South Carolina Review / Vanderbilt Preview

The Big Payback, indeed.  Not quite as big as I would have liked, but Florida beat down South Carolina 38-6 to partially atone for the embarrassment of 2021, and made the Lamecocks look bad in the process.  

The Gator defense continued it’s recent improved play by not allowing an offensive touchdown – only a TD on a fake punt due to a blown special teams play.  The front seven did what was needed to control the game – slow down Carolina’s running game and force Spencer Rattler to beat them by throwing the ball……which he can’t do.  Princely Umanmielen continues to show out at DE, setting the edge against the run and pressuring the QB.  LB Ventrell Miller had another solid day making tackles all over the field, and the secondary was solid in coverage.  The only negative was allowing some 3rd-and-long conversions.  Shockingly, Trey Dean had perhaps his best game of the season, with solid run support and an interception.

Florida’s offense did what they should have – pounding the Lamecocks with the running game – and rolled up 374 yards on the ground.  Each RB had a good afternoon – Montrell Johnson with 162 yards and a TD, and Trevor Etienne with 100 yards, including an electrifying 84 yard TD.  Anthony Richardson again ran the ball as often as he should have been doing all season.  10-12 designated runs are necessary to keep the defense off-balance and allow him to make some big plays with his legs.  He had a nice touch pass to Ricky Pearsall for a TD, but again was scattershot with his accuracy, especially on the move.  That has to get cleaned up before the last 2 regular season games.  WR Caleb Douglas again had a few nice catches and continues to improve.  I still want to see a few more throws to the RBs and TEs to help AR out, but perhaps Billy Napier is saving those for the game 2 weeks from now.

Next up for Florida is a trip to Nashville to face Vanderbilt.  The Commodores are coming off of their first SEC win since 2019 (26 games), winning at Kentucky.  It’s been tough sledding for head coach Clark Lea to institute the latest program rebuild there, but he has one nice piece to start with in QB MIke Wright.  Wright isn’t a very accurate passer, but is their second-leading rusher on the season and has injected some life into their offense the past month.  The ‘Dores will lean on their running game, led by RB Re’Mahn Davis, who is also a capable receiver.  Once again, the Gator front seven has to focus on winning first and second down and forcing Vandy into throwing the ball.   WR Will Sheppard is a good player, and the secondary needs to focus on slowing him down.  Do these two things, and it should be a good afternoon in the Music City. 

Florida doesn’t need to change fundamentally on offense this week – continue to impose their will with a strong running game, with AR taking yards when they present themselves.  Vandy’s defense is ranked 121st (out of 131) in the country, so this isn’t the time to get fancy – pound the rock and then hit them with some key play-action passes.   I’m not sure if either of WR Justin Shorter or Ja’Quavion Fraziars are going to return from injury to play this week.  It would be nice if they are ready, but perhaps the staff is hoping to hold them out for the last game at Florida $t.

This will be another one of those noon (11 am local time) snoozer starts, but the Gators are in no position to take any game lightly this season.  Here’s hoping the coaching staff has them ready to roll from the start.  This isn’t the time to fall behind and have to recover.  I don’t trust AR enough yet to not make some mistakes each game, including some inaccurate throws, even with his good performance at Texas A&M a few weeks ago.  He still lacks consistency, although he has played better on the road than at home this season.  It’s gonna be a chilly day for football, with the game temps in the upper 30s to low 40s, but at least it looks like it will be a dry day.  Get ahead early and run the ball well, and it will feel much colder for the Commodores and their fans.  As usual, the visiting team should have almost half of the seats filled with their fans, and Gator Nation will show up at Vanderbilt this week.  Finally, I’m not buying into a lot of the fools gold that seems to be going around after the last 2 games.  Neither opponent was that good, so folks need to pump the brakes on thinking the Gators are suddenly a very good team.  They aren’t……yet.

Prediction: Florida 38 Vanderbilt 21

Texas A&M Review / South Carolina Preview

Florida got a much-needed win in College Station, defeating a depleted and imploding Texas A&M 41-24.  The Aggies were missing 31 players due to injury, illness, or suspension, but I’ll take it.  The Gators were coming off of a beatdown to their rival and facing the possibility of falling under .500, so getting this win was huge for the mental makeup of a team trying to close the season on an uptick.

The Gators did what they should have done on offense – running at the Aggies early and often, and piling up close to 300 yards on the ground against a poor run defense.  Anthony Richardson actually did more of what he should be doing in the running game, keeping the ball more on the read option and hurting opponents with his legs to loosen the defense.  His 60-yard TD run highlighted an excellent first half for the offense, and every point was needed.  The Gators were forced into playing some young WRs due to injuries, and they stepped up.  Both Caleb Douglas and Ja’Quavion Fraziars made key TD grabs.  Ricky Pearsall was given more touches (as I’ve been begging for all season) and did damage on both receptions and on jet sweeps.  Why Billy Napier refused to do this all season is still a mystery.  The O-line blocked well, and opened some massive holes for Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne to rumble through.

DC Patrick Toney again came out in his shell, allowing another mediocre QB to look like a Heisman candidate and causing the Gators to trail 24-20 at the half.  After the Gators finally started playing closer coverage and blitzing Haynes King relentlessly, he played down to his usual level and the defense shut out the Aggies in the second half.  Ventrell Miller did a great job of defending and tackling Devon Achane in space in the flats.  The front seven actually got pressure on the QB when they blitzed, and DE Princely Umanmielen forced a strip sack and turnover to stop a Texas A&M 4th quarter drive to effectively close out the game.

I revel in the misery that is Dumbo Fisher right now.  That scumbag can’t lose enough, and one more loss guarantees they stay home for bowl season.  Not bad for the $90 million coach and the program that paid millions for their recruiting class that is already causing locker room upheaval.

