Auburn Review / LSU Preview

Florida – for at least one week – shut up the doubters and criticism with a resounding 24-13 win over Auburn in a Top 10 matchup at the Swamp.  The atmosphere was electric all afternoon and reminded Auburn fans (and, sadly, other SEC fans that have not seen it often the past decade) that the Swamp is on the very short list as the toughest place to play in the country.

Offensively it wasn’t pretty at times, mostly due to Auburn’s excellent defensive line, but enough plays were made to take and keep the lead and force Auburn to play from behind all afternoon.  The Gators turned the ball over 4 times on fumbles, 3 times giving the ball to the Tigers in Florida territory.  This led to Auburn’s 13 points (all in the first half), which is a testament to how well Florida’s defense played at all 3 levels and continued to rise to the occasion under constant pressure.  Despite being forced into 3 fumbles, Kyle Trask stayed cool under fire and had another efficient passing day that included 2 TDs.  He read coverage well all day (when given the time) and showed a lot of toughness returning from a scary-looking knee injury (MCL sprain) to tough out the win.  Returning to the game is going to play well in the locker room, as the entire team knows they have a guy leading the offense that will play through pain.  Emory Jones did a great job when he had to come in right after Trask left the game in the 2nd quarter, continuing the same drive into Auburn territory leading to a FG and showing the Tigers (and his teammates) that he could move the offense with both his arm and legs.  Coach Mullen showed faith in Jones by running the same game plan, and that vote of confidence has to help Jones mentally going forward in his career.  As expected, it was a rough day running the football against potentially 3 NFL-bound DL, but Mullen ran the ball just enough to keep the rush somewhat honest.  Florida finally got the one crack it needed to ice the game, Lamical Perine’s 88-yard TD run in the 4th quarter to make the score 24-13 and force Auburn to abandon the run for the last 9 minutes.  Finally, Mullen showed he’s not afraid to gamble in a big game, calling the TE Lucas Krull throwback pass to Trask to get the first down that essentially iced the game, and allowing punter Tommy Townsend to call his own number on a fake punt that failed and led to Auburn’s only TD.

The Gator defense was outstanding – especially in shutting down Auburn’s running game until the 4th quarter and forcing a true freshman QB to try and beat them with his arm.  Once that happened, it was a mismatch, as Bo Nix was held to 145 yards passing (more than half on 2 completions to Seth Williams – one of which resulted in their only offensive touchdown immediately after the botched fake punt).  The DEs did a great job of setting the edge which negated much of Auburn’s speed, and also applied constant pressure which forced Nix off his spot and caused him to panic and either take some big sacks or throw his 3 interceptions.  The LBs, led by David Reese, were the most physical they have been in 3 seasons, applying some big hits and denying the Tigers on their first 5 3rd-and-2 yards or less attempts.  All of this came against an experienced and talented Auburn OL.  The secondary was solid all day except for one busted coverage that allowed a long completion to Williams late in the 3rd quarter.  That was offset 3 plays later with an end-zone interception by Donovan Stiner that ended Auburn’s last scoring threat.  The return of CJ Henderson was noticeable, as the rest of the secondary could show many different looks and confuse the young QB.  Finally, it was great to see Marco Wilson play his best game since 2017, showing he is almost 100% back from his ACL injury and silencing some ridiculous criticism of his play.

Both head coaches described how loud the Swamp was and the intense atmosphere.  Gus Malzahn said he was surprised that the crowd got to his veteran O-Line – but that is what the Swamp does to any team when the Gators roll out a legit team to play in a big-time game.  This was (along with 2018 LSU) another reminder to recruits that Florida is building it’s way back to the standard it maintained from 1990 through 2009.  The atmosphere and result should reap rewards for both upcoming signing days.

There is no time to celebrate, as Florida now goes to Baton Rouge for another massive Top 10 showdown, this time with LSU.  This will be an even tougher matchup for the Gators, playing a night game at Tiger Stadium against a Tiger offense that has finally emerged from the Stone Age by becoming a passing team.  LSU is led on offense by QB Joe Burrow and a group of excellent WRs that includes Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, and Terrace Marshall.  They have incorporated NFL passing concepts installed by special advisor Joe Brady to take advantage of where they have the most talent, and it is paying off.  Brady is likely the most valuable person on Ed Orgeron’s staff this season, giving them a legitimate chance to win every game they play.  LSU will give Florida’s defense perhaps it’s biggest challenge of the entire season, but the Gators have enough talent in the secondary to match up with the Tiger WRs, along with the talent at DE to get some pressure on Burrow.  It’s incumbent to force Burrow off his spot in the pocket and get some pressure and the occasional sack.  This may be a game where the Gators will be in a nickel or dime defense most of the night, daring LSU to run the ball.  The Tiger running game is only average this year, partly given it’s overwhelming reliance on the pass.  Clyde Edwards-Helaire is by far their leader in carries and yards.  He is not a big-play threat but does most of his damage after LSU has forced teams to focus on the passing game. 

Florida’s offense was able to at least get a stalemate against the best D-Line it will play against all season, but will need a similar effort and result this week – especially in a hostile road environment.  It remains to be seen how the mild MCL sprain Trask incurred will affect him this week – he’s not going to be counted on to run as much as Franks or Jones would be, but being able to run the occasional zone read or QB power is a staple of Mullen’s offense.  If he is OK and given time to throw, he should be able to make some plays against a LSU defense that has been surprisingly less dominant than their roster and talent level would indicate.  The Gators will still need to run enough times to maintain some balance, but (hopefully) should be able to find more room than against Auburn.  Perine was a workhorse both running and receiving, and has to come up big again.  Hopefully, Dameon Pierce can return after sustaining a concussion against Auburn to bolster the running game – if the Gators are forced to become completely one-dimensional, I don’t believe they have the consistent firepower to win a shootout.  Of course, the turnovers have to get cleaned up, or this will be an ugly result.  Given the expected level of noise, Trask will have to stay poised, run a silent count, and make quick, accurate decisions and throws.  Florida has perhaps the 3rd best WR corps in the SEC after Alabama and LSU, and have to make some big plays against a talented Tiger secondary led by all-SEC safety Grant Delpit and excellent CBs Kristian Fulton and Derek Stingley, Jr.  If you’re a fan of WRs and secondary players, this game may be the best one played in all of 2019.  Lastly, the Gator O-Line certainly was tested against Auburn, and that experience should pay dividends going forward.  LSU has some talent along it defensive front, but it simply isn’t as good as Auburn’s – hopefully Florida can establish a semblance of a running game and provide continued solid pass-protection to keep Trask upright.

Winning this game will be a tall order, especially coming right off of a big emotional win.  I think the staff and players have enough maturity to rise up for a second week in a row, but going on the road and against an experienced QB playing as well as anyone in the SEC may be too much to overcome.  I think the Gators will need to get to 27 points to have a real shot at winning.  It will take another complete effort and success from all 3 phases to pull this one off.  Florida’s special teams again need to be great and perhaps set up the offense with a short field or score on their own to help the cause.  Both schools have been talking a ton of trash for years now about which one is really ‘DBU’.  Well, with all of the great WRs on the field Saturday night, each team’s secondary depth is going to be tested.  LSU is a better team overall than Auburn, and certainly has payback on it’s mind after getting whipped last year in Gainesville.  Until Florida can prove it can protect the football and tighten up it’s O-Line play a little more, this assignment may be too tough to win right now.  

Prediction: LSU     31 Florida  20

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!