Florida $t. Preview

Florida ends it’s 2019 regular season with its annual rivalry game against Florida $t. in the Swamp.  The Gators ended a painful 5-year losing streak in the series last year in Taliban City, and look to build on that by extending its own streak.

F$U has had a miserable season and (unfortunately) did the right thing by blowing out Slick Willie Taggart 3 weeks ago.  Odell Haggins has taken over in the interim, and the players actually respect him and have played harder recently.  It’s just a shame that they are already bowl-eligible, as the Gators would have loved to prevent the Criminoles from going bowling a second consecutive year.  F$U’s identity this season has been to start fast on offense, then do little to nothing in the second half while the defense collapses.

F$U’s offense has been wildly inconsistent all season, partly due to the uneven play of starting QB James Blackman backup Alex Hornibrook, but moreso by a weak O-line that has performed even worse than Florida’s.  The Criminoles have racked up some big numbers against weaker competition, but have struggled against decent or good opponents.  RB Cam Akers is the best player on the entire roster, and the sole hope they have to be competitive in this game.  He is an excellent runner and also a consistent threat as a receiver out of the backfield.  The only real receiving threat is WR Tamorrion Terry, who has size and deep speed.  The Gator front seven need to remain disciplined and not get fooled by the motion and quick pace of OC Kendal Briles’ offense, which he brought from Baylor.  If the Florida DTs can at a minimum get a stalemate at the LOS or get occasional penetration in the gaps, it could be a long night for F$U’s offense.  The DEs, led by Jonathan Greenard, should be able to disrupt the pocket consistently against the poor OTs, and need to get either QB off their spot and first read.  Jeremiah Moon is out with a foot injury, but it appears that Jabari Zuniga will get at least limited snaps.  The secondary should match up well against any spread sets, especially now that Marco Wilson has moved to the Star position and can slow down the slot receivers and help control the middle of the field.  F$U has enough talent at the skill positions overall to make some plays, but if the LBs and safeties can tackle well in space and force the Criminoles into long drives, that should be enough to disrupt their offense, as it thrives on big plays and isn’t built for long, ball-control drives.  The tackling against Missouri was as good as it’s been all year, and that offense with a mobile QB could help as a preview for what to expect Saturday night. 

On offense, Florida’s passing game matches up well against F$U’s pass defense, which has struggled all season both in coverage and open-field tackling.  The Gator WR corps has a decided advantage in size, speed, and depth.  As always, as long as the O-line can keep Trask clean and relatively upright, he and the receivers should be effective most of the night moving the ball.  It remains to be seen if Mullen can somehow coax any semblance of a running game, which could hit some big plays if the passing game is clicking early.  I have a feeling that Lamical Perine and Dameon Pierce may be able to break free for a few chunk plays.  F$U’s defense has been hurt by season-ending injuries to DT Marvin Wilson (a future high draft pick) and LB/safety Jaiden Woodbey, but there’s no sympathy felt here – go after their replacements and keep the pressure on all game long.

Florida’s special teams have a decided advantage.  PK Evan McPherson and P Tommy Townsend have excelled all season, and the coverage units have been some of the best in the nation.  It’s a luxury and a real bonus to field position, and has been a huge help to both the offense and defense.  These hidden yards can’t be underestimated in the Gators’ success this year.  

It’s Senior Day, a chance for the first 10-win regular season since 2015, and the opportunity for Florida to set itself up for a New Year’s Six game.  The bigger goals of winning the SEC East and playing in Atlanta weren’t achieved, but there are still some significant things to play for, and there should be plenty of motivation to put on a great performance.  As always, in-state recruiting is impacted by this game, and Florida can continue to distance itself from scUM and F$U by winning the state title and closing the gap on the SEC schools it still trails in both talent and in the standings.  The Swamp should be electric at night for this game, and Gator Nation is ready to see another winning performance against the Criminoles.

