In a shockingly mismanaged effort that I had the displeasure of watching in person, Florida lost a winnable game at Utah, and Billy Napier again provided the opportunity for the critics to have a field day. I don’t want to hear about this being a road game at a ranked opponent in a hostile environment. It was not that loud nor intimating a venue, and Utah was missing many key players and didn’t play that well, either. This was just another poorly-coached effort and another example of a Napier offense that has no sense of urgency regarding the score or the time remaining. Too many penalties at critical junctures – especially two illegal-formation penalties that ended drives into the red zone – were unacceptable.
Regarding the offense, it showed why I was concerned coming into 2023. The running game was gutted by not just poor O-line play, but also the loss of Anthony Richardson to the NFL. His running and big-play ability bailed out the OL many times last season, and Graham Mertz simply won’t be able to do the same. There were no lanes for either Montrell Johnson or Trevor Etienne to exploit, and they were repeatedly stuffed. This forced Mertz into passing much more often than expected, and he actually played better than I hoped. The O-line and Napier’s playcalling did him no favors, and he took a beating all night with 5 sacks and other hits. The lack of any running game made Florida one-dimensional, and the numbingly-slow tempo – a hallmark of Napier’s offense at Florida to date – precluded any real chance of a late comeback. The lack of urgency in speeding things up to give the offense more snaps and more opportunities displays a stubbornness and lack of awareness in Napier that is simply not SEC-quality coordination. In addition, when Florida actually employed 4- and 5-WR sets instead of the wasteful bunch sets with 2 or 3 TEs, they were able to generate some big plays and move the ball……but Napier refused to stick with it. Ricky Pearsall made some big plays when fed the ball in the second half, and some of the young receivers like Marcus Burke and Eugene Wilson showed their speed and elusiveness with some chunk plays. Too many pass attempts are being wasted on a TE group that simply lacks speed and big-play capability, not to mention their poor blocking performance. Will Napier make some significant changes to help clean up this mess? I’m not so sure, as he appears to be steadfast about being the playcaller. His comments about needing to “keep focusing on the running game” aren’t confidence-inspiring.
The Gator defense did not play a great game, but well enough to win. The lack of a pass rush was disappointing – Princely Umanmielen did nothing of note, while the blitz packages were too reminiscent of the Grantham and Toney defenses. The interior D-line did look improved, as they did not allow Utah to run consistently well between the tackles. The lack of attention to Utah’s backup QB being only effective as a runner was stunning, as Nick Johnson was able to convert just enough plays to keep some drives alive that never should have happened. Florida also had many true freshmen getting key reps throughout the game, and many of them showed flashes of promise and made some big plays. Safeties Jordan Castell and Miguel Mitchell tackled well, LB T.J. Searcy was all over the field, and DE Kelby Collins got some push into the backfield. LB Shemar James was the star, with 15 tackles and displaying real speed in covering ground sideline-to-sideline. Despite all of these issues, including no help from the offense and given some poor field position a few times, they allowed only 270 yards of total offense, including the 73-yard bomb for a TD on the first scrimmage play for Utah. I will not blame them for giving up an 11-yard TD drive after an interception, and they had already made a key stop late in the first half before the “Two #3s” call allowed Utah to continue a drive for a late TD and a 17-3 halftime lead that changed the complexion of the game.
The “Gamechangers” were an embarrassment……again. A missed 30-yard FG, a shanked punt leading to a short field for a Utah TD drive, and having 8 men on defense for a FG attempt were bad enough. But the one that will never be forgotten was “Two #3s on the field for the defense. First down, Utah.”. What a debacle – just another example that Napier’s special teams-by-committee coaching approach is a failure. Assign one voice to the room, and don’t waste 2 coaching slots on the O-line. The kickoff and punt coverage teams played very well, but the loss of easy points and momentum at key times were too much to overcome for a young defense and sluggish offense. Wilson made a bad decision fielding a punt inside his own 5-yard line, but that’s a mistake by a true freshman that will get corrected. This group simply has to improve – now.
Florida now entertains McNeese St. for the home opener, in what can only be described as an uninspiring matchup at best. Other than getting more reps for the young and inexperienced players, this is nothing more than a glorified scrimmage. Very little can be gleaned from this kind of game, and I expect a lot of empty seats and a crowd that will be unhappy with anything but a large blowout victory – something that Napier’s teams have not shown the ability to do no matter the level of competition. Hopefully this one is decided early, so fundamentals can be worked on with nothing of note to put on tape for Tennessee. The main thing in a game like is……NO INJURIES.
Prediction: Florida 45 McNeese St. 7