COLUMN: For the Florida Gators Sake, Dan Mullen Must Demand Defensive Accountability

Updated: Jan 16

The Florida defense takes the field versus TAMU. Photo Courtesy—SEC, Credit: Tim Casey

Maroon helmets were thrown in air like caps at a graduation. And in a way, it was. The Texas A&M Aggies had just notched their first win over a Top 5 team under Jimbo Fisher, 41-38, expelling the demon and notion that Fisher couldn't lead a big-time win. The game clinching field goal as time expired, the offense watching helplessly from the sideline, felt a fitting end to a day in which the No. 4 Florida Gators had done everything they could on defense to give the game away.

Aggie players locked arms to sing the alma mater and fans stayed in the stands to soak in the win under the big Texas sky, clear after Hurricane Delta had made its way around College Station the night before.

And in the Gators locker room, a quiet storm was brewing.

Linebacker Jeremiah Moon locked his eyes on something in the distance—maybe the Gators fleeting playoff hopes—and shook his hand in bewilderment and disgust.

“Disappointed,” he finally answered.

“Uh, 12 of 15 third down. We got to get off the field, we gotta wrap up, we got to tackle and we gotta get to the quarterback, and we got to cover. It’s simple, and we're not doing that right now.”

The Gators have not done it for three games in fact. Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham’s crew has given up 27-46 third downs (59%) this season and that average is greatly helped by the fact South Carolina only converted on 6-17.

It was the epitome of 3rd-and-Grantham, an insult first coined by Georgia fans back in the day who were fed up with their defensive coordinator’s tendency to be so aggressive on 3rd down that it left the middle of the field open.

Shawn Davis forces a fumble on one of the few positive plays on the day. Photo Courtesy—SEC, Credit: Tim Casey

On the money down today, the Aggies faced an average of 3rd and 5. They picked up an average of 7.8 yards on those downs, including three touchdowns. Albeit that does include the 11-yards picked up on a 3rd down in the second half, when Jeremiah Moon forced a fumble after the catch and the Gators recovered.

Kyle Trask (23-32, 312 yards, four touchdowns) turned that turnover into a touchdown as he did most drives on the day. The Gators punted once on the day and a Malik Davis fumble (who had been playing well all day with three receptions, five rushes and 94 all-purpose yards) turned over the Gators last offensive drive of the day.

On the other six drives, Florida scored (five touchdowns, one field goal).

It’s clear Florida can hang in a shoot-out and win them more often than not. But they must have help in this all SEC schedule, and the calvary can’t stop tripping over themselves to come assist.

One almost wonders if the defense knows that if they give up a score, their offense will bail them out on the other end.

“No excuse,” says Moon.

“Kyle [Trask] put the defense in the best situation, all we had to do is get off the field on third downs and just, just run to the ball. And we didn't do that today. So I say it was on defense today. Offense gonna keep doing the thing. They carrying us right now, so we got to step up, that’s all it is.”

Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts have connected for 7 touchdowns this season. Photo Courtesy—SEC; Credit, Tim Casey

"We know our offense is high-powered,” admits linebacker James Houston.

“We know that. We know they can score. But we don't expect to get scored on. That is not in our defensive scheme, that's not in our philosophy at all. Our philosophy is fast, physical and aggressive. By doing that we expect to be knocking quarterbacks out of the game and taking control of the game. The past few years the Gators have been a stronghold on defense. We're going to get back there, we just need some time. We gon' fix some stuff up in practice and we gon' come back next week."

But the Gators don’t have time and it’s hard to imagine these problems being fixed in a week. Because this defense is broken, until proven otherwise.

There are plenty of words in the thesaurus to describe the Florida defense, but let’s just settle on something simple; it’s bad. It was bad in Week 1 against Ole Miss but we assumed that was due to an offseason that allowed little to no live tackling. The defense was bad against South Carolina, but we thought, at least when Kyree Campbell and Brad Stewart came back, things would be different.

Brad Stewart was back today and nothing had changed. If anything, the defense looked worse. The first two weeks, there were times they simply got beat. Against the Aggies, they got beat, were out of place, were confused, and made it a game of pitch-and-catch for Aggies quarterback Kellen Mond (25-35, 338 yards, three touchdowns). Not to mention Isaiah Spiller, who used the defense as bumpers off which to bounce as he made the pitch his personal playground while picking up 192 all purpose yards (averaged 6.4 yards per rush) and two touchdowns.