Florida now returns to the Swamp for it’s final home game of the year to face South Carolina.  It is essential for the Gators to build on last week’s win and gain momentum for the coming end of the regular season.  I would hope Florida has all of the motivation it needs for this game.  They embarrassed themselves and everyone associated with the football program by laying down and quitting in last year’s game, and owe the Lamecocks the Big Payback.

Carolina is led on offense by QB Spencer Rattler, who transferred in from Oklahoma after losing the starting job there last season.  He lost the job for some good reasons – he couldn’t read defenses and was a turnover machine.  So far in 2022 he’s only marginally better, and if the Gator front seven can continue to apply pressure, they should be good.  Carolina leans on a running game led by Marshawn Lloyd – if the Gators can slow him down, then opportunities will present themselves for some sacks and possible turnovers.  Antwane Wells is by far their leading WR, but they do a decent job of throwing to their RBs, so Ventrell Miller and Co. will again have to prove they can cover and tackle well in space.

Carolina’s defense has been pushed around often this season, only to have opponents bail them out with ugly turnovers.  In their last game, Texas A&M actually outplayed them but gave the game away.  Their secondary has 11 interceptions, and their team thrives on the emotion of turning the ball over.  If Florida can continue to protect the football while getting a lead it will be very difficult for Carolina to keep it close.  Opponents have had success running the ball, and Florida needs to lean on it’s strength and continue that trend.  AR has to be aggressive and take yards when they present themselves – not be timid.  WR Justin Shorter may miss a second straight game with a hamstring injury, and Fraziers is out with a bad shoulder.  That means Pearsall needs to be fed the ball, and others have to make plays when called upon.  Of course, it would help to throw to the RBs more often, but AR simply doesn’t seem to look for it enough.

One thing the Lamecocks do have are excellent special teams. Head Coach Shane Beamer brought that with him after working under his dad at Virginia Tech for years, and he stresses it every day.  It has paid off big-time, with multiple punt blocks and other plays that have saved a few wins for them this season.  Florida has actually improved it’s kick return game the past month, and both punter Jeremy Crawshaw and PK Adam Mihalik have been solid – that needs to continue.

I still haven’t seen Florida put together two consecutive good performances, and I wonder if they will put too much into the fool’s gold of beating a reeling Aggie team and not come out with the fire and sharpness they need.  Kickoff is set for 4 pm, and the weather should be perfect.  It’s the last home game of 2022, with a lot riding on the outcome.  The crowd should be ready and the Swamp alive for what oftentimes is a less-than-compelling matchup.  I can only hope Napier and his staff ensure that the team is ready from the opening kickoff – they can start by making the team watch the tape from last year’s debacle.  This is another critical game for the “perception” of both Napier and the program’s direction.

Prediction: Florida 31 South Carolina 24

Georgia Review / Texas A&M Preview

It was more of the same, as Florida was easily handled by Georgia 42-20 in Jacksonville.  Despite a spirited run to start the 3rd quarter, the Gators were outplayed, out-talented, and outcoached……again.  Georgia started and finished fast.  Yes, the 3rd quarter run by Florida was good to see, but it was as much a function of Georgia’s players easing up and losing focus as it was the Gators playing that much better.  I’m not buying all of that fool’s gold.

The Gator defense was again defenseless for a large portion of the game, getting pushed around at the LOS and allowing multiple chunk plays.  The lack of talent and depth in the front seven is especially noticeable against legit SEC opponents, and this was no exception.  The pass rush from the D-line was nonexistent, and the only times pressure was applied on passing downs was by blitzing, which actually had some effect when utilized……imagine that.  Until DC Patrick Toney finally allowed the coverage to tighten, Georgia had easy completions in the middle zones whenever they wanted it.  Once the coverage tightened, Florida actually made some plays.  LB Amari Burney played very well in coverage against UGA’s talented TEs, and the DBs helped force some turnovers and got the ball back for the offense.  Jason Marshall got himself off the back of the milk carton, and Jalen Kimber had some pass breakups.  Sadly, it was too little, too late, and couldn’t offset the weak run defense.

Other than the first 10 minutes of the 3rd quarter, the offense again was inefficient and stagnant.  Anthony Richerdson was allegedly hurt (again) early and refused to take positive running yards when they were available.  He (again) missed some wide open receivers for some possible big plays, and (again) simply blew some easy reads.  I really wonder if Jalen Kitna and/or Jack MIller are that bad in practice that they can’t get the chance in a meaningful situation to show if they can’t play at this level……even if only for a few series a game.  The O-line struggled with it’s run blocking, and blew a lot of assignments in pass protection, allowing guys to come free at the QB far too often.  AR simply cost the offense any chance of making this a competitive game for 4 quarters.  The playcalling was (again) very unimaginative, except for some adjustments made at halftime to provide a momentary spark.  That’s not good enough in the SEC, though.  I remain skeptical of Napier’s OC ability, and wonder if it will change next year.

Florida now travels to College Station to play a similarly-struggling Texas A&M program that has it’s own unique and well-publicized problems.  They are now on their 3rd QB, have multiple suspensions/injuries along their O-line, and are getting a huge amount of negative press about other suspensions to some of the (well paid-for) freshman class.  It couldn’t happen to a nicer person than Dumbo Fisher, a real hypocrite and unsavory coach.

