Vanderbilt Review / Florida St. Preview

Fool’s gold – so much for finishing the season strong.

In a massive step backwards, the Gators completely imploded in an embarrassing 31-24 loss at Vanderbilt – their first in Nashville since 1988.  This was a complete failure across the board, starting with the coaching staff.  This performance was very troubling, and not indicative of a team or staff showing continuous improvement and establishing a winning standard going forward.

As badly as some players performed, including some of the upperclassmen, this game was squarely on the coaching staff.  Poor preparation, terrible schemes, and a shocking lack of focus.  It appeared as if the staff was already looking ahead to the F$U game in the way they prepared the team for this game.  The playcalling on offense was mystifying – Vandy obviously sold out to stop the run, which normally would force you to pass more often.  But to come out that way from the opening snap, and to both fail to run stretch plays to the edge and not force Anthony Richardson to pull the ball way more often on the read option to pick up extra yards and extend drives was criminal.  AR wound up with 400 passing yards, but only because the run scheme was trash and the offense was in desperation mode against some prevent defense in the 4th quarter.  He again missed too many receivers on key downs, and his hail mary throw to end the game was simply unconscionable – not even trying to get the ball into the end zone, but throwing it through the uprights?!  Finally, Billy Napier started chasing points way too early, leading to 2 unsuccessful 2-point conversion tries that forced the offense to try and score twice instead of once late in the game.

The defense reverted back to it’s undisciplined ways, not setting the edge against the run, and playing soft pass coverage.  There were some mind-numbing penalties from Ventrell Miller and Amari Burney that extended Commodore drives, including Miller getting himself ejected for a targeting call that keeps him out of the first half against Florida St.  The DEs refused to play the outside run correctly, and the tackling was abysmal.  The only real impact play came from Jason Marshall, who made a great interception on a pass deep in Florida territory in the 4th quarter to give the Gators a small chance at a comeback.  Other than that, a complete collapse against a bad opponent.

Special teams was a disaster as well.  Poor coverage, a few penalties (again), another missed extra point, and what was a backbreaking mistake by Marshall, trying to field a punt inside his 5-yard line.  He fumbled, and gave Vandy a free touchdown right before the first half ended.  Yes, he’s the 3rd-string returner, but it’s on the staff at that point to tell him to NOT TOUCH THE BALL – no matter what.  Yes, this was a total team loss, and starts up the noise in the system – again.

What a huge letdown for Gator Nation.  As bad as the false hope of the previous 6 quarters of football was against depleted opponents, the performance of the coaching staff was close to unforgivable.  They of all people should know the talent limitations of this Gator team, and the precious little room for error.

It’s now on to Taliban City for the last game of the regular season to face the Criminoles.  What momentum gained from the previous 2 games is completely lost, and now Florida could have some serious injury problems at key positions to make things even harder on themselves.  The WR corps is decimated – Justin Shorter, Marcus Burke, and Xavier Henderson are out, and Ricky Pearsall is in concussion protocol.  Freshmen Caleb Douglas and Daejon Reynolds have stepped up lately, but now will be thrown into the fire as starters.  OL O’Cyrus Torrence and Michael Tarquin both will try to play through leg injuries, and aren’t close to 100%.  Of course, unless Napier gives these guys a legit game plan that makes sense, it could all be moot.  This team has to find at least a modicum of a running game to keep the defense honest and not force any more pressure on AR, who just can’t process things fast enough or be counted upon to play efficiently when forced to throw too often.  The Seminole defense has been susceptible to the running game when they’ve played a team with a pulse, so there is some hope there……but only if AR decides to run the ball himself……often enough and with authority.  If the injury report isn’t enough to make Napier force the running game – including AR – nothing will.

The Gator defense has to stop F$U’s running game first, and that includes not allowing QB Jordan Travis to hurt them on the read option or break containment on scrambles.  I’m still not sold on his ability to simply lead their offense on drives when having to rely on passing.  He does have a weapon in WR Johnny Wilson, a transfer from Arizona St. (and former teammate of Pearsall), who is a huge target at 6’7″.  RB Lawrance Toafili is involved in the passing game as well when he’s in the game.  Their leading rushers are Trey Benson and Treyshaun Ward, both averaging over 6 yards per carry.  Again, it’s incumbent on the Gator defense to stop the run and force the Seminoles to win the game through the air.  Their overall passing game is nothing special compared to teams Florida has already faced.  But, of course, there’s the Patrick Toney factor……once more we’ll see if he stays in his soft shell or allows the defense to play aggressively for 60 minutes.  Florida’s front seven has struggled often this season, but F$U’s O-line is nothing special – get at least a stalemate here and perhaps the defense can actually get enough stops to give the offense enough possessions to win the game.  Losing Miller to suspension for the first half ain’t gonna help – some of the young players will have to elevate their game.

Florida needs to play well for many reasons.  It’s bad enough they are coming off of a disastrous loss at Vanderbilt.  This game is as much about perception of where the program is headed under Napier, and will affect recruiting as well.  Get embarrassed (again) on the national stage, and it will be felt on and off the field.  The coaching staff has a lot to prove, and I’m just not sure if some of them are up to the task, short- or long-term.  I’m not confident at all that the Gators will play well, with injuries piling up and a nothing bowl game on the horizon.  It’s a shame, as F$U has built up it’s record against a garbage schedule and is nothing special, including it’s own mediocre coaching staff.  It is a rivalry game, so perhaps Florida will show up this week – it’s just a shame that we don’t know, because of the inconsistent coaching and player performance all season.

Prediction: Florida St. 38 Florida 21