Prediction: Florida 34 Florida $t. 17

Missouri Review

Florida took care of its business in Columbia with a workmanlike 23-6 win over Missouri that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.  The Gators didn’t play an entirely clean game, especially in the first half, but played hard, stayed focused, and proved their superiority over the Tigers with a dominant second half.

Kyle Trask once again was called upon to lead the offense despite no running game to provide any balance, and he did with 284 yards and 2 TDs, both in the 3rd quarter to essentially end the game.  Van Jefferson was the primary target most of the afternoon and was open most of the day.  Josh Hammond and Lamical Perine caught the 2 TS throws from Trask, with Perine making a great catch in traffic – especially good for a running back.  Emory Jones received the most snaps he has in a meaningful game since Auburn, and responded with a handful of good runs to extend drives and one long completion to Kedarious Toney setting up a FG.  The O-line again was pushed around trying to run block, but was able to give Trask just enough time to make some reads and get the ball out.  They did allow 4 sacks, though mostly from inside rushes where the guard play has fallen off recently due to injury and inexperience.

The Gator defense made life miserable for the Tigers and QB Kelly Bryant all afternoon, repeatedly getting penetration into the backfield, harassing him on many throws, and getting 3 sacks and multiple tackles for loss.  The front seven did a pretty good job limiting RB Larry Roundtree, but did get hurt by some designed runs and scrambles by Bryant that extended a few drives that led to their only points.  The pass coverage in the intermediate zones was solid – TE Albert Okwuegbunam was held to 4 catches for 26 yards, and the tackling was better than it has been in weeks, limited yards after the catch.  The improvement in coverage with Marco Wilson playing the Star position was immediately noticeable.  Kaiir Elam got the most snaps he has all season at CB, while Trey Dean moved for Star to CB and at least looked more comfortable – I still think he may be better suited for safety.  The safeties tackled well and didn’t allow any passes over the top.

Special teams were on point as they have been all season.  Evan McPherson made all 3 of his FG attempts, Tommy Townsend averaged 46 yards on his punts with 4 placed inside the 20, and the kick coverage was solid.

Defense and special teams need to travel on the road in the SEC, and this was just another example of that.  Missouri never had any momentum, and knew they would have to be more lucky than good to make anything happen as the game progressed.

Credit to Dan Mullen and his staff for having his players in the right mindset for this game.  No need to look backwards at the embarrassing losses under Won’t Misschump, the Swamp Donkey, or even last year.  No need to be concerned about the weather (it was fine).  No need to read too much into Missouri’s home record which was built up against garbage teams.  Just go out and play hard, and the better team (Florida) would win.

There are still a few goals to achieve for this year’s team – win 10 regular season games, beat F$U, and get into another New Year’s Six bowl game.  The Gators have their 3rd bye week of the season to rest, get as healthy as possible, and throw everything they have at the Criminoles and beat those clowns down – again.

I’ll be back next week with my game preview.  Happy Thanksgiving, and Go Gators!

Vanderbilt Review / Missouri Preview

Florida came out and dominated Vanderbilt from the start with a 56-0 shutout that was as easy as the score indicated.  For a change, the Gators didn’t struggle with Vandy after a tough game (win or lose), completely shutting down the Commodore offense while getting untracked on offense late in the first quarter and never looking back.

The Gator defense took advantage of the ‘Dores having to play their 3rd-team QB, focusing on controlling RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn and their running game.  After establishing control of the LOS, Vandy’s passing game was never going to be a threat, and the defense held the ‘Dores to 128 total yards while racking up 6 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 1 fumble recovery returned for a TD by Jonathan Greenard.  Vanderbilt is 126th out of 130 FBS schools in scoring offense, and simply were outclassed all afternoon.

On offense, Florida again struggled to establish a consistent running game, but completely overwhelmed Vandy’s pass defense as Kyle Trask rolled up 363 yards with 3 passing TDs and one running TD.  Emory Jones was able to get a decent number of snaps throughout the game and was efficient throwing and running, including 3 rushing TDs.  The WRs were mismatches for Vandy’s secondary and consistently gained separation all afternoon.  Trask did have 2 interceptions – one was simply a poor read on his part – still some learning to do.  True freshman Ethan White filled in at right guard for the suddenly departed Chris Bleich, while redshirt freshman Richard Gouriage started in place of the injured Brett Heggie at left guard.  It was a glimpse of the future, and they did an adequate job in relief. 