It will be interesting to see if the Gator defense is allowed to play as aggressively in pass coverage for the rest of the season, or if Toney will fall back into the same passive shell.  There is absolutely no reason to do so at this point – let the kids play aggressively, have fun the rest of the way, and improve.  The loss of Brenton Cox due to being dismissed from the team could hurt on the field, but at this point he was a one-trick pony who struggled performing even that one trick.  Justus Boone, Antwaun Powell, and Princely Umanmielen get their chance at extended snaps now to see if they will be contributors in 2023.  The Aggies will start true freshman Conner Weigman at QB, and that actually may be best for them in the long run, as neither of the other two signal callers impressed.  He has played well the last 6 quarters, and led a strong comeback against Ole Miss last week that fell just short.  The guy that makes their offense run is RB Devon Achane – he’s played at an all-SEC level this year and is a multiple threat running, receiving, and returning kicks.  He is by far the largest part of their  offense.  IF……if the Gator defense can slow him down, they have a chance, but I remain skeptical until I see the proof.  True freshman WR Evan Stewart was a strong Gator lean until Napier became the new head coach, and was a big loss – he is already becoming a dangerous target.  I think we have seen that there is some real talent in the Gator secondary that just needs the opportunity – and permission – to make plays.  Will another inexperienced QB look like an All-American against Florida?  Stay tuned.

It’s gonna be very interesting to see if Napier stays painfully conservative with AR and lets him play the entire game.  It may be time to allow one of the backups to get a series or two to give the Aggie defense a different look and also perhaps give AR the chance to evaluate what’s happening from the sideline.  The passing game is just too inefficient and inaccurate to defeat legit SEC opponents, and needs a major upgrade.  The running game was handled easily against Georgia, and must bounce back this week.  Trevor Etienne seems to be becoming more and more the #1 RB each game, and Napier has to get him more touches both running and receiving.  The WRs played well against Georgia and made some excellent catches.  AR’s inaccuracy kept them from doing more and again killed some promising drives.  The passing game simply has to improve for any chance of winning.

Florida has a real chance at winning this game, even on the road, but Dumbo hates the Gators with a passion and will have his team ready despite the off- and on-field distractions.  The Gator staff will need to show it can get this team to refocus on the game, with all of it’s own off-field issues regarding the roster happening.  The running game has to be re-established, and the QB play – whoever that might be – has to be more efficient.  Sadly, I see this as another missed opportunity for Florida to get another much-needed SEC win.

Prediction: Texas A&M 27 Florida 17

Georgia Preview

Florida renews it’s rivalry with Georgia in Jacksonville this week, and comes in as a prohibitive 22.5 point underdog.  While it’s sad to see, it’s not a surprise, given the wretched defensive play and inconsistent passing game so far in 2022.

Georgia’s offense has done an about-face, now moving the ball far more through the air than on the ground.  While they still are rushing for almost 200 yards per game, they are averaging over 300 yards passing.  There is no true number one receiver, but QB Stetson Bennett is spreading the catches around to multiple players.  TEs Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington are likely the best TE combo in the country, and given Florida’s struggles covering TEs and the middle zones this season, they will likely be featured targets again unless the Gators can prove they can cover them.  Their leading WR is Ladd McConkey, who is more of a possession threat in the slot.  Their running attack is also a multi-player affair, with most of the carries spread among Daijin Edwards, Kendall Milton, and Kenny McIntosh.  McIntosh is also a weapon out of the backfield in the passing game, which will test another Gator defensive weakness.

Florida’s defense needs to play strong early, as Georgia likely comes out fast to try and jump to an early lead and force the Gators to press.  I wonder if DC Patrick Toney will finally take some big swings at personnel and scheme changes.  One that could be effective would be to play Chris McClellan alongside Gervon Dexter and Des Watson on the D-line to try and strengthen the interior.  The smaller DEs and OLBs other than Brenton Cox have not held up against the run nor shown any consistent pass rush.  Also, I expect some new starters in the secondary, like Kamari Wilson at safety and perhaps Jalen Kimber at CB.  Of course, unless the secondary is allowed to play close to the receivers to be more physical to disrupt their timing, it may not matter.  Even if Toney has revamped the entire scheme over the past 2 weeks, there is simply not enough talent and playmaking ability present to shut down Georgia’s offense.  Generating some turnovers would be a huge help, but Georgia has been very good at protecting the football.

Georgia’s defense is solid, but nothing like last season’s generational one.  They are still well-coached and rarely out of position, but have had some weak moments with lack of consistency and big-play capability compared to previous seasons.  They also have only 7 sacks and 6 interceptions in 7 games, so Florida could have some success moving the ball IF……if AR can force them to defend the entire field with a balanced passing attack.  He has to be more accurate, and has to give his receivers the chance to make plays after the catch.  He’ll also have to take the run whenever it presents itself – either by design or when a play breaks down.  Let’s be real – it’s going to take a monumental performance by AR and the O-line to score enough points to give the Gators any real chance of winning, as I just don’t see the defense holding the Puppies to less than 30 points.  The Gator running game has to find success and be a consistent threat, or else it will be a long afternoon.  Getting O’Cyrus Torrence back at OG should be a huge help.    

Florida’s special teams must have a big day.  They have shown some juice recently returning kickoffs and punts, but Adam Mihalek has struggled kicking FGs outside of 40 yards.  Any scoring chance has to be taken advantage of, with practically no room for error.

This will be Billy Napiers’ first taste of the rivalry, and over time I hope he embraces it and understands that this game is special and historically a springboard for bigger team accomplishments.  Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer focused on this game, with great success.  Napier doesn’t have the luxury they did with inherited talent, but hopefully over time amasses enough to win his share of these games in the future.  I don’t believe this one will be his first win in the series, but rivalry games always have the opportunity for a big surprise.

Prediction: Georgia 38 Florida 17

LSU Review

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, the Gator defense files a ‘DNP-CD’ (Did Not Play – Coach’s Decision), wasting a solid performance by the offense in an embarrassing 45-35 home loss to LSU.  Once again, Florida makes a mediocre QB look like Lamar Jackson and the offense look like the Bill Walsh-era San Francisco 49ers.

