The all-too easy thing to do after Florida’s shocking 37-34 loss to unranked and three-touchdown underdog LSU in the thick fog that enveloped Ben Hill Griffin Stadium Saturday night is to start pointing fingers. It sounds like a good idea, right? Only where do you begin? Do you even have enough fingers to point to all that blew up in the Gators’ faces on a night when so much went slip-sliding away?
Because so many things went wrong on so many levels, Dan Mullen doesn’t have enough time to figure out what will be cured simply by experience, what can heal with a few well-applied Band-Aids and maybe what will require being surgically removed. This many problems can’t be solved overnight or even next week. Here it is the early hours of Sunday morning and Mullen has to turn his attention immediately to Big Bad Bama, who the Gators play next Saturday night in Atlanta in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. Yes, that same Alabama that squeezed the life out of LSU 55-17 in Baton Rouge just a week ago.
Alabama is 10-0 and downright scary. Right now, the Gators are 8-2 and downright fragile.
Had the Gators functioned at a high level on offense, defense and special teams, they would have blown the doors off LSU. No doubt about it. This was an evening when two-out-of three wouldn’t have been bad but instead it was an oh-fer night. Mullen said post game that this loss was “on the offense.” That’s not entirely true because defense and special teams had opportunities to make game-winning plays and came up empty.
The offense was good for 609 yards. Kyle Trask threw for 474 yards. The running game that managed only 19 yards a week ago against Tennessee was good for 132. Yet for all the yards, the Gators had to punt the ball four times, turned it over three times and missed a 52-yard field goal on the last play of the game that hooked just a little left instead of staying inside the upright. The Gators allowed 418 yards and LSU had an almost three-minute edge in time of possession. Even with all the mistakes, Florida should have hung 55 or 60 points on the Tigers.
Kyle Trask, who came into the game leading in a lot of Heisman Trophy straw polls, threw two interceptions and fumbled the ball. He will make the Heisman short list and still has an outside shot to win it if he can engineer a miracle win over Alabama in Atlanta by playing the game of his life, but the odds aren’t very good for that to happen. Figure this will be a close call but no big trophy, which is a shame because there are fewer more compelling stories in all of college football than Kyle Trask blossoming into a super QB after emerging from nowhere.
The first of Trask’s interceptions Saturday night – his first in 181 passes and four-and-a-half games -- was a pick six. Ironically, the last interception he had thrown prior to the one Eli Ricks ran back 32 yards for a TD Saturday night, was also a pick six against Georgia. The second interception came on Florida’s next possession, a bizarre play in which Trask, throwing on the move after being flushed out of the pocket, was too high trying to hit Kadarius Toney at the LSU seven. The ball ricocheted off Toney’s hand and onto the helmet of an LSU defender before settling into the waiting hands of Jay Ward. In a worst case scenario the Gators should have come away with a field goal on that drive. The INT will be credited to Trask but the O-line should take at least partial credit for not giving him adequate time and receivers didn’t exactly run routes that got them wide open.
The fumble came with 10 seconds left in the first half with UF trailing 21-17. Trask hardly had time to set his feet when the pocket collapsed and he was sacked at the UF 19. LSU’s Cade York, who hit a 57-yard bomb for the game-winning field goal with 23 seconds remaining in the game, hit an easy 39-yarder for a halftime margin of 24-14.
On their first possession of the game, the Gators came up empty on fourth-and-goal from the LSU one when the O-line failed to get a push and Malik Davis was stopped dead in his tracks. A TD on that play and in all probability the Gators would have won the game. That could also go down as a tactical coaching error. It was fourth-and-goal at the two with UF lined up for a field goal. When an LSU player jumped offside, Mullen pulled the field goal unit off and sent in the offense. He'd do it again, but there should have been at least three points on that drive.
Following the second of Trask’s interceptions, the Gators had a first-and-goal at the LSU five. Incompletions on first and third downs were the result of LSU pressure straight up the gut. On the third down incompletion, a pass that was directed toward Kemore Gamble, Trask had to rush a throw that likely would have been an easy TD if he’d had a split second more to throw. The Gators settled for a 23-yard chip shot by Evan McPherson to cut the LSU lead to 14-10. With a TD instead of a field goal Florida wins.
Trailing 34-31 in the fourth quarter, the Gators drove from their own 15 to the LSU nine in three plays but Trask was sacked for a 7-yard loss on first down and sacked again for -1 on third, forcing a tying field goal by McPherson with 2:51 to go in the game.
You don’t have to be a rocket surgeon or brain scientist to do the math and figure that all these points left on the field kept the Gators from an easy win.
On to the receivers. It’s hard to point fingers at them when they caught 474 yards worth of passes. Kadarius Toney, who also had 56 rushing yards, caught nine passes for 182 yards and a TD. Jacob Copeland had five receptions for 123 yards and a TD. Trevon Grimes caught four for 98 yards. In spite of those rather gaudy numbers, there were too many times all night when Florida’s receivers couldn’t shake free. Was it bad route running or just an inability to consistently separate? When LSU went zone why were there problems finding the holes?
Certainly, the Gators missed Kyle Pitts who sat the game out after it was determined in pregame warmups that he couldn’t go. Would Pitts in the red zone given the Gators touchdowns instead of field goals? History says probably so.
