Where to even begin? Against the odds, Florida came within a last-second FG of defeating Missouri on the road Saturday night. It was likely the second-most spirited effort of the season after beating Tennessee at home back in September. The offense, despite being crippled by injuries to the O-line and then losing Graham Mertz late in the 3rd quarter, did more than enough to win the game. The Gators outrushed the Tigers even with backups at both tackle spots and at center, as both Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson ran hard and broke some big runs. Ricky Pearsall made some big catches and had a long TD on a jet sweep, and Tre Wilson scored the first TD on a nice pass route and reception. Max Brown came into the fray in relief of Mertz and did as well as could be expected. He ran well, scrambled when needed, and completed a few key passes to extend 2 scoring drives in the 4th quarter to take a 31-30 lead on a Trey Smack FG with 1:36 left on the clock. However……Napier had the Tiger defense on their heels, but chose to go too conservative the last series before taking the lead He called 3 straight running plays into a loaded box and did not take at least one shot at a run/pass option with Brown or even a short throw attempt to get one more first down to milk the rest of the clock and all of Missouri’s time outs. The season was already on the brink, so why not go for the knockout when it presented itself? Very discouraging game management and another example of his conservative nature taking over when a game is close. Props to the offensive players for rallying after watching their leader leave the game.
Of course, that left it up to the much-maligned defense. Somehow, despite giving up another 500 yards, they had made enough plays to hold Missouri to those 30 points. And then……4th-and-17 happened. How Austin Armstrong couldn’t have the proper personnel on the field, even when given extra time courtesy of a Missouri time out, is inexcusable. When the Gators had the opportunity to reach out and take victory, they sat back and instead snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, allowing an easy pass completion for a first down. It was pretty much a given after that that they would lose. Why they didn’t rush 5 and have 6 defensive backs to drop into coverage starting just inside the first down marker is baffling. Instead, they had a LB who didn’t drop back deep enough, secondary players too far beyond the marker, and made it way too easy for Connor Cook to make the play of the game. The front seven did play much better against the run in the second half after getting gashed for 123 yards by RB Corey Schrader in the first half. There was shockingly some decent man coverage in the flats and downfield occasionally. Just too little, too late, and too many breakdowns at key moments. You would think at game 11 many of these deficiencies could be worked out with experience gained or from coaching adjustments, but……no.
It’s bad enough to lose (again), and watch the defense get pushed around (again), but for Billy Napier and his staff to play things overly conservatively given the desperate state of the game and season, it’s just another troubling sign that he may not be cut out for the SEC.
Now it’s time for the Battle of the Backups at the Swamp, as Florida State comes in undefeated and looking to try and make the College Football Playoff. They will have to do it without QB Jordan Travis, who had his season and college career ended by a compound fracture in his lower leg, leaving both his foot and FSU’s playoff hopes dangling. Tate Rodemaker gets the call and has played fairly well in relief this year, but this will be by far a tougher challenge. The Seminoles will miss Travis’ scrambling ability, so they will rely heavily on RBs Trey Benson and Lawrence Toafili. Both RBs are also decent targets in the passing game, and I could see them being used often to try and take pressure off of Rodemaker. WRs Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson are big-bodied targets that the Florida DBs will have to be physical with, and TE Jaheim Bell is a transfer from South Carolina that is very familiar with the Gator defense. The Gators will somehow, someway, need to get enough stops to give the offense as many chances as possible. That means individual players will have to make some standout plays tackling in space or in coverage, as I don’t see any help coming from the defensive scheme in general at this point. The defense has to find ways to get pressure on the QB and force him out of his comfort zone and into some mistakes.
The efficiency of the Gator offense and passing game will suffer with the loss of Mertz, and Brown will have to make some plays with his legs and perhaps on some deeper throws to try and offset that loss. Hopefully OT Austin Barber can go this week, but even if he doesn’t look for the Gators to rely on a power running game as much as possible to manage the clock and allow Brown to settle in and take as much pressure off of him as possible. Both Johnson and Etienne have to have good games, and one of the TEs or a mystery WR need to contribute something to take the pressure off of Pearsall and Wilson. FSU’s defense is allowing under 50% pass completions this season, but they have played against a lot of bad QBs and poor passing offenses. That makes the loss of Mertz even more glaring. The O-line, in whatever form it has to take, must play well enough to allow the offense to establish some balance and give Brown a chance to make some plays.
The circumstances surrounding this game are certainly more question-filled than anyone could have anticipated. Can Florida ruin FSU’s run at the CFP? Can Napier do something to quell the rising tide of discontent from the fan base? Is Florida’s defense so bad at this point that it doesn’t matter? Is FSU that much better right now – even without Travis – that it doesn’t matter who plays QB against the Gators? Can a night game at the Swamp be enough to give Florida a legit chance at pulling off the upset? It’s a shame both QBs are out, but in a way that will put the spotlight even more on the surrounding casts to see which one is better. On paper it’s not close right now, especially comparing the defenses. But rivalry games can have some weird things happen, and the Gators may have to embrace all of that weirdness. Unfortunately, I think there are just too many injuries and holes in the roster to cover for at this point.
Florida St. 31