Florida got a much-needed bounceback win, handling Vanderbilt 38-14 on Homecoming at the Swamp. The Gators were never really challenged, as both the offense and defense looked much sharper. That being said, I can’t get too excited, given the struggles of the Commodores this season.
The offense was led by RB Montrell Johnson, who racked up well over 100 yards and looked the best he has all season – maybe he’s finally getting healthy after an inconsistent month of September. Graham Mertz was again efficient, but the passing game is still lacking any consistency beyond 5 yards past the LOS. The biggest development was the emergence of TE Arlis Boardingham, with 99 yards on 7 catches plus 2 TDs. Here’s hoping there’s finally a TE that can be a consistent receiving threat to help Mertz behind a shaky O-line. Speaking of which, the O-line held up pretty well despite the absence of LT Austin Barber and C Kingsley Eguakun, but they were matched up against a weak Vandy front seven. Finally, it was good to see both Ricky Pearsall and Tre Wilson get into the end zone on jet sweeps, since precious few big plays come from the passing game.
The Gator defense did well enough, controlling the Commodore running game and forcing them to pass more often than they’re comfortable with. However, there were still some breakdowns in coverage, allowing 2 long completions during the game, and an easy TD to close the score within 2 TDs in the 3rd quarter. The pass rush is still inconsistent and must improve going forward – it has been a disappointment this season. There were some interesting personnel developments, with LBs Trey Wingo and Teradja Mitchell getting extended looks in the second half. That’s good for depth, as it will be all hands on deck going forward the rest of the season with the difficult part of the schedule coming up.
It’s now on the road again, this time to Columbia to face South Carolina. The Gamecocks are 2-3 and coming off of their bye week, which they needed after a very tough start to their schedule, including games away from home against North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. They lost all of those, but were at least competitive into the second half, something the Gators have not been away from the Swamp since last October with the one exception being at Florida St. I don’t believe anyone will buy into any fool’s gold after the Vanderbilt win – it’s time for Billy Napier and his staff to put a competitive team on the field in a road game.
For the Gators to have any chance of winning, the offense must step up by playing faster and using more of the field to make the defense work harder. It’s been too easy for defenses to play close to the LOS and squeeze what little space there is in Napier’s scheme. It’s time for a few more deep shots, even as those lower-percentage throws seem to be anathema to Napier’s philosophy of extreme risk-aversion. Of course, the running game has to be there for balance, and here’s hoping some of the injured linemen are available this week. I’m hoping RB Trevor Etienne returns this week to give the Gators one of their biggest weapons. South Carolina’s defense is allowing over 450 yards a game, and Florida somehow needs to take advantage of those struggles and keep them off-balance. WIth Boardingham and Etienne to go along with Johnson, Pearsall, and Wilson, there are enough weapons for Mertz to exploit the Gamecock defense……if he’s given enough protection and the game plan to do so.
The Gator defense needs to reclaim some honor from it’s dreadful showing in getting manhandled at Kentucky. South Carolina has had talent and injury issues along it’s O-line, even starting a true freshman at LT. Their running game has suffered as a result, averaging only 87 yards per game, and they have had to rely on the legs and playmaking ability of QB Spencer Rattler to give them any chance for victory. He has played well to date, and their passing game challenges defenses downfield. They are averaging over 300 yards per game through the air, led by WR Xavier Legette. The Gator secondary has to tighten up this week, at least control Legette to prevent big plays, and force Rattler to throw into tighter windows, where he is prone to making some mistakes. Cornerback Jason Marshall needs to emerge from his funk in 2023 and start playing like the preseason all-SEC candidate we saw his first 2 seasons. Since the secondary will have a full plate, the Florida D-line has to get some push at the LOS to not allow the Gamecocks easy running lanes, and also stay disciplined when rushing the passer, forcing Rattler to stay in the pocket. He is at his most dangerous when ad-libbing with his arm and legs. Florida needs to show some real fire on defense this week and play with pride.
Gamecock head coach Shane Beamer is a master of special teams, and I’m sure will have his usual bag of tricks ready for this one. Florida has to be alert all game long in any kicking game situation and not allow some kind of momentum-switching play that can swing a game away from them. The Gator kickers have looked very good the last two games and need to execute at their best whenever called upon.
This is desperation time for South Carolina. With the advantage of having an off-week to get healthy, along with the memory of the beatdown Florida put on them last season, they will have all the motivation they need and will come out firing. Florida has the talent to stay in the game, but until the coaching staff proves they have the Gators motivated and focused like they should be on the road, I remain skeptical of their chances of winning away from home until they prove they can get it done. This is a pivotal game for Napier to show Gator Nation he’s addressing these issues and actually show marked improvement in a road environment.
South Carolina 27