It’s on to Missouri, which has (sadly) won 4 of 7 against Florida since joining the SEC.  For some reason the Gators never seem to go into this game with any real enthusiasm, and the results have reflected that attitude.  Gator Nation is sick of these interlopers having the upper hand, and it sure would be nice to go up to Columbia and punish the Tigers.

Florida’s defense will have to focus on stopping Missouri’s running game first, led by Larry Roundtree.  Tyler Badie is the 3rd down back, and has been effective all season catching the ball out of the backfield.  The Tigers usually have a physical O-Line, and have pushed the Gators around too often in the series.  It’s unknown if Kelly Bryant will be their starting QB, due to a hamstring injury.  If he plays, he is normally a legit dual-threat who could prove to be difficult to contain by the front seven, which has been struggling due to injuries.  Hopefully, he is at least slowed by his injury if he does indeed start.  If he can’t go then backup Taylor Powell will start – he did not impress at Georgia as the Tigers were punked 27-0.  Missouri has one of the best TEs in the country in Albert Okwuegbunam, and he will be a difficult matchup for the Gator secondary.  WRs Johnathon Johnson, Jonathan Nance, and Kam Scott are all good receivers.  The Tigers will be a stern test for Florida’s defense all day.  I can only hope that DC Todd Grantham changes things up in the secondary in regards to both coverages and personnel.  It’s time to move Trey Dean back to CB or possibly to safety and possibly let Marco Wilson man the Star position.  If the secondary isn’t allowed to mix in some press coverage and plays soft again, it could be along, cold afternoon.

On offense, Florida will again have to employ the formula that has been the most successful this season – pass first and lean on Trask and the WRs to make enough plays to win the game.  Missouri’s defense is solid, and will come after Trask and the weak O-line.  The Tiger secondary plays aggressively, and could be susceptible to giving up some big plays if Trask is given time.  Florida really needs Heggie to return at guard, to try and help generate some semblance of a running game for Lamical Perine and Dameon Pierce.

After getting embarrassed many times by Missouri recently, it’s time for Florida to rise up and make a statement this week.  It will be a chilly day in Columbia with temps in the 40s for the game, but it should be a dry track.  The Gators will enjoy their 3rd bye week after this game, so they should be able to roll out almost everyone that is healthy enough to play – and they likely will need them.  As much as I’d like a dominant victory, I feel this one will not be decided until the 4th quarter, and will take a solid effort from all 3 phases to win.

Prediction: Florida 24 Missouri 20

Georgia Review / Vanderbilt Preview

What a waste.  The Gators had every opportunity to win the East and go on to bigger things, but the defense simply could never get off of the field at any critical moment, leading to a 24-17 loss that leaves fans and players to wonder “what if?”, which never amounts to anything.  The team looked flat most of the game, and there was little to no juice on the sidelines – puzzling.  Too many mental mistakes and some poor coaching decisions were enough to expose all of the weaknesses this team has and has tried to cover up until now.

