were key to Florida (4-1, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) winning its ninth consecutive game in the series and 10th in a row at home.  more…

Florida 24 Kentucky 7

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tyler Murphy‘s comfort passing and running belied the fact that he was making his first career start for No. 20 Florida. Matt Jones showed that he could hold on the ball and carry it for a lot of yards.

By raising their games, both players help lift the Gators after a difficult week.

Jones rushed for 176 yards and a touchdown and Murphy threw for 156 yards and a score as Florida beat Kentucky 24-7 on Saturday night, its 27th straight win over the Wildcats.  more…

Florida 31 Tennessee 17

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The second Jeff Driskel started waving for help, Florida coach Will Muschamp knew it was bad.

It turned out to be the worst-case scenario.

Driskel broke his lower right leg Saturday in the first quarter of the 19th-ranked Gators’ 31-17 victory over Tennessee, a season-ending injury that thrust seldom-used backup Tyler Murphy onto the field for the most significant action of his four-year career.

Murphy responded better than anyone could have realistically expected.  more…