Why did I use the basketball term ‘DNP-CD’?  Because it’s painfully evident that Defensive Coordinator Patrick Toney is out of his element, and has somehow made Tood Grantham look like a competent DC.  How bad are your schemes, alignments, and personnel groupings when you only get 2 stops for an entire game against an opponent who has done very little in SEC competition to date?  To add insult to injury, one of those stops was only due to a dropped pass, while the other was running out the clock at the end of the game.  That’s 3 games this season where the Gator defense has forced only a single punt, and now is the proud owner of last place in 3rd down defense – 131st – in all of college football.  Even if this defensive front seven is the least talented and deep since before Charley Pell took over in 1979, there is simply no excuse – none – for not competently putting a plan in place to get at least marginally better results.

Florida allowed Jayden Daniels to pile up close to 500 yards of offense – well over 300 of it through the air.  Lack of pressure, soft coverage, blown assignments, poor tackling – all helping to extend drives and keeping a bad defense on the field far too long.  Even LSU’s struggling running game was able to perform well, not to mention another bad job of containing QB runs and scrambles.  Just a complete failure all around.  It just sucks the life out of a team by the end, even with the spirited offensive play in the 4th quarter.

This is going to be a contentious off week for Billy Napier to show some tough leadership and get the defense some help.  Whether that’s allowing some proven guys like DL coach Sean Spencer and/or secondary coach Corey Raymond some input into the overall scheme, or sitting down with Toney and “helping” him scrap what’s not working (everything) and trying new things, something has to be done immediately.  To allow this to continue the rest of the season without a fundamental makeover would be professional malfeasance and a slap in the face to the athletes that are putting in the work and the fan base that provided a terrific home atmosphere all season.  Once again, Florida wastes what should be enough of a home-field advantage to win these close conference games and help to accelerate the rebuild left behind by the previous group of losers.  I just hope that recruiting doesn’t begin to suffer, as the 2023 class, especially on defense, looks very good and has the chance to close on a few more outstanding players.  You know that opposing coaches are negative recruiting the hell out of this pathetic defensive performance.

Florida’s offense put up 35 points, which should be more than enough to win a SEC home game.  It will never be efficient or always smooth with Anthony Richardson running the show, but he provided enough big plays to offset the usual rough patches in the passing game.  The loss of O’Cyrus Torrence for this game was felt on the O-line, but they still generated enough of a running game and protection for AR to win.  The RB rotation may have settled in, with Montrell Johnson and Travis Etienne getting the bulk of the carries, and the surprising appearance of Lorenzo Lingard for some 3rd down snaps provided some juice.  Nay’Quan Wright was strangely absent, without any news of an injury.  The TD pass to Justin Shorter on the 2nd play of the game, the 39-yard TD run by Johnson, and the electric 81-yard TD run by AR show the explosive potential of this offense.  But it isn’t efficient and consistent enough yet to control the clock and keep that horrendous defense off the field.  Once again, Ricky Pearsall didn’t get enough touches, whether due to inaccurate passing from AR or the playcalling.  He is excellent with the ball in his hands, and why he’s not utilized more on some jet sweeps remains a mystery.

After the off week, Georgia and Texas A&M are next on the schedule.  Both of those head coaches have a deep hatred for Florida and will have their teams ready to play their best.  Sadly, Kirby Smart will likely enjoy another easy win in Jacksonville, one that could be ugly.  And Dumbo Fisher somehow gets to play against another bad Florida defense and have a very good chance to win.  I can only hope there’s a come-to-Jesus reckoning with the defensive staff the next 2 weeks and these guys give the team a fighting chance.  Right now Georgia’s offensive personnel is just a bad matchup, especially at TE.  There is a chance for an upset win in College Station with some better defensive coaching, as the Aggies have had their own struggles on offense.

I’ll be back next week with my preview of the Georgia game.  It’s gonna be a rough few weeks for Gator Nation.  I hope the coaching staff can come up with something – anything – better in the next two weeks to be at least competitive on defense and continue the development of the offense.  It’s been 7 straight weeks of football, and the extra rest will help this team physically……and mentally.

Eastern Washington Review / Missouri Preview

The Gators took care of business on the rarest of Sundays with a 52-17 win over EWU.  The outcome was never in doubt, as the offense was clicking early and often.  Give the Eagles credit – they moved the ball well occasionally on offense, and are an annual contender in the FCS division.  They were simply overpowered on defense and didn’t have the athletes Florida does.

Anthony Richardson was solid, despite a few incompletions due to poor mechanics – he still needs to rid himself of the habit of throwing off of his back foot too often.  He ran well early until he tweaked his ankle, but Jalen Kitna took over early and late and didn’t miss a beat.  Kitna at least didn’t appear overwhelmed, making good decisions and the proper reads, along with accurate throws.  It was a good thing for him to get some reps, as the schedule gets really difficult the next 4 games, and the Gators need a capable backup ready if needed.  The running game was solid, and the deep throws were a welcome sight.  The WRs played well – Justin Shorter and Caleb Douglas hauled in long TDs, and Ricky Pearsall took a 76-yard reverse to the house.

Florida’s defense played fairly well until the bench was cleared in the 4th quarter, but still looked weak against the run, and I’m afraid that isn’t getting fixed this season.  I would like to see Gervon Dexter moved to SSDE to at least set the edge properly, and let Chris McClellan start at DT, despite being a true freshman.  The LB corps was only marginally better at reading and filling the run lanes, while the secondary continues to struggle with the slant route.  The new starters were a mixed bag, with good plays offset by missed assignments.  But at least they were given the opportunity, and showed the coaching staff’s willingness to make some changes to try and shake things up.

Special teams are still poor.  Once again no return game of note, and EWU was able to block a FG attempt.  Trey Smack performed the kickoff duties while Adam Mihalek did the FG kicking, and perhaps this will be the norm going forward

It’s Homecoming week for Florida, and Missouri comes to Gainesville after taking Georgia to the wire last week at home.  They threw everything they had at the Puppies, and I wonder if they can come even close to replicating that effort a second straight week.  The Gators lost a day of game prep due to having the EWU game rescheduled to Sunday because of the impacts of Hurricane Ian – let’s hope Napier’s army of support staff can help make up some of the slack.

