The Bataan death march continues, with a humiliating 52-35 defeat at LSU Saturday night. It’s a helpless feeling for any Gator fan, knowing that no matter what good things may happen, that the defense has deteriorated to the point that it just doesn’t matter. The players fought and played hard, but many on defense did not play well, and there are just too many fundamental issues that can’t be overcome.
I had the misfortune of watching in person the Gator defense set more dubious school records in futility, allowing 702 yards of offense and all but making the reservations to New York and the Heisman Trophy ceremony for LSU QB Jayden Daniels. Daniels met no resistance in piling up 371 yards passing and 234 yards rushing – never before done in NCAA history. Even with getting a few stops in the first half, including an excellent goal-line stand, the defense looked lost way too often, as the same issues that have plagued them all season continued. There was no pass rush of note from the D-line, and the only pressure came when the Gators blitzed. It wasn’t as if they were going to stop Daniels from running the ball anyway, so why DC Austin Armstrong didn’t blitz all game long was baffling. The secondary did what it could considering they had to cover way too long, but there were still too many wide open receivers on busted coverages, along with some weak tackling. How this group has completely fallen apart can’t be explained away simply by injuries to the LB corps. The held-over Patrick Toney scheme is terrible, and needs to be completely scrapped. DC Austin Armstrong may be in way over his head and too inexperienced, and there are some serious issues with some position coaches. Just too many issues to cover in one review, and a bad look for Billy Napier, who is ultimately responsible for everything. This is the stuff that causes dissention in the locker room, and I can only hope the staff can prevent the offense and defense from getting after each other.
Florida’s offense played well enough, gamely trying to stay with LSU despite knowing they would have to score almost every time they had the ball. They racked up over 400 yards, including over 150 on the ground, and easily had more time-of-possession. And it wasn’t nearly enough. Graham Mertz was solid, and played tough while being pressured again too often. Both Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne ran the ball well and helped out as safety-valve receivers. Tre Wilson and Ricky Pearsall made some big plays with runs after the catch. And it wasn’t nearly enough. The play of the game for the offense and the entire team was the officials overturning the long completion to Kahleil Jackson late in the 3rd quarter, thwarting a promising scoring drive and allowing LSU to extend it’s then 3 point lead to 10. It was a terrible call, and forced Florida into a mostly passing game, offsetting the balance it was able to use up until then. The O-line played well enough, despite LT Austin Barber repeatedly leaving the game with shoulder and leg injuries and eventually leaving for good in the 3rd quarter. They played with pace and tempo more often than in any previous game, and it worked well.
Special Teams played well. The kick and punt coverage was excellent, and punter Jeremy Crawshaw hit some big kicks to pin LSU down – like it mattered. They even forced a turnover on a high kickoff that was fumbled by a Tiger return man. No issues in this game, which is a rarity.
Next up is another very tough opponent in the Missouri Tigers, and the Gators are on the road again in Columbia. Missouri has played well this year, coming in with a record of 8-2 with the losses by 10 points at LSU and 9 points at Georgia. Simple extrapolation compared to Florida’s results against those same opponents tells you that this is going to be an extremely difficult game to win – especially away from home.
Missouri is led on offense by QB Brady Cook. Cook is another mobile QB, which has given the Gator defense fits all season. RB Cody Schrader is a strong runner and by far the leading rusher in terms of carries and yards, piling up over 1,100 yards already this season. Cook has two excellent WR targets in Luther Burden and Theo Wease, who both are big-play threats. Florida has already faced some very good offenses and shouldn’t be surprised by anything the Tigers show on Saturday night. But based on what they haven’t been able to do yet all season, this likely turns into another ugly performance. The LB corps is in tatters, and unless Armstrong simply starts to blitz early and often to try and disrupt the Tigers and steal a few possessions, I don’t see them doing enough to give the offense enough chances to win. Opposing QBs have had way too much time to read the field or simply take off and run.
Florida’s offense again will need to find some consistent running room for Etienne and Johnson in order to take time off the clock and keep the defense off the field. Mertz again will have to be efficient in the passing game, as the Gators can’t afford too many short possessions and likely will need to score at least 30 points. Missouri’s defense will make that harder than LSU did, though. They have a good run defense led by former Florida LB Ty’ron Hopper, but have had some rough games against the pass. Once again, Pearsall and Wilson have to make plays, but the TEs need to have more of an impact than they have the last two games. Arlis Boardingham needs to be targeted more often. It’s extremely frustrating that no other receiver has become a consistent threat in order to take the pressure off the main two guys and also force the defense to defend more of the field.
At this point, perhaps Missouri takes the Gators lightly after watching film on them. Maybe somehow Florida gets out to an early lead and tries to hold on for an upset. Perhaps the Tigers have a letdown of sorts after playing Georgia and Tennessee in consecutive weeks. It’s sad to say it, but it may be Florida’s best chance. I hope the entire defensive scheme is scrapped after the season, but it’s still possible to make some serious changes these last 2 weeks to maybe surprise the opponents enough to maybe steal a win. Sadly, Napier seems too stubborn to allow it, though, and this turns into another ugly loss.