BIlly Napier got his biggest win to date at Florida with a 29-16 victory over Tennessee in front of a fantastic crowd at the Swamp. The game followed his blueprint of a commanding running game, an efficient passing game that does just enough, and – finally – what appears to be a real defense led by competent coaching. It’s also his first win against a Florida rival, which had been talked about all offseason and especially the week leading up to this game.
As exciting as it was to watch the Gators race out to a 26-7 halftime lead with 4 straight offensive TDs, it was even better to watch a young defense start to grow up and show what it can be capable of against a legitimate opponent. The defense has been good all season, but this was by far it’s biggest challenge, and they rose to the occasion. There were some hiccups with late substitutions against Tennessee’s fast-paced offense, but that’s to be expected. The secondary allowed 3 long pass completions, but 2 of those were against true freshmen, and for the most part the DBs were allowed to cover closely and play a lot of man coverage. What a breath of fresh air after watching the soft-as-charmin schemes of Todd Grantham and Patrick Toney the past 4 years. The Florida D-line played very well, getting pressure on the QB and also controlling the Vol running game – the key to the win in my opinion. Doing that forced Tennessee into too many must-pass downs, and I knew that Joe MIlton would not be able to deliver consistently. The play of the Gator LBs was also fun to watch – they were able to showcase their speed in filling running lanes and also in coverage. That is a tough offense for LBs to play against, and the young guys, led by Shemar James and Scooby Williams, held up against the pressure of the Vol quick-passing game. There were a few missed tackles in space, but that’s going to happen against the talent Tennessee has on offense, and can be excused. Overall, just an excellent effort for 60 minutes, and (hopefully) something to build upon going forward this season.
Florida actually showed life on offense in the 1st half. Trevor Etienne was spectacular, racking up over 100 of his total of 172 rushing yards, including a long TD run in response to Tennessee taking a 7-0 lead and getting the crowd back into the game and energizing the entire team. Montrell Johnson did not look his usual self and had limited touches, but capitalized with two nifty cutback runs for scores – one on a running play and one on a screen pass from Graham Mertz. Mertz was terrific in the 1st half, going 17-20 and keeping the offense moving with some clutch 3rd-down completions. Tre Wilson was a revelation at WR, being leaned on heavily in the 1st quarter on both jet sweeps and getting some key first down receptions, until unfortunately leaving with a bruised collarbone. What was disturbing was that, after he left, it seemed much of the Gator passing game did as well, as suddenly it reverted to painfully conservative short throws, too often short of the sticks and not utilizing the middle of the field. Napier admitted after the game he was too conservative the entire 2nd half, but I’ve seen that happen a little too often with him, and am afraid it’s more his comfort zone and will come back to bite him unless he learns to stay more aggressive. It was hard watching the defense repeatedly being run back out after a 3-and-out, but they responded.
Overall this was quite the improvement from the troubles at Utah to start the season. The coaching staff gets credit for having the team focused on the job at hand and cleaning up mistakes and penalties. The “Gamechangers”, however, remain a huge question mark. Adam Mihalek simply lost his composure, missing an easy FG and an extra point badly. He looked lost coming off the field, his confidence completely shot. Napier was forced to let Trey Smack handle the placekicking after the misses, and fortunately he delivered. I have to believe he will be doing all of the kicking for the foreseeable future. Jeremy Crawshaw punted adequately, but had another shank that gave Tennessee excellent field position for their final drive, which the Gator defense was able to eventually stop. He has to become more consistent.
Finally, I have to address Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel and his ridiculous time out at the end of the game. All he did was incite an ugly finish that got 4 players suspended for the 1st half of their next game, including 3 Gator O-linemen, which was a ridiculous ruling from the SEC office. Then, he doubled down in his post-game press conference with a weak response to questions, while smacking on chewing gum and being dressed like a traffic cone. He comes out of this looking like a bum, with Napier being too nice of a guy to call him out for it. Methinks Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer certainly wouldn’t have let it go that easily.
Florida concludes it’s 3 game home stand against the Charlotte 49ers. Charlotte should present more of a challenge than McNeese St., but is still overmatched. The Niners are mostly a running team, and assuredly will try to keep the game respectable early. They should be helped on defense by the suspensions along the Gator O-line for the 1st half of the game. This could reduce the effectiveness and efficiency of Florida’s offense for a while, but it will also present an opportunity for some backups and younger players to show their potential for future games. The suspensions, along with Mertz playing with an injured hand and the loss of Wilson for potentially a few weeks, could make this a boring, run-heavy affair that may not appease the fans in the stands or watching at home. The Gators will still win this one, but it could be an ugly, sloppy game with Napier just trying to protect his team from any further injuries prior to the upcoming road game at Kentucky. I do expect a bit of a letdown from such a young team, but the staff needs to show better in getting the team ready after a big game, failing badly in doing so last season.