BIlly Napier’s Prevent Offense was once again successful, gifting Kentucky an easy 33-14 win in Lexington that wasn’t as close as the final score. This game was over early, as the Gators looked flat and disinterested from the opening kickoff, falling behind 23-0 while getting manhandled and embarrassed by the Wildcats all day. It’s one step forward and two or more steps back, as the staff once again failed to have the team ready for a road game. I know there are a lot of young guys in the 2-deep roster, but this is getting ridiculous, and starting to give fans and the media a lot of ammunition to start taking shots at Napier for continued miserable play away from home. Hearing comments from some of the players about how it was hard to get ready for an early kickoff, along with Napier saying he’ll remain the playcaller and that he’s confident in the offensive scheme, does not give me much confidence that things will improve the rest of 2023 unless some major changes are made. This is starting to look and sound like some failures of previous coaching regimes – I like Napier, but being a nice guy doesn’t necessarily make for a good head coach. Some self-awareness and humility might be in order – VERY soon.
Napier has to be honest with himself and realize this offense doesn’t work. The route shrub, er, tree for the passing game does little more than put receivers too close to each other, and much too often too close to the line of scrimmage. All of the motion is wasted, as that player (too often Ricky Pearsall) is usually left at the sideline with nowhere to go. Too many running plays on 3rd-and-long. Too many pass routes bunching receivers, allowing the defense easy coverage in a small space. 80+% of passes thrown either behind the line of scrimmage or within 5 yards of it, with precious little use of the middle of the field or deep routes. This kind of offensive ineptitude has led to the firing of previous coaches across the country, not just at Florida, and Napier is starting to dig his own coaching grave. Something has to change now, even if that means recusing himself from playcalling and letting someone like Russ Callaway and/or Billy Gonzales to have a crack at it. Even with a struggling O-line, some schemes can be developed and implemented to help what talent you do have succeed. Stubbornly sticking to a 1970s-style power game when it’s 2023 and the rules favor the passing game and spreading the field just won’t work against good or better teams consistently. As for the execution of the offense to date – with respect to John McKay – I’m all for it.
I am not absolving the Gator defense of blame, as it did itself no favors with it’s worst showing of 2023, and looked horrifyingly like the 2022 version. Way too many missed tackles, blown assignments, and playing soft against the run, allowing over 300 yards on the ground and making things way too easy for Kentucky’s offense. The defenders took bad angles, displayed terrible tackling technique, and looked slow. The few times they put Devin Leary into a passing situation they defended well, but it was way too infrequent. There was also a dropped interception that could have been a pick-6. The lack of energy on defense was alarming and troubling, and the defensive staff has to get this fixed.
To cap off a complete team failure, another special teams gaffe led directly to a Wildcat TD. After actually forcing a punt deep in Kentucky territory and likely setting up the offense with great field position, a punt rusher illegally jumped over the center to try and block the kick. This gave Kentucky a first down, and was immediately followed on the next play by a long TD run that essentially ended the game early. Nice.
Florida returns to the Swamp this week for Homecoming, with Vanderbilt as the opponent. The Commodores are back to their usual self, but there is some real angst taking hold regarding the Gator offense, and some key injuries for this game could make things even worse than usual. LT Austin Barber is likely out, as is RB Trevor Etienne. The O-line is regressing, and having to juggle the lineup doesn’t help. Vanderbilt head coach Chuck Lea is a solid defensive coach, and will have a scheme ready – he just lacks the horses to usually maximize his plan. If the O-line plays poorly and can’t get the running game going, I’m not confident that Graham Mertz – especially in this offense – can get the passing game going effectively enough to score a lot of points, if needed. It’s been painfully easy for defenses to play against this offense the entire season except for the first 2 quarters against Tennessee. Someone, maybe a senior like Pearsall, has to step up and make a big play or two.
Florida’s defense should hold up much better against Vandy’s rushing attack than last week (which isn’t saying much), but the Commodores have shown the ability to hit some deep throws this season, and I expect them to try a handful on Saturday. The front seven needs to take last week’s embarrassment to heart and play with much more aggression and tackle better. The pass rush has all but disappeared the past 2 games, and players like Princely Umanmielen have been somewhat disappointing so far in 2023. Whether it’s the scheme or the players themselves, the Gators have to rediscover getting pressure on the QB. I want to see tight coverage from the secondary all afternoon, and it’s time for the defense to generate some turnovers.
Gator Nation is coming home to celebrate this Saturday, not to fret over some kind of death struggle with Vanderbilt. Unfortunately, I could easily see a game in doubt into the 4th quarter, unless there’s an epiphany from Napier and the offense. Something tells me there’s a hangover from the Kentucky game throughout the first half, and this one could be too close for comfort. I sure hope I’m wrong.