The Tiger offense is led by QB Brady Cook.  He is capable of scrambling when necessary to extend plays, and their offense is more reliant on the pass than in many years.  I hope they forget to run the ball too often, as the Gator secondary matches up well with their receivers.  Dominc Lovett is their top target, and if he is held in check, it will be harder on their offense to consistently move the ball.  However, until the run defense improves dramatically, it seems any offense will be able to move the ball and possess it longer than hoped, limiting Florida’s number of offensive snaps.  I would really like to see Gervon Dexter moved to SSDE to better set the edge against the run.  Chris McClellan needs to start at DT – he is showing flashes of being a very good player, and this would definitely improve the D-line overall.  Here’s hoping LB Ventrell Miller can play and play well – he has been playing hurt the past 2 games with an ankle injury.  The run defense is at it’s best when he’s in the game.

Missouri has had a run the past decade of some very good defensive linemen and linebackers, but this year three of their four leading tacklers are in the secondary, which shows a big dropoff along the LOS.  They are led by Florida transfer Tyron Hopper at LB, who has played very well this season and really hurt the Gators by transferring – especially at a position of huge need.  The Tigers essentially dared Georgia to throw last week, blitzing often and playing man coverage……and it worked.  I expect to see the same, making AR prove he can be a consistent threat throwing the ball while crowding the LOS to slow the Gator running game.  The slow-developing RPOs aren’t going to work until Florida hurts the defense through the air, along with running more effectively outside.  A few more swing passes to the RBs and jet sweeps by a real threat like Pearsall could prove effective.  Given the limited amount of snaps they get each game, efficiency from the offense is a priority.

Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz had his fun last year, punking Dancin’ Danny on and off the field.  I was going to label this game the continuation of Florida’s SEC East Revenge Tour, but after the debacle against Kentucky, along with a struggling defense, I just want to see an actual SEC win and to continue the recent positive trajectory of the team’s overall play.  I see this one not being settled until the 4th quarter, but hopefully with a different result this time.

Prediction: Florida 27 Missouri 24

Tennessee Review / Eastern Washington Preview

It was a gallant effort, but Florida sadly had too much to overcome defensively in a 38-33 loss on Rocky Top.  

Anthony Richardson bounced back from 2 dreadful weeks with his best performance as a Gator, accounting for almost 500 yards of offense, making some clutch throws, and running with more purpose than since the opener against Utah.  The offense ran a lot of plays and controlled the clock like it hoped to, but wasn’t good enough to overcome a few critical mistakes as well as a putrid defensive effort.  The only real disappointment was in the running game, where Tennessee jammed the LOS between the tackles and dared Florida to run outside.  The O-line struggled in run blocking, but did give AR enough time and room to make multiple big plays.  The WRs stepped up with their best game of the season.  Ricky Pearsall was great between the hash marks, Justin Shorter was finally allowed to use his size to outmaneuver smaller CBs, and the rest of the WRs and TEs had their share of catches.  I’d still like to see more throws to the RBs to help AR out when pressured, but at least for this game that is nitpicking, as overall the offense played a winning game.

The Gator defense was a no-show, getting embarrassed by Hendon Hooker both passing and running the football.  There are continued blown assignments in the secondary, especially by Trey Dean, who personally accounted for 2 Vol TDs with brain-lock lack of coverage.  The D-line was only marginally better, getting some occasional pressure and a few sacks, but never doing it consistently or stepping up to make a critical stop.  The LB corps was slightly better, but only when Ventrell Miller was in the game calling out the assignments and making some plays.  Once he re-aggravated his ankle injury, the unit fell back to it’s unsound ways in both filling the running lanes and in coverage.  There need to be some significant changes to both the personnel and schemes, because what they are trying to do isn’t working.  It’s stunning to see so many uncovered receivers, along with lack of attention to a mobile QB that can run when needed.

Now, as far as Billy Napier’s 4-down and 2-point conversion calls, that’s it’s own discussion.  I understand his aggression with the defense playing so poorly, knowing he had to try and give his offense as many snaps and scoring opportunities as possible.  That being said, I would have taken the FG on the first drive of the game, not just to give the offense some reward for an excellent opening drive, but also because those points came back to haunt him in the 4th quarter.  Which leads directly to the decision to go for 2 when Florida scored to close to 38-27.  Getting 2 points there still leaves you down 9, meaning 2 scores are required to win or tie.  Making it a 10 point margin there allows you the opportunity to go for 2 and the win if that opportunity presents itself at the end.  Being down 11 can only get you a possible tie, unless somehow you score 2 TDs that late, which is very unlikely.  I just hope analytics aren’t overused by this staff, as I’ve already seen too many coaches cause their team unnecessary losses when solely relying on said numbers.

Patrick Toney apparently is going to be a Defensive Coordinator-in-training this season,  I haven’t been impressed with his schemes, and I wonder if he realizes what the definition of doing the same thing over and over again with the same personnel is.  It’s time to make some tough decisions at safety and LB, and also time to get some of the young guys on the D-line more reps.  Chris McClellan is showing some juice at DT, Jamari Lyons may need to be forced into more snaps, and I would suck it up and move Gervon Dexter to SSDE – he needs to drop 25-30 pounds and be the DE that can actually set the edge against the run.  It seems he has added too much weight to be as quick and explosive as he was 2 years ago – even though he is playing DT to try and help the team as much as he can.