Spiller (28) ran anywhere he wanted versus the Florida defense. Photo Courtesy: SEC

Take the Aggies first drive of the second half for example, when the Gators were forced to waste a timeout early. Some reports indicate there were 12 men on the field, but Stewart—in his first game back and in his new position at STAR—was lined up on the line of scrimmage. Sophomore Kaiir Elam was frantically waving him backwards. Elam was right in front of the Florida coaches as this was happening.

When Florida came out of the timeout, Stewart was lined up about seven yards off the line of scrimmage. Lo and behold, the Gators actually made a third down stop that play. But the issues surrounding communication and being in the right place were clear.

Before the season began, I said publicly and here that I thought the Gators defense was in position to be really good this season. They had lost a load of talent, yes, but personnel had been moved around to new positions that I truly felt better suited the talent that was on the roster.

After three games, I’m ready to admit; I was wrong. Yes, there’s still time for the defense to make a turnaround. There’s still time for me to eat a second helping of crow about being wrong about being wrong. But nothing I saw today gives me confidence that will happen anytime soon.

Spiller scores his second touchdown of the game. Photo Courtesy: SEC

LSU comes to town next week and they put up 41 points against Missouri today, albeit in a loss.

Now before your neighbor who is five deep in Natty Lights convinces you otherwise, this was not actually Dan Mullen’s fault, at least not on the field. He wasn’t making the defensive play calls. But it is his fault it got this far.

Now, I’ve always been a fan of Todd Grantham’s defense because I don’t do drugs and I feel like watching his defense is the closest I’ll ever get to tripping on a hallucinogenic and all of the mood swings that come with that thrill ride. But the past three weeks haven’t been an aggressive defense that is willing to play the risk-reward game. It’s just been bad.

And Dan Mullen has to do something before it gets worse. Instead—or perhaps knowing that—he elected to spend the majority of his time after the game on a pointless argument about crowd size, largely avoiding the looming cloud that has become Todd Grantham's defense

Do those changes mean firing Todd Grantham? Probably not. Mullen is pretty loyal with his coaching staff and you have to really mess up to get fired. And although the defense cost this game—because make no mistake about it, the defense cost the Gators this game—they haven’t lost them a ton. There have even been times over Grantham’s tenure in Florida the defense has won them games. So this one performance, or for that matter the last three, ins’t going to get him fired.

Especially in a pandemic where the offseason was put into a blender and the SEC said, 'let’s just see what comes out.' Defenses across the board have been a crapshoot. Alabama gave up 45 points to Ole Miss on Saturday, LSU lost 44-41 to Missouri; Auburn couldn’t stop Feleipe Franks and Arkansas and won thanks to a missed officiating call late in the game.

But just because it’s a trend doesn’t mean it’s an excuse. The Gators record books go back to 1946, when the Gators were fielding a team during World War II. That season, Florida gave up an average of 29.3 points per game. It still stands to this day as the worst scoring defense the Gators have ever fielded.

Through three games this season, Florida's defense is on pace to set a new record in the worst way, having given up 100 points overall, an average of 33.3 per game.

Caleb Chapman scores a touchdown over Marco Wilson. Photo Courtesy: SEC

What does that mean for Florida? It could be position changes, benching even of established players, demands for a scheme change. Everything is wrong so anything should work. And at some point, by being the man at the top, Mullen does have to step in and demand changes, or at the very least, answers.

“We’re going to reevaluate a lot of things defensively, where we’re at right now,” Mullen said after the loss.

“We’re going to evaluate some things with our personnel, where we’re at. Our ability to make plays, make sure we have all the right guys at the right position to put us in position to be able to make the plays we need to to get off the field. We can’t give up [12] of 15 conversions in a day and expect to win any game.”

They didn’t win this one and they may not win the next one if things aren’t fixed. The offense and Trask can put up points seemingly at will. This could be the best offense the Florida Gators have had in years. The defense has to catch up, or else that won’t even matter. And that is disappointing.

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