The run defense did an excellent job in allowing only 117 yards playing against the best O-Line and RB in Deandre Swift they will see all year.  And then……they allowed 12 of 18 3rd down conversions……many 8 yards or more……AND NEVER GENERATED ONE 3-AND-OUT SERIES THE ENTIRE GAME 😱😠💀  “3rd-and Grantham” personified.  Georgia has converted 12 3rd downs in a game only twice in it’s history – in 2017 and now – both against Todd Grantham defenses.  Let that sink in.  This allowed the Gator offense only 7 possessions the entire game, of which 3 were converted into scores.  One was ended by a terrible booth review generated not by the game official but by the league office in Birmingham (hasn’t happened all season), one by a terrible play call on 4th-and-1 in the first quarter, and one when Trask made his only bad play of the afternoon by taking a 19 yard sack instead of throwing the ball away after the Gators (again) had easily moved into Georgia territory.  Talk about frustrating – seeing the offense move the ball through the air despite no commitment to running the ball – but never getting enough opportunities to cash in one or two more scores to win the game.  The front seven played bravely, but the pass defense was horrendous.  Way too many completions against air, and a lack of consistent pressure on the QB.  I hate to do it, but I am going to call out a few guys.  Trey Dean is completely lost at the Star position, and may need to be moved to safety.  Speaking of which……Shawn Davis busted a coverage leading to a wide open TD pass to Lawrence Cager, and Brian Stewart gave up the last 3rd down conversion by simply not being able to knock down a lollipop deep out throw made off the back foot by Jake Fromm, which essentially ended the game and allowed Georgia to run out the clock.

I stated in the game preview that it’s no secret that Florida can’t run the ball consistently, but to call only 10 runs for the RBs was simply too unbalanced an attack.  Even with an excellent WR corps and a QB playing at a high level, that is a big ask.  Coach Mullen did the offense no favors with some questionable calls.  Trying a slow-developing throw on the failed 4th down play in the first quarter was bad, calling a delayed deep handoff which was blown up on 3rd-and-2 to end another drive was worse, and bringing Emory Jones in for only 1 play – a second down deep in Georgia territory that wound up being a telegraphed QB run behind an unbalanced line that was stuffed and wiped away the rhythm that Kyle Trask and the offense had achieved on that drive – ended with only a FG and the only points of the first half.  There was no margin for error against Georgia given the weakness of the O-Line, and too many mistakes were made to overcome them.  Props to Kyle PItts and Freddie Swain, who each played a great game and were open most of the day.

Finally, the officiating call that allowed Georgia’s TD drive late in the second quarter was criminal.  There is no way that was a catch, and even the guys on the TV crew and the official they have on staff to comment were stunned the play was allowed to stand as called.  That had a massive impact on the game – at minimum a 4 point swing, and a huge momentum boost to the Puppies.

We’ll see if the hangover of a massively disappointing loss and a noon kickoff lead to a slow start this week against Vanderbilt.  The Commodores have struggled mightily this season, and head coach Derek Mason has been rumored to be on shaky ground – a complete joke considering the historical lack of commitment to football by that school.  Vandy’s only real offensive threats are RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn and WR Kalija Lipscomb.  Florida’s defense should be more than capable of controlling those two, especially with the ‘Dores down to their 3rd-team QB, Deuce Wallace.  The Gators will be without DE Jeremiah Moon and LB Amari Burney due to injury, but should have more than enough to control the LOS and force Vandy into another rough afternoon offensively.

Vandy does roll out a decent defense, which is Coach Mason’s calling card.  The Gators will hopefully have better success running the ball this week, but I’m still not expecting anything special.  Perhaps a few jet sweeps will be in the game plan this week as the ‘Dores don’t have the speed of the elite defenses Florida has already played this year.  Trask will once again be counted upon to make quick accurate reads and get the ball into the hands of his playmakers in space.  Lamical Perine and Dameon Pierce need to provide at least a few good runs to better balance the attack and perhaps hit one of the long runs they have provided most of this season.

It’s going to be a challenge for the coaching staff to have the team mentally into this game, after the huge disappointment of last week.  Hopefully the seniors can provide some much-needed leadership for this game and the rest of the regular season, to help ensure a strong finish and a 10-win season.  Historically it’s usually a mental slog with some sloppy play thrown in against Vanderbilt, and I expect some of the same again, but Florida has too much talent to allow a huge upset.

Prediction: Florida 31 Vanderbilt 13

South Carolina Review

As expected, it was a typical ugly game against a Won’t Misschump-coached team, but the Gators pulled away in the 4th quarter for a 38-27 win at soggy Williams-Brice Stadium.  I knew it would be hard for the staff to get the team emotionally ready after 2 tough games against Auburn and LSU, and it took a full half for the players to get into the game.