Florida returns to the Swamp to take on Eastern Washington this week, but the game will be played on Sunday due to the impacts and damage caused by Hurricane Ian across the state.  The Eagles are a solid FCS team that usually makes their Playoff field, and will be playing with nothing to lose.  They have been very ordinary on offense this season, and have also attempted only one field goal in 3 games, which tells me they will likely be going for it on 4th down whenever it’s reasonable.  The Gators need to show they can put two consistent games together.  It finally appears the coaching staff is doing something about the poor play of the defense, installing 3 new starters – Kamari Wilson at Safety, Justus Boone at DE, and Jaydon Hill at CB.  There have been too many busts and some poor play from the previous starters, and it’s time to make some changes.  Of course, the new guys could make some mistakes as well, but trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, and we saw enough of that the previous 4 seasons.

I’m not sure how big the crowd will be, but I imagine it could be significantly smaller and more subdued.  I know there are arguments for getting all of the games in so inexperienced players can get reps and helping the local merchants avoid a financial hit.  I would have been OK with a week off after the tough first month, allowing the players and coaches some extra time to focus on any potential family issues due to the storm, and also extra time to prepare for the upcoming Missouri and L$U games.  Now, there will be distractions for this game and less rest/preparation before the next one.

As always, in a game like this I just hope for the opportunity to play a lot of guys, along with NO INJURIES.

Prediction: Florida 45 EWU 14

South Florida Review / Tennessee Preview

The Multiverse of Madness is real!

In what felt like an alternate universe of reality, the Gators had to come from behind to escape – yes, escape – with a 31-28 “win” over a badly outmanned USF team.  It was an uneven effort from the start by the entire team, and another terrible performance from Anthony Richardson, as he threw 2 more interceptions that almost lost the game.  I said in the game preview that nothing good would come from this game other than hopefully no injuries.  I was more right than I’d even imagined.  There are just more questions now on both sides of the ball, and AR is regressing – not improving.  His checkoff inside the 5-yard line to a pass in the 4th quarter, when the Gators were blowing the Bulls off the ball and running at will, was bad judgment.  But to then double-down and throw a pass low and inside instead of high and outside with touch – to the near sideline no less – was just awful.  He was lucky that the defense got a turnover and gave the offense a short field to take the lead late.  Then the defense almost did its own Jekyll-and-Hyde imitation, allowing USF to drive inside the 20 before a bad snap ended the drive and a bad hold botched the tying FG attempt.  The entire game was brutal to watch except for when the RBs were allowed to dominate and Jalen Kimber’s pick six on a great play.

The Gator defense was horrific against the run, getting gashed for almost 300 yards on the ground and looking as bad as that statistic.  It is mind-numbing watching the DEs and rush LBs continue to play undisciplined football, not setting the edge or reading the QB on basic option runs.  Gervon Dexter is simply not a natural DT, and is playing out of position to help the team.  Ideally, he would drop 25 pounds and be a terror as a DE, but there are only inexperienced guys other than him in the DT rotation.  The inside LBs had a bad night, and it wasn’t just because the DTs weren’t doing their job – there were some poor fits and misreads that can’t happen.  Yes, Ventrell Miller was out, but the dropoff should not be that extreme for Florida at any position……just another indictment of the poor recruiting by Dancin’ Danny and the Losers.  The lone bright spot on the D-line was Des Watson – he still has a LONG way to go before he’s in good enough shape to play more snaps, but he’s improving each game, and does control the interior of the LOS when he’s in the game.

There is a serious talent issue, as the current depth chart of the defensive front seven is the weakest Florida has fielded since before Charley Pell took over in 1979……and that’s not hyperbole.  But the undisciplined play and lack of personnel/scheme adjustments by DC Patrick Toney to counter the run game is troubling.  The D-line was consistently outnumbered (again) by jumbo formations, and Toney stubbornly stuck with a 3-3-5 alignment for the entire night.  That has to change going forward for Florida to have any chance against the better teams coming up on the schedule.

Florida now travels to Rocky Top to face a 3-0 Tennessee team that can smell the blood in the water.  You know things are bad for the Gators when they go into this game having won 16 out of the last 17 in the series, and are currently 11 point underdogs……and that number continues to rise.  Based on the lack of quality depth and experience in the defensive front seven, this is an especially bad matchup against the Vols’ fast-tempo offense.  QB Hendon Hooker is nothing special, and the Gator secondary can likely cover the Tennessee receivers, but for how long?  When Hooker has to come off of his first read, that’s when he’s susceptible to turnovers.  Their O-line isn’t used to having to sustain blocks for more than a few seconds and can allow a lot of sacks.  Somehow, some way, the Gator defensive front seven has to dictate the action, or else it will be a long afternoon.  I do believe the secondary matches up well with Tennessee’s WRs, and Toney’s 3-3-5 scheme may work better against their style of offense.  The Vols do have a few injuries that could impact their offense.  WR Cedric Tillman is slowed by an ankle injury, another WR is suspended for the first half of the game, and their leading RB, Jaylen Wright, is playing through some injuries.  But none of that will matter if they control the LOS.

It’s all on AR to turn himself around and into the natural playmaker he was until a few weeks ago to make the Florida offense actually threatening.  He has been playing almost emotionless football recently, and looks completely lost.  The coaches can only do so much in developing a game plan that accommodates his strengths, but I will say Billy Napier and Co. need to tell AR to let himself loose and go back to some of the sandlot style that he excels in.  I know they have been protecting him from possible injury, but the passing offense just isn’t working consistently, and there’s no way you can be a solely running team in today’s SEC and win with regularity.  The only thing I liked in the USF game was that finally there were some jump balls thrown to a big receiver – in this case Justin Shorter.  He made a great catch on one, and didn’t have a chance on the other because it was such a poorly-executed throw by AR.  If you’re going with a QB with a lower completion percentage, then perhaps it’s time for more low-percentage throws that can either be big plays or simply incompletions……not interceptions.

