Kentucky Review / Tennessee Preview

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

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

UT-Martin Preview

The home schedule begins this Saturday with the Tennessee-Martin SkyHawks coming to the Swamp for a big paycheck and an even bigger beatdown.  This will be not much more than a glorified scrimmage for the Gators, and a good opportunity to shake off some rust after the bye week while (hopefully) showing a lot of things were cleaned up after the sloppy win against Miami.

The offense has plenty of room for improvement.  The right side of the O-line was exposed against Miami – Bleich and Delance need to show improvement right away or may get replaced.  The WRs need to get separation and make more plays downfield.  The TEs have to improve their run-blocking.  Franks can improve some fundamentals and quicken his reads.  The entire offense needs to generate a solid running game – working on improving timing and execution.

The Gator defense should have little trouble controlling anything UT-Martin tries.  This should a good opportunity to get a lot of young guys some snaps in the second half, while some key players like DT Tedarrell Slaton return from suspension and can get some live game reps in.  The safety play has to improve – the performance against Miami was poor both in coverage and angles taken for tackling – the same issues as last season.

As always in a game like this, the mantra is NO INJURIES.  Things get a lot more interesting next week with the SEC opener at Kentucky.  I hope the staff is able to get the players to focus a little better than they might normally do with such an important upcoming game.

Prediction:

Florida 51

UTM     6

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! 

Miami Preview


The 2019 season begins with a huge national showcase game against Miami in Orlando, to kick off the 150th season of college football.  This is a massive opportunity for the Gators to make a statement with the entire nation watching.  The fact that it’s against a bitter in-state rival makes this game even more critical to get off on a positive first step and also for in-state recruiting.
Florida’s offense has perhaps it’s best group of skill position players in a decade ready to roll out and show the nation how explosive they can be.  RBs Lamical Perine will be the leader of the ground game, but Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis are capable guys with little to no falloff in production.  QB Felipe Franks has a stable of veteran WRs outside that possess speed, size, and run after the catch ability in Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes, and Tyrie Cleveland.  This group will demand the attention of the Miami secondary, many times in man coverage.  If the WRs make an early splash, that will open up the middle of the field for slot receivers Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond and TEs Kyle Pitts and Kemore Gamble.
Ultimately, all of that ability by the skill guys will be tempered (or worse) if the rebuilt O-line struggles.  Nick Buchanan in the only returning starter, at center.  Bret Heggie is a stud a left guard, but has been dogged by injuries his first 2 seasons and has to stay healthy.  Redshirt freshman Chris Bleich gets the start at right guard and has practiced well in camp.  The tackle situation is the biggest question mark, as Stone Forsythe and Jean Delance/Richard Gouriage step in for Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor, respectively.  If Coach Hevesy can somehow get this unit to at least perform as an average SEC line, that will be more than enough to win this game but also give the Gators a chance for bigger things ahead.
If the O-line struggles to protect Franks, I expect more 2-back and 2-TE sets to help out.  While this will lessen the chances for big plays, these formations would allow Franks to get the ball out quickly to the RBs and TEs when not trying to run the ball.  Putting these guys in motion would also simplify the reads for Franks by making the defense declare their coverage and looks pre-snap.  Finally, jet sweeps to Kadarious Toney and Jacob Copeland can help stretch the filed horizontally and not require the O-Line to hold it’s blocks as long.
Miami returns most of it’s front seven on defense, but lost a key player in D-lineman Gerald Willis to the NFL.  Shaq Quarterman leads a very good LB corps filled with senior starters.  Al Blades Jr. is solid at CB as are Amari Carter and Gurvan Hall at safety.  This group will challenge the inexperienced Gator O-line, and Franks has to stay patient and not force things.
I expect the Gator defense to face a conservative, run-heavy game plan by the ‘Canes. If new OC Dan Enos is stupid enough to try and have an inexperienced Jarren Williams try to beat the Gators by passing the ball against a great secondary and pass rush, with an extremely inexperienced O-line at the tackle positions, he’ll just be setting up the offense for failure.  The Gator DEs – Jabari Zuniga, Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard, and Jeremiah Moon – have to be licking their jaws, ready to eat up a true freshman and redshirt freshman at OT.  I expect Miami will try to shorten the game with steady running and the occasional play-action deep shot to a WR (KJ Osborn or Jeff Thomas – if he’s not suspended) or seam route to one of their talented TEs (Brevin Jordan or Will Mallory).  This will be an immediate test to see if Coach Grantham has improved the pass coverage by the LBs and how well Trey Dean is ready to fill in at the Star position.  Miami’s TEs will test the middle of the field, and the Gator LBs and safeties have to be ready and at least slow them down.
Florida should have a decided advantage on special teams.  PK Evan McPherson and punter Tommy Townsend are one of the best tandems in college football, and Coach Mullen has plenty of experienced and dangerous threats in the return game.  If Thomas is suspended for this game, that a big hit the the Hurricanes, as he is a dangerous kick returner.
If the Gators can protect the ball on offense and win first down on defense, this should be a solid win, despite the rivalry aspect of the game.  I expect Miami to come out early with a lot of fire, but after a few series and the teams settle down, Florida has enough experience and playmakers on both offense and defense to pull away in the second half. 
Florida 26scUM  13