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