Tennessee Review / Towson Preview

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

UT-Martin Review / Kentucky Preview

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.

Prediction:

Florida     27

Kentucky 17

Miami Review

On a night in which the Gators tried to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, Florida defeated Miami 24-20 despite a flurry of turnovers and penalties that made the score much closer than the two teams really are.  That was one, um……interesting game, but still satisfying in the end with a win.

I knew the first game would feature some sloppy play, but damn!  Let’s just say the Gator staff will have plenty to discuss with the team during the bye week with a LOT of things to “correct”.  I knew that the only way this game would be close was if Florida lost the turnover battle, and (unfortunately) that’s exactly what happened.  Leading 7-3 in the second quarter, Felipe Franks and Lamical Perine somehow muffed an exchange on a zone read, allowing Miami to escape a potential 11 point deficit and changing the entire complexion of the game.  A dropped pitch from Franks to Malik Davis should never have happened, which led to the ‘Canes taking the lead at halftime.  Franks then had 2 interceptions in the 4th quarter that allowed Miami first to retake the lead and then to stay close.  The first was a pass to an open Freddie Swain that was too high and tipped.  The second was, well……I’ll be nice and just say egregious.  I liked Coach Mullen calling a pass play on first down with 4:30 left, instead of just running the ball to try and milk the clock.  But no one knows why Franks made the throw that he did, giving the ‘Canes a short field to try and win the game.  Like I said……LOTS to “correct”.

The Gator defense was lights out for the most part.  The offense did them no favors by running only 54 plays and leaving the defense on the field for 36 minutes.  But those guys never flinched and brought the heat all night.  Yes, there was the one long rushing TD allowed because of horrific tackling.  But the defense rose up time and again after the turnovers gave Miami a short field many times.  DEs Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard and LBs Ventrell Miller and James Houston created havoc in the ‘Cane backfield all game, getting 10 sacks and numerous QB pressures along with many negative running plays.  My guess is that close to 100 yards of Miami’s 301 total came only after multiple pass interference and personal foul calls gave them new sets of downs.  DeeJay Dallas ended with 95 rushing yards, but 74 came on only two plays out of the wildcat formation, again driven by terrible tackling.  Miami has two quality TEs, and while Brevin Jordan had 88 yards and a touchdown (on a tipped pass), the defense did a much better job overall in covering the TEs than last season.  The safety play is still suspect – Jaewon Taylor and Donovan Stiner are not SEC-level players, and Brad Stewart was sorely missed, serving (another) suspension.

Florida’s special teams were dynamite, as expected.  I expected them to dominate, while most pregame analysis glossed over them.  Tommy Townsend’s punts were excellent, and his fake in the first quarter gained a first down and allowed the Gators to take the lead on the very next play, a 66-yard WR screen to Kadarious Toney.  All but one of Evan McPherson’s kickoffs found the end zone, and he converted his only FG attempt.  Finally, the buy-in by starters like WRs Van Jefferson and Tyrie Cleveland on punt coverage is a prime example of Mullen’s emphasis on special teams.  Both guys were right in Jeff Thomas’ face when he fumbled a punt at the Miami 11-yard line in the 3rd quarter.  Jefferson recovered, and the Gators took the lead 17-13 on a Franks to Perine pass.

After the immediate hysteria dies down about the wild 4th quarter, turnovers, penalties, and poor tackling, many will realize that these were the only things that kept the score close, as Florida was at least 14-17 points better than Miami.  By playing in this special opening game, Florida gets the rare gift of a 3rd bye week – allowing them plenty of time to recuperate after a hard-fought win and to clean up many things.  I could not care less what the national media and perception is from this game – it was a huge win against a bitter in-state rival, and will look even better as scUM cruises through a weak ACC schedule.

I’ll be back next week with my preview of the home opener against Tennessee-Martin.  Go Gators! 

Peach Bowl vs. Michigan Preview

Florida’s reward for a bounce-back 2018 regular season is it’s 3rd matchup in it’s past 38 games with Michigan – this time in the Peach Bowl at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

The teams are coming off of dramatically different season-ending games.  While the Gators crushed F$U to end a painful 5-game losing streak, Michigan was embarrassed by Ohio $t. in a 62-39 beat down that made it 14 out of 15 losses against their bitter rival.

Florida’s offense will be challenged by a strong Wolverine front seven – even with the decision by DT Rashan Gary to forgo the game to prep for the NFL Draft. DE Chase Winovich and LB Devin Bush are all-Big 10/11/12/ whatever players.  The running game has carried the Gators all season, but Mullen will have to be ready to mix things up if Michigan is stopping the run. Where some teams – especially the Black eyes – have exposed the Wolverines is in the secondary.  If Florida can get their play makers into space they can do some damage.  This game can be a showcase for LT Martez Ivey and RB Jordan Scarlett to exhibit their abilities against a legit front seven.  The O-line has to stand it’s ground and give Franks time to find his WRs – if they do, there are some big plays to be had.  I’m hoping that Grimes and Jefferson can build on their breakout game against F$U, while Toney has the kind of quickness and speed that O$U used to exploit Michigan’s defense.

Michigan’s offense is led by QB Shea Patterson, who transferred in from Ole Miss prior to the 2018 season and seriously upgraded the play at that position.  While his new team has reined in some of his running, he is still a threat to scramble and make big plays.  He also improved his passing dramatically this year, with a 21-5 TD-Int ratio.  His main targets are WRs Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins and TE Zack Gentry.  DPJ and Collins arebig, physical targets that will be a challenge for the Gator DBs.  The Wolverines historically feature the TE, a position that has exploited poor coverage by the Gator LBs all season.  Still, Michigan relies first onit’s running game, led this year by Karan Higdon, who has averaged just under 100 yards per game.  It’s incumbent on the defense to win 1st down in order to force the Wolverines into more difficult down-and-distance plays.  If Michigan is winning the LOS this will be a long afternoon for the Gator defense, and likely lead to a loss.

As with almost any bowl game – especially a non-playoff game – it virtually impossible to predict the mindset of the players coming in.  There are so many variables – guys not playing to prepare for the NFL Draft, grades, baby mommas, guys that do play that will get drafted but try not to get injured, agents/runners sniffing around draft-eligible players, family/posses with their hands out, etc.  Many of the bowl games now are more like exhibitions for the following season, with the main reward being the additional practices to develop younger and inexperienced players.  

I feel that this game is more important to the entire Florida football program because of it’s recent transition in AD, coaching staff, and attitude. That may not necessarily translate into a win, but I believe Coach Mullen and the players will have extra motivation to prove to the nation (and future recruits)that the prognosis for Gator football isn’t just a short rally, but long-term success.  Florida was embarrassed by Michigan in both the Citrus Bowl after the 2015 season and in their 2017 opener – both games under the Swamp Donkey.  A new message needs to be sent that things are truly different –and better – going forward.

I think that Michigan’s experience within a consistent scheme for the past 4 seasons, the desire to begin erasing the impressions from their meltdown against Ohio $t., and better talent along the OL and DL will be enough to win.  However, I also hope that once this game is over they – and the nation – realize that Florida is not the mentally and physically soft team they have enjoyed beating recently.

Prediction:  Michigan 27      Florida 20