The script was pretty much the same for the Florida offense – difficulty in establishing a consistent running game then hitting a long run for a TD, while Kyle Trask had another efficient passing game with a career-high 4 TDs after struggling throwing a wet ball in the first half.  The return of Damien Pierce was a boost to the running game, with his 75 yard TD tying the game at 17 in the 3rd quarter after a bad Trask interception gave Carolina a short field which they capitalized on.  After Pierce’s run, the entire team settled down and played much better.  Coach Mullen had another solid game plan for the offense to execute and coached an aggressive game despite the weather conditions.  Once again the Gators dominated the 4th quarter of a game, hitting the Lamecocks with 21 consecutive points to ice the win.

The Gator defense surprisingly struggled against the run again, allowing over 200 yards and keeping Carolina in the game until the 4th quarter.  Carolina QB Ryan Hilinski was hobbled by a knee injury sustained against Georgia, and I would have thought the front seven would have been more conscious of the running game.  Of course the absence of DEs Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga was felt, but that’s no excuse for being gashed repeatedly most of the game.  The DT rotation is a bit banged up as well, but their play against the run was disappointing.  DT Kyrie Cleveland and LB David Reese cannot do everything alone to stop the run, and someone else at LB has to step up their play right now if Florida is to have any chance at beating Georgia in Jacksonville.  The secondary played only an average game.  WR Brian Edwards was Carolina’s only real threat, and he was contained most of the day.  However, there were some lapses – CJH dropped what should have been an interception in the end zone which allowed a Carolina scoring drive to continue, while the safety support in the running game again was lacking.

Florida’s special teams were very good again.  Evan McPherson made a difficult 48 yard FG to get the Gators on the board, Tommy Townsend did a nice job of pinning down the Lamecocks with some excellent punts, and the kickoff and punt coverage units were sharp.

Finally, the officiating during the game was atrocious against both teams.  Florida’s TD catch by Kyle Pitts was set up by an illegal pick/block, Pierce’s TD run could have been negated by a false start penalty on RT Jean Delance, while Carolina got away with exorbitant holding by both their O-Line and secondary all afternoon.  I will say that it was nice to see the Gators actually be the beneficiary of some bad calls for once.

All’s well that ends well – the Gators won another road SEC game, and now go into the bye week with the opportunity to rest, get a handful of injured guys healed, and begin 2 weeks of game-planning for what is essentially an SEC East title game against Georgia.  Despite a 7-1 record, the coaching staff has a lot to work on to get cleaned up before a tough upcoming game.  Getting at least one of Greenard or Zuniga back would be a boost to the entire defense, but there some fundamental flaws against the running game that have to be improved upon.  Offensively, the running game has to provide some balance to give Trask any chance of being effective.  

I’ll be back next week with a preview of the Georgia game – Go Gators!

LSU Review / South Carolina Preview

Florida fell short to LSU 42-28 in a closely-contested game at Tiger Stadium Saturday night.  The Gators stood toe-to-toe with the Tigers until midway through the 4th quarter, when Kyle Trask made his only real mistake of the game, an end-zone interception midway through the 4th quarter that prevented the Gators from tying the game at 35 and subsequently allowing the Tigers to add on an insurance score for the final margin.

The offense was terrific all night.  Dan Mullen called a great game, and Trask was efficient and accurate in leading the Gators on four touchdown drives of over 70 yards.  The Gators held the ball for over 38 minutes, ran 30 plays more than the Tigers, and ran the ball for over 100 yards.  Florida’s WRs rose to the challenge, outplaying LSU’s secondary all night.  Kyle Pitts was a monster in the first half with 8 catches, Van Jefferson was the main target in the second half making two great TD catches against physical coverage, and Trevon Grimes and Freddie Swain also made some clutch catches in the middle of the field.  Once again it was tough sledding for the O-Line, but they opened just enough room for Lamical Perine to grind out some important first downs to extend drives and provide some balance.  Backup QB Emory Jones had a few good moments, but Mullen’s playcalling for his selected series was surprisingly conservative, unlike the package he had against Auburn.  Jones was mostly a runner, and only threatened the defense with 2 passes over 10 yards beyond the LOS.  The O-Line finally broke down in the 4th quarter, allowing some drive-ending sacks.