It’s obvious that Florida will have to run the ball well – and often – to have any real chance at an upset win.  Of course Tennessee will do what every team has done to date – force AR to prove he can beat them throwing the football, and stack the box to slow the running game.  What’s disturbing is that even when he makes the correct reads, he’s overthrowing his receivers by a LOT.  If it’s nerves and he can’t shake them, then it’s time to try someone else, no matter the limited options right now.  Even a series or two on the sideline might help him see things better……or not.  But this is what the passing game has devolved into at this point.  Even with the limited and simplistic game plans, there are receivers getting open.  Word is that Jalen Kitna may finally have enough trust of the staff to be called upon if AR struggles again……maybe that provides some extra motivation?

Napier goes into his first SEC road game with a lot of noise building in the system.  No one is calling for head and he’s not going anywhere, but many who were concerned about his position coaching and play calling history are saying “I told you so” right now.  If the offense continues to struggle all season, it’s going to be of great interest as to whether he relinquishes those duties and becomes CEO Billy Napier.  There’s nothing wrong with that in today’s football landscape.  I predicted a loss in this game in my season preview, and unfortunately, I’ll have to stick by that for now.  As long as I see a competent offense and an improved run defense, that will bode well for the rest of the season.

Prediction: Tennessee 34 Florida 21

Kentucky Review / South Florida Preview

The Chicken or the Egg?

Or just a crappy omelet?

Talk about a stunning reversal of fortune.  After a thrilling, well-played win in the opener over Utah, the Gator offense – especially QB Anthony Richardson – looked terrible all evening in a dispiriting 26-16 upset loss to Kentucky.  It was even more painful to watch than last years’ meltdown in Lexington, watching AR completely implode.  His throws were off-target, his decision-making was suspect, and he gave the game away with essentially 2 pick-sixes, to give the Wildcats life and set Florida up for another bad loss.  His comments after the game were telling – and troubling.  He said he completely lost confidence in himself early on, and he allowed that to affect the rest of his game.  That is not what you want to hear from any player, even an inexperienced one.  Unfortunately, the play calling of Billy Napier/Rob Sale was……well……I’ll just say the words “unimaginative” and “limited” came to mind.  Why they continued to call so many pass plays when the running game is the strength of the offense was puzzling – especially after the Gators took a 16-7 lead late in the 2nd quarter after a safety.  Just going into halftime with that lead would have been fine, as the defense was playing well.  But then AR was picked on a terrible throw to allow Kentucky to close to within 16-13 at the half.  You could just feel the deflation of the crowd and AR himself, and it only got worse from there.  The running game suffered as a result of AR’s ineffectiveness, as Kentucky could load the box in the 2nd half.  Even so, Napier/Sale gave up on the run too early and often – there were still some plays to be made by Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson that were simply taken away from them.  RT Michael Tarquin’s leg injury immediately had an impact, showing the small amount of quality/experienced depth along the O-line  Austin Barber may be better in 2023, but he had his struggles filling in for Tarquin.

Regarding the opening questions……was it simply AR being mentally weak, was it a poor game plan with lousy play calling, or a combination of both?  Sadly, I have to lay the majority of the blame on AR’s shoulders.  He missed a lot of open receivers – especially in the 1st half when the Gators could have put the game away.  For some reason (and he stated this publicly), he almost forced himself to be more of a pocket passer instead of using his athletic ability to make plays he normally would.  That is a troubling decision, and hopefully his teammates don’t take it personally and just move forward.  To his credit, he took the blame after the game and faced reporter’s questions.  Now we have to wait and see how he responds.

Florida’s defense really stepped up to try and cover for the offensive struggles, and did enough to win almost any other game.  They pressured Will Levis most of the night, Gervon Dexter finally looked disruptive at the LOS, and some blitzes helped generate sacks and incompletions.  There still are problems with coverage of the TE that have to be corrected.  I give these guys a lot of credit for continuing to play hard, knowing their QB was completely out of the game mentally, and even covering for Napier’s ill-advised decision to go for it from his own 40 on 4th down with still 6 minutes left in the game.  They forced a 3-and-out and then got the missed FG, but the offense stalled again, and this time they could do no more than allow the game-clinching FG.  The overall tackling was improved, but the safety play is still suspect.  I like what Corey Raymond is doing with the cornerbacks – it’s a massive improvement over what we have had to suffer through the previous 4 years.  I need to see DC Patrick Toney help the players out in some coverage schemes, especially on 3rd down with opponent TEs.  Here’s hoping that Ventrell Miller’s leg injury isn’t too serious, and that he can return for the Tennessee game.

Special teams are only half special right now.  Punter Jeremy Crawshaw had a great night, and Adam Mihalek made both of his FG attempts, including a 50-yarder.  However……there is still no juice in the return game, and another dumb holding call killed the momentum after the safety, which took away good field position and immediately preceded the start or AR’s meltdown.

What could have been an even better start to 2022 has now given way to questions and concerns, which easily could have been avoided.  Coach Napier and his staff have some real work to do the next 2 weeks……more mental than physical.  The offensive game-planning has to improve, and somehow they need to re-build AR’s confidence……in a hurry.  Welcome to the SEC, Billy Napier.

This week South Florida comes to the Swamp for a big paycheck and a bigger beatdown.  The Bulls are terrible again this year, as they continue a massive, years-long program rebuild.  This game should essentially be a glorified scrimmage for the Gators.  The thing about USF being so bad is that this game really will do nothing to solve the issues of the offense.  My biggest hope for this game is……no injuries.  Florida is travelling to an undefeated Tennessee after this game, and needs everyone healthy and focused for that one.  Perhaps AR decides to take some pressure off of himself and the offense in general and throw to his RBs more with quick passes in the flats.  He has had multiple opportunities in both games to do so, and for some reason won’t pull the trigger.  The defense shouldn’t be threatened in any real way – just tackle well and get a lot of guys some snaps.

