Well, all of my worst fears were realized on Saturday, as the Gators played down to the level of Arkansas and gave away the game, a 39-36 overtime loss that now endangers their chances of even becoming bowl-eligible this season. It’s obvious the off week really benefited the Razorbacks, but Florida’s coaching staff did the players no favors in all 3 phases of the game, and disappointed once again. Billy Napier needs to make some serious fixes this offseason.
Where to begin? The offense played well early and late, but only when the situation dictated an aggressive approach and Napier was forced into it. There were some explosive plays from RB Trevor Etienne and WR Tre Wilson, but they were still underutilized. After falling behind early 14-0 in the 1st quarter, the offense rallied to tie the game, but then Napier reverted back to the same risk-averse scheme that has caused so many issues throughout 2023. When Arkansas was allowed to move the ball in the 2nd half by a terrible Gator defense, he then loosened the reins again to allow Florida to rally back. Graham Mertz wasn’t as accurate as usual, but held things together under some pressure situations and came through. The lack of throws to the TEs and the too-often short throws at or behind the LOS returned, and did more to slow the offense than anything the Razorbacks did on defense. Arkansas struggled all afternoon when the Gators spread them out and pushed the ball downfield, but it didn’t happen consistently enough……again.
Speaking of defense, Florida was again defenseless in the 2nd half after a solid 1st half. Arkansas scored 17 points by halftime, but 7 were on a fumble return and 7 on the opening drive, after which the defense settled in and played reasonably well. Then the 2nd half came, and some combination of Napier and DC Austin Armstrong took a lot stupid pills. Gone was the 4-man D-line, replaced by a 3-man front that did nothing. After KJ Jefferson started to hurt the Gators with QB runs, no spy was ever deployed to counter it, and Arkansas simply rode that attack to success in the 4th quarter and overtime. Despite some pass breakups and an interception, the secondary allowed too many easy 3rd down completions to extend drives, and too often receivers were uncovered. It’s this kind of coaching malfeasance that is so frustrating for Gator Nation to witness. I’m really starting to wonder if Napier will ever check his ego to correct some foundational issues – the Patrick Toney defense he forced Armstrong to use has to be completely scrapped, and the position coaching of the LB corps needs a major shakeup and improvement.
Once again, there was an inexcusable special teams gaffe. When Mertz had driven the Gators down for a chance at the game-winning FG in regulation, the FG unit sprinted onto the field instead of allowing Mertz to spike the ball. If the clock hadn’t already stopped for a moment for a first down, the subsequent illegal substitution penalty would have led to a 10 second runoff, and there wouldn’t have even been an attempt, which Trey Smack unfortunately missed from 5 yards farther away. This type of mistake has been far too common all season, and if Napier doesn’t have the awareness to get rid of the coaching-by-committee approach to special teams, he’s just providing more ammunition for his naysayers.
Just an ugly loss all around, and more self-inflicted damage Napier has brought on himself.
Florida now enters the last 3 games of the season needing a win against one of 3 Top 20 teams to become bowl-eligible, with the next 2 games on the road. Up next is a trip to Baton Rouge to face LSU. The Tigers are coming off of a tough road loss at Alabama in which they played well for 40 minutes, but then were pushed around as the Tide closed them out with a power running game and 3 straight TDs in a 42-28 loss. To make matters worse for the Tigers, QB Jayden Daniels suffered a concussion and may not play against Florida. At this point, though, it may not matter, as the Gator defense has collapsed recently. LSU has a good backup QB in Garrett Nussmeier who, while nowhere near the running threat Daniels is, is still a capable passer and will carve up the Gator secondary if given time to throw. WR Malik Nabors is having a monster season, Brian Thomas isn’t far behind, and Mason Taylor is a big-time target at TE. RB Logan Diggs is solid, and I’m sure will be leaned on if Daniels can’t play. Slowing this offense down is very unlikely, as Florida is now dealing with many key injuries on defense. Shemar James was already out for the season after the Georgia game, and now LB Jack Pyburn is gone with a torn ACL. The LB corps simply isn’t talented or physical enough to compete against legit SEC teams. The D-line still doesn’t generate much pressure except for Princely Umanmielen, and the secondary still doesn’t generate turnovers. Florida has caused only 6 turnovers in 9 games, continuing a disturbing trend that started in 2020 where the defense simply can’t seem to play physically or aggressively enough. Armstrong has nothing to lose, and he really needs to make some significant schematic changes to at least give his players a better chance of success the rest of this season……if he’s allowed to.
The Gator offense has actually found some footing recently, but Napier has to allow it to continue. He may have no choice if LSU is scoring early and often. Etienne needs to get the majority of touches at RB. Wilson is really coming on at WR to complement Ricky Pearsall. The TEs need to become a factor again this week after being MIA against Arkansas for some unknown reason. LSU is dealing with serious issues on defense as well, and Florida should be able to exploit many of them. The Tigers are allowing over 400 yards a game, 171 of which are on the ground. Napier wants to establish a running game, and if the offense can’t do it this week, then they are in serious trouble. If the O-line can keep Mertz upright, he’s shown at this point he can make enough plays to move the ball and score points. The poor play at RT hasn’t been resolved, however, and I can only hope Mertz stays healthy enough to make it through the next 3 weeks. He’s already had way too many chances to show his toughness. The only hope is attacking for a full 4 quarters.
It will be a night game in Death Valley, always a very tough venue for any opponent. The coaching staff is going to have to swing for the fences with some major changes to steal a huge upset win. I still don’t see Florida being able to stay close for 4 quarters – especially on the road – no matter who plays at QB for LSU. Even with LSU’s defense having it’s own struggles, this is looking like another ugly loss as Florida continues it’s skid towards a losing season. Sad days, indeed.