Well, this game certainly embodied the entire 2022 Gator football experience. Big plays, even bigger plays allowed, penalties, bad tackling, perplexing playcalling, emotional highs and crushing lows, frustration, and a close finish – too often on the losing side.
What a shame to see the season end with such a thud. After the debacle at Vanderbilt, the effort was there this time – especially with a depleted offensive roster. But, again, some poor play at critical times and some mind-numbingly inaccurate passing by Anthony Richardson were too much to overcome, especially with a defense that failed (again) to look even competent. The offense was often electric in the first half, with a solid running game led by Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne, and big-time connections from AR to Ricky Pearsall which led to a 24-21 halftime lead. Florida had momentum going into the locker room, and was getting the 2nd half kickoff with an opportunity to take control of the game. Then, it happened (again). The offensive performance in the 3rd quarter was as bad as it could have been. Billy Napier for some reason decided to get away from the run game, and rolled with a QB who had completed only 55% of his passes coming in. Well, that led to 3 consecutive 3-and-outs, while the defense collapsed to let F$U win the quarter 17-0 and force Florida to play catch-up in the 4th quarter. Credit to the guys, as they fought back to a 38-38 tie by getting back to dominating the LOS with their running game. That was by necessity, as AR was on his way to finish the night with only 9 completions in 29 attempts, after starting out 5 of 7. That the Gators actually had an opportunity to steal a win at the end with only 4 pass completions in the last 3 quarters was a minor miracle in itself. He even misfired on 2 easy throws in the flat that would have led to big gains. It was that kind of inefficient and inaccurate passing from AR too often that ultimately led to too many losses. It is simply not sustainable in today’s game, especially in the hyper-competitive and talented SEC.
Yet, even with all the struggles in the passing game, it was the defense that ultimately lost this game. The first half was actually OK, with a few stops and generating a turnover on F$U’s first possession. But the season-long bugaboos popped up (again) enough to allow the Criminoles to stay close. Jordan Travis is just not a good passer, evidenced by a 13-30 night passing. But Florida’s pass coverage over the middle has been dreadful all season, and made him look like Joe Montana at times with a handful of easy completions for big yards with no one within 10 yards of the receiver. Despite that, the Gators could have had a larger halftime lead if they simply tackled Travis in the backfield a few times. As I mentioned in my game preview, if the defense could limit his running, F$U would be in trouble. Well, they didn’t, and it got exponentially worse in the 3rd quarter, which ultimately helped decide the outcome. The performance by the defense in the 3rd quarter was horrific – I can’t recall seeing such poor tackling in space, bad angles, and simply blowing chances for stops even when DC Patrick Toney actually managed to get a few calls right. Travis escaped multiple times when almost getting sacked, keeping 2 touchdown drives alive. It led to a 38-24 lead by the end of the quarter that the Gators were never able to fully overcome. Toney (again) dialed up some inexplicable coverages at times along with occasionally trying to spy Travis with a D-lineman – what a joke. But the players were at fault oftentimes with their own poor play. Even getting Ventrell Miller back for the 2nd half after he served his suspension for his targeting ejection in the Vanderbilt game seemingly changed nothing.
The special teams actually had one of their best games. Adam Mihalek made all of his placekicks, Trey Smack’s kickoffs were mostly touchbacks, and the kickoff and punt coverage was solid. Etienne had another long kickoff return to set up a second quarter score. He really put some juice into the return game once he was inserted – it should have happened at the start of the season.
So, after all of the bluster and a roller-coaster season, Florida winds up with exactly the same record as 2021……6-6. That gives the Gators a 20-14 regular season record since 2019, which is Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina territory……not to mention the ugly bowl losses the past 2 seasons. For now, Florida is just another team in the SEC, and faces a critical offseason which will help determine the direction of the program going forward. Recruiting has gone well, with the Gators’ current class inside the Top 10. Even if the staff can hold the class together and possibly sign a few more elite players, they are going to have to hit the transfer portal VERY hard, and get extremely lucky in hitting on some immediate starters and some quality depth. I expect a massive roster turnover, with the combination of high school signees plus transfers totalling anywhere from 35-40 players – almost half of the roster in total.
I’ll be back with my bowl game preview, and the potential matchups are not looking very exciting. There are already a good number of players that have entered the transfer portal, with likely more to come, so what the overall roster will look like going into the game is a mystery……very similar to last year. Good times.