The offensive line, which had given up only 10 sacks in nine games, allowed four Saturday night to an LSU defense which came into the game with 18 all year. LSU was credited with eight quarterback pressures, which seems generously low because far too many times Trask had to rush throws he normally has time to deliver.
In addition to the failure at the LSU one on the opening possession, the O-line couldn’t get a crease for Toney on a third-and-one at the UF 34 on Florida’s third possession.
After the Gators had taken a 31-27 lead in the third quarter, the offense had three consecutive three-and-outs, netting eight yards on nine plays. On the first of the three-and-outs, LSU got pressure on Trask on second and third down with the result incompletions. Those three straight empty possessions contributed mightily to the loss but the first one was particularly damaging.
The defense was confounding. They forced eight LSU punts and five three-and-outs. Those are usually winning numbers but not when the offense gives away 10 points (seven on the pick six, three on the field goal at the end of the first half) and leaves at least three touchdowns on the field.
Three plays stick out more than any others for the defense. The first was on LSU’s first touchdown of the game, a five-yard touchdown pass from Max Johnson to Jaray Jenkins. Jenkins got off the jam at the line by Brad Stewart but safety Donovan Stiner was way too late getting over the top to cover. Jenkins was wide open for an easy catch for the tying TD.
The second was a busted coverage on a 34-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Kayshon Boutte with 33 seconds left in the first half that gave the Tigers a 21-17 lead. On that play, Kaiir Elam came on a corner blitz but freshman Tre’vez Johnson didn’t rotate over to pick up Boutte. It was an easy pitch and catch for the touchdown.
The third is the one that Florida fans will remember the most. With less than a minute-and-a-half remaining in the game and the score tied at 34-34, Florida got a third down stop when tight end Kole Taylor was stopped by Johnson and Marco Wilson six yards short of a first down on a little dump off pass from Johnson. That could have been the defensive play of the game except that Taylor came out of his shoe on the play. Wilson picked up the shoe and hurled it down the field. Flags flew and Wilson drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. With the 15 yards and a first down, LSU got close enough for York to nail his 57-yard game-winner.
Take away the two busted coverages that resulted in touchdowns, the pick six, the fumble that gave away a field goal and then the penalty that gave another away and the defense should have held the Tigers to seven points.
Should have but didn’t. You can’t win football games when you give away 27 points, which is what the Gators did against LSU.
What is frightening for the Gators is they’re going to face an Alabama team that went off for 35 or more points for the 23rd straight game Saturday in a 52-3 beatdown of Arkansas. And this was with Alabama sitting quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and Devonta Smith the entire second half.
When the Gators beat Georgia 44-28 in game five, they looked more than capable of matching Alabama touchdown for touchdown. While Alabama has continued to stick it to opponents offensively, the Gators seem to be spinning their wheels way too much. This was Florida’s fourth straight game in which fewer than 40 points have been scored. Alabama has scored at least 41 in nine straight games and the only one the Crimson Tide didn’t make it to 40 was game one when they scored 38.
While Florida’s defense has had some good moments interspersed with blown coverages and stupid penalties that cost a game like against LSU, Alabama’s defense has continued to improve. Since allowing Georgia 24 first half points in game four, Alabama has allowed only 53 total in the last six games.
It will be shocking if Alabama opens up favored by fewer than 17 points. The only way the Gators win this game is if they can play at the level they showed against Georgia while hoping Alabama makes uncharacteristic mistakes.
Once beyond Alabama, Mullen will have bowl preparations – playoff preparations if the Gators shock the world with a win Saturday – and then there will have to be some hard reckoning, particularly on the defensive side. Mullen’s offenses have always been productive and though it’s hard to imagine they will be as productive next year with Trask, Toney and Pitts gone to play for pay on Sundays, points will still be scored at a much greater clip than they were in any of the eight seasons prior to 2018. Figure the offense will morph into more of an RPO style with running quarterbacks Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson running the show. All the running backs will return, joined by former five-star Demarcus Bowman, who is transferring in from Clemson and what is expected to be a healthy Lorenzo Lingard.
Some of the defensive issues can be attributed to inexperience. A lot of kids had to play in 2020 because it was rare when coordinator Todd Grantham had a full roster to work with due to injuries and Covid-19. Although Mullen has been quite defensive of Grantham in public, you have to wonder if the relationship is cozy in private. Florida scored at least 31 points in every game this season. The Gators gave up 30 or more on four occasions and had way too many problems getting off the field. Of Florida’s two losses, one came on a final play field goal at Texas A&M and the other on the LSU field goal with 23 seconds left. In both games, the Gators couldn’t get the key stops when it counted late in the game.
Experience gained this season will cure some of the defensive issues. There will be some healing because a lot of players who were burned far too often or who did stupid things at the most inopportune moments will grow up and mature. As for surgically removing some of the problems, if that is to happen it will be when Mullen evaluates his staff in the offseason. He’s a loyal head ball coach who doesn’t like to make changes to his staff but he may decide that to make the next step from perpetually good to perpetually great changes will have to be made.
If there are changes, they will be made in January or shortly thereafter. For now, there is Alabama to deal with and after what happened Saturday night at The Swamp, that’s not a pleasant thought at all.