Prediction: Florida 45 South Florida 10

Utah Review / Kentucky Preview

Florida started off Billy Napier’s tenure with a rousing 29-26 win over Utah in front of a season-opener record crowd at the Swamp.  This game went as I suspected, with two evenly-matched teams battling until the end in a close game.  Utah played well in a hostile environment, but all of their talk about being PAC-12 champions rang hollow, as they looked simply like a solid SEC team.  Similar to when Auburn is good, for instance – good running game, mobile QB, well-coached, but nothing the Gators don’t see 5-6 times every season.  Their fans will never really understand that SEC teams see this kind of atmosphere 6 or more times EVERY season, and sometimes 3-4 weeks in a row.  The SEC isn’t a one-off conference……welcome to the grind.  Another fantastic showing from Gator Nation in the Swamp – it was an electric night.

Anthony Richardson was the best player on the field, and did a good job in his first start as QB1 given the quality of the opponent.  He stayed within himself for the most part, not trying for hero plays and executing the offense.  His passing came around after he calmed down as the game progressed, but it was his legs that were the difference-maker.  Utah had no answer for him as a runner, even when they had him defended – he’s just that elite of a playmaker.  The O-line played perhaps it’s best game in a decade, allowing the Florida RBs to get to the second level while controlling the LOS.  O’Cyrus Torrence played up to his pre-season hype, while the rest of the linemen looked better coached than in years.  Nay’Quan Wright, Montrell Johnson, and Trevor Etienne all had their moments.  Johnson looks like a load between the tackles, while Etienne received more snaps than I think anyone expected, and showed why.  He has some serious juice, exhibiting both elusiveness and power.  The WR corps definitely has a WR1 in Ricky Pearsall, and it’s obvious why AR says he’s already built a comfort level throwing to him.  He was effective in the middle of the field all night, and made some clutch 3rd down receptions to extend scoring drives.  Xavier Handerson and Justin Shorter were effective ball-control targets.  Florida still seems to lack a deep passing game for now, and I’m not sure if that’s going to change this season.  If not, opponents will start to shrink the field even more to slow the running game.  It was disappointing to not see Trent Wittemore involved more, with zero catches.

Surprisingly, the defense struggled much of the night, especially against Utah’s running game.  Frankly, I was disappointed in DC Patrick Toney’s schemes, especially the entire second half.  Utah came out with an overloaded O-line and he never adjusted his personnel to it.  The Gator D-line was manhandled, getting gashed time and again, and also not spying QB Cam Rising, who hurt Florida with some huge 3rd down runs.  The secondary played very well, limiting Utah’s WRs all game,  However, Toney never seemed to account for their TEs, who are the strength of their passing attack.  Yes, Amari Burney had the play of the game with his end zone interception to save the win, but where were the nickelbacks and CBs to cover the TEs?  This was a stark reminder of what coaching continuity and experience can do – the Utes made key adjustments in the 2nd half, and the Gators did not counter them well……or at all.  LOTS of improvement needed there.  The open-field tackling was improved from last season, but still has a long way to go.  Safety Rashad Torrence missed too many tackles, and the cornerbacks can do better in run support.

Special Teams were solid but unspectacular.  Still no return game of note, and I’m surprised the staff didn’t put Etiennne, Lorenzo Lingard, or a cornerback in to return punts.  Adam Mihalek, a preferred walk-on, got the start as the placekicker, which was surprising.  His kickoffs weren’t that deep, and he wasn’t allowed any FG attempts, as Napier rolled the dice on two 4th down calls in the red zone that led to touchdowns.  I’m concerned about this until Mihalek or Trey Smack show something in live action.  Jeremy Crawshaw did a nice job of placing his punts inside the 20 with no chance for returns.

I really liked Napier’s comments in the post-game locker room and presser.  They were measured and to the point, and you can tell how much the players respond to him.  What a change from Dancin’ Danny – no arrogance or stupid, off-the-cuff statements that embarrass the players and University.

Florida’s SEC East Revenge Tour begins this week with Kentucky coming to the Swamp.  After the embarrassment of last year’s debacle in Lexington, this team has all the motivation it needs to not have a letdown after such a big game.  The Wildcats are getting some run from the media as the 2nd-best team in the East for some reason, but I’m not buying it.  They are playing through some school-imposed suspensions of a few key players, including RB Chris Rodriquez.  They didn’t look impressive in beating Miami (OH) last week, and we’ll see if they know anything about expectations in football.  QB Will Levis for some reason is getting hyped by some NFL Draft gurus as a potential 1st-round pick, which is laughable.  He has a decent arm and some mobility, but a crappy Todd Grantham defense held him to 87 yards passing last season, and their running game is not as good this year.  Despite it’s struggles in the second half against Utah’s running game, I expect some improvement from the Gator front seven this week.  I’m hoping to see some scheme adjustments from DC Patrick Toney, and perhaps some additional rotation at DT to keep bodies fresh.  Florida’s offense isn’t so explosive that the defense can allow Kentucky to control the clock for extended periods, or else this game could become another dicey 4th-quarter affair.

I expect a lot of the same things we saw from the offense against Utah in this game.  Florida will try to establish it’s running game to allow AR some comfort in a controlled passing game, with the occasional QB run for shock and awe.  I’m still waiting for evidence of a deep zone threat to open up the field.  Anything will be an improvement over last year’s meltdown – just limit the penalties and turnovers, and eventually wear down the Wildcat defenders.  3rd down efficiency will be a key all season until there is evidence of big-play ability in the passing game.

I actually believe that Kentucky is similar to Utah in many ways – relying on a strong running game and run defense, along with coaching and scheme continuity.  Those similarities should help the Gators in their preparation.  They will already have that kind of game feel from last week, and should not be surprised by anything the Wildcats throw at them.  The Swamp will be jacked up for the SEC opener, even more so coming off of a thrilling win.  Florida owes Kentucky some serious payback, and I think we get to see it Saturday night.

Prediction: Florida 27 Kentucky 20