If you ever needed an example of an ugly win, this was it. Florida stumbled to a 22-7 win over Charlotte, draining most of the energy out of the Swamp early on and sleepwalking to victory. I expected a letdown from a young team, but this performance was even worse than I expected. Not exactly what the fans were hoping for from Billy Napier and the Gators against an overmatched opponent.
The offense was horrid – 1 of 9 on 3rd-down conversions, settling for 5 FGs, multiple failures in the red zone, sloppy O-line play (yes, there were some suspensions for a half to deal with), and more unimaginative playcalling. The passing offense is just……uninspiring, despite Graham Mertz being efficient in it. Still precious few downfield attempts, and a stubborn refusal to use the middle of the field with regularity. Even the running game was poor, with the O-line not getting any consistent push. I’m starting to wonder about RB Montrell Johnson – even when he had some holes, he doesn’t look anything like he did last season. He’s indecisive, gets tackled too easily, and is lacking the power he showed in 2022. Trevor Etienne had too few touches. The play of the game was Ricky Pearsall’s spectacular catch in the 1st quarter, leading to the only Gator touchdown of the night. The only other offensive highlight of note I can recall was a TE actually catching a TD pass. It looks like Arlis Boardingham may have become TE1, which is fine by me, as he actually looks like a receiving threat.
The defense did enough, but experienced some disinterested tackling in the 2nd half after Charlotte switched QBs and ran more zone reads. There were some busts in the pass coverage as well, especially when the QB evaded the initial rush. The interior D-line played well, but the edges were a little too soft against the run. Again, the intensity level was way down from the previous week, but this is what you’re gonna get with so many young players and few upperclassmen starters.
FInally, the special teams overall had their best game of the season. Good punt/kick coverage, and Trey Smack came through with a 5-5 night on FGs, including a 54-yarder. All of his kickoffs went for touchbacks as well. He’ll be counted upon heavily with Napiers’ conservative attack.
The entire staff now has more work to do, with an important road test at Kentucky this week. It’s sad to have to say that, but it’s what the Florida football program has become recently. The first road game at Utah was a disastrous performance, and we’ll see if there is actual improvement playing away from the Swamp.
Kentucky comes in at 4-0, but has looked unimpressive in wins over some weak opponents. New QB Devin Leary (a portal transfer from NC State) has been shaky at times, their running game has not been as strong as previous years, and their defense – head coach Mark Stoops’ specialty – has struggled as well. The Gator defense has improved this year, and will have to carry the load again in this game. The front seven looks like it can hold it’s own against a Wildcat O-line that has taken a step back from previous seasons. Ray Davis is the leading rusher, but isn’t a breakaway threat. The secondary is talented enough to control the UK WRs, led by Tayvion Robonson. What I hope to see is DC Austin Armstrong’s continued aggression in dictating the tempo of the game, even if there’s an early hiccup. Leary is completing less than 60% of his passes and already has racked up 5 interceptions – it’s time for the defense to generate some turnovers to help the offense. I’m not counting on the Gator offense to do very much on the road until they prove they can, so the defense needs to carry the day.
Florida’s offense has fallen off dramatically it’s past 6 quarters of football. The running game needs to be re-established, but Kentucky will follow the expected opponent’s game plan by crowding the box and daring the Gators to throw deeper routes and use the middle of the field more often. I hope to see more passing on early downs to try and loosen up the secondary. Reportedly, center Kingsley Equakun and WR Tre Wilson are going to play, which are huge additions. Wilson has the juice to make plays in space and keep the defense more honest, opening up more opportunities for Pearsall and the other WRs. Both will be playing through some painful injuries, but I hope they can tough it out for the entire game. Etienne needs to be the lead RB right now and get more touches until Johnson proves he’s back to form. The offense has to exhibit more efficiency when it reaches the red zone, or else I could see this one slipping away in the 4th quarter.
At the Swamp or even on a neutral field, I think Florida wins this game. However, until I see a complete team effort and a more aggressive passing attack on the road, I’m afraid that somehow the Gators find a way to lose this one. It’s a hugely important game for Napier to build upon his win over Tennessee, but there’s too much inconsistency in this young team yet where I’m comfortable predicting a win. I could see this game staying close throughout, and Napier being comfortable with that and just trying to steal a win late. It’s hard to believe Kentucky has won 2 straight and 3 out of 5 against Florida after the Gators reeled off 31 consecutive victories. At some point Florida will have to prove itself on the road again in winnable conference games.