Sadly, the great performance by the offense in a hostile environment was offset by a truly horrid performance by the defense, who allowed over 500 yards and 42 points on only 49 offensive plays.  It is puzzling to see the CBs continually play off of the WRs, allowing QB Joe Burrow and LSU’s own set of excellent WRs an easy night of pitch-and-catch.  But what became the real back-breaker was allowing LSU over 200 yards in the running game, including multiple plays of over 20 yards.  The run support (or lack of) by safety Brad Stewart and the LB corps (less David Reese) was shockingly bad – bad angles, weak tackling, and simply not being in the proper position to make plays.  It did not help that Florida was without it’s two best DEs in Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, who each only played a handful of snaps before being forced out with recurring ankle injuries.  However, this doesn’t excuse the rest of the defensive unit, who were embarrassed all night.  A handful of young guys had to be plugged in more often than the staff wished, and also the D-Line had to be shuffled, which created some physical mismatches that the Tigers were able to exploit.  But some of the fault lies directly with DC Todd Grantham, who continues to allow soft coverage, and also the front seven had another of it’s alarming breakdowns against the run.

Now the players and staff have to regroup and focus on South Carolina, who is coming off of a stunning upset of Georgia in Athens.  The Gamecocks have a tough defense that will be another physical challenge for Florida’s struggling O-Line, and once again Mullen will have to scheme around them and try and provide Trask a game plan that allows him time to throw.  His performance at LSU should be a huge confidence-builder for him and also for the rest of the offense as they are seeing how cool under fire he is, along with his toughness.  Carolina is led by DT Javon Kinlaw, LB Ernest Jones, and CB Israel Mukuamu.  Any defense coached by Won’t Misschump and Travaris Robinson will be fundamentally sound.  Mullen knows this, and once again has the challenge of developing a game plan that is patient and efficient, knowing the limitations of the O-Line.  It will be another struggle for the running game, and the passing game again has to take the lead and hopefully open up the things for the running game.  

The Lamecocks are hoping QB Ryan Hilinski can play after exiting the first half at Georgia with a knee sprain.  If he struggles early or can’t go, they will have to play 3rd-team QB Dakereon Joyner, who has almost no experience and will severely limit their passing game.  Carolina will try to run the ball with Rico Dowdle and Clemson transfer Tavien Feaster to protect either QB, with the occasional deep throw to WR Bryan Edwards, by far their most dangerous offensive threat.  If the Gator defense can bracket Edwards and refocus on tightening up the run defense, they should be able to hold Carolina in check for most of the afternoon and give the offense the chance to score enough points to get out of Columbia with a critical win.  There is a lot to see on the LSU film that should make the Gator defense sick to watch, and should give them the incentive to come out and show they are much better than they were last week.

Coach Mullen is right – this is the most important game of the season coming up, to go into the bye week with confidence and the opportunity to rest and get the injured guys as ready as they can for the final SEC East push in November.  I don’t expect Greenard or Zuniga to play this week unless absolutely necessary, and even by Nov. 2 they may still not be 100% for the Georgia game.  It will be interesting to see if the Florida staff can rally the team emotionally for one more big game – always a challenge with college players.  This would be an easier assignment if the game were at the Swamp, but it’s another SEC road trip into a hostile environment.  We’ll see if Carolina is still emotionally hung over from their upset win at Georgia.  I actually like the fact this is another one of those snoozer noon kickoffs, where the home team and fans are usually slow to get into the flow of the game.  If the Gators play hard and protect the football, they have enough to get out of Columbia with a win……and I don’t care how ugly it might be.

Prediction – Florida  23 South Carolina  17

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