“We know we are on the right path. Our journey is not finished, but we have come a long way.” – Muhammadu Buhari
By BUDDY MARTIN
This will be a defining week for Dan Mullen’s 2019 Florida Gators, whose season can go either way. Never mind looking for a path to Atlanta. They just need to find the road to Columbia where they can discover what’s on the other side of the next door.
Seven games into the season, things are pretty much on schedule, but hardly resolved. Murderer’s Row is two-thirds over and a split with adversaries Auburn and LSU is progress. Florida is still a contender for the SEC East, with Georgia looking more vulnerable than first thought. And all this has been accomplished with what was an unproven quarterback and without many of their best players on defense.
“Where did this guy come from?” asked my friend Terry Bradshaw, who was very impressed with Kyle Trask’s performance at LSU. “And why hasn’t he been playing?”
Since Terry follows Florida and watches Gator games on Saturdays with his Fox NFL Sunday pal Jimmy Johnson at the LA Beverly Hilton, I was obliged to tell him the full story of how Trask had never started a game in high school or college until four weeks ago.
“Well he’s certainly the best quarterback y’all got!” Bradshaw said. And quite frankly – no disrespect – it’s tough to argue with him.
Where can Trask take them in these final games with South Carolina, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Missouri and FSU? And where do they go from here? Remember, though, peeking around the corner can be fatal. Ask the Georgia Bulldogs.
So if we were handing out report cards – criminy I used to hate those things, and still do – it looks like an A-minus to date. I might even raise that a solid A when you factor in this team’s mental and physical toughness displayed against LSU.
As for the future, it depends on how bad the injuries are going to be. And of course we never know until kickoff (wink, wink). I’ve never seen quick recovery for high ankle sprains, so I don’t expect to see Jonathan Greenard or Jabari Zuniga in uniform Saturday.
The Gators can take pride in how they played in Baton Rouge.
Losing to LSU was painful, but did it hurt all that much? Not according to Dan Mullen -- who by the way has to be a strong SEC Coach of the Year candidate -- because the loss isn’t to an SEC East team. As for the importance of the South Carolina game. “It’s a huge challenge,” Monday said, clearly anxious to turn the page.Missouri has the SEC East lead on paper and can be the spoiler in what WR Josh Hammond described as a “four-team tournament.” Remember, because of probation, Mizzou isn’t eligible for Atlanta.
I am not so quick to forget the LSU game, which was classic in every way, from elevated performances, to the splendid setting offering the pure joy of SEC football. And oddly enough, the positive manner in which the UF fan base responded to the effort and competitiveness.
I realize moral victories are like fairy tales – about all they do is make you feel better. A little bit. And I am in no way saying the takeaway from Baton Rouge was some pretend-like story of an almost-successful outcome for the Gators.
What we do know that Mullen’s team proved is – as I tweeted out at halftime Saturday night – the Gators can play anybody, anywhere, anytime with at least a puncher’s chance.
Funny thing is that most fans of the 14-point underdog Gators came away from Baton Rouge feeling good about their team – probably better than before they first engaged the Tigers at the kickoff. Yes, I know the old adage about “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” but I must make these points: While maybe there wasn’t a “W” there, I saw progress and mental toughness.
1. To go into the loudest arena in college football and play toe-to-toe against the No. 5 team with maybe the hottest quarterback in the land -- and be within 15 yards of tying them at 35-all -- was really impressive.
2. Without the team’s two best pass-rushers and maybe two best defenders sidelined with ankle injuries – neither of them able to put any pressure on Joe Burrow – the Gator D was almost defenseless.
3. When you can put a well-focused, well-coached team on road with most of the 105,000 spectators hostile and take them deep into the fourth quarter with an explosive offense you have earned respect. So much so that Florida only dropped two notches in both polls after the 41-28 loss.
"I think our team showed a lot of toughness in that environment." Trask said about his team’s offensive performance.
It was a graduation of sorts for Trask, and having been duly baptized by the firewater of Baton Rouge, he passed with flying colors. The takeaway from Kyle’s night is what we expected: No moment is ever going to be too big for him.
His teammates saw him step into the role and contribute exactly the way they expected.
“He definitely gets fired up for live situations,” said Hammond, a senior leader. “It can be at practice, in scrimmage or it can be game day -- he gets fired up for those things. He prepares very well, and I knew he would be prepared for the environment and any situation he is placed in.”
He can be calm, can be fiery with the flip of the switch. Usually the former.
“Probably the first time he did that it did surprise me just because I did not expect it to come out of him,” said Hammond. “You know it’s football, guys get excited for football, so like when it happened, it was like ‘Oh it’s Kyle,’ but like after that I expected it out of him. He brings that switch when it’s time to go.
“If we are tied at 21 and we got to get a drive, I think Kyle will calmer and more poised within that moment to makes sure everybody is doing the right things and make sure our offense is going in the right direction. He handles adversity really well -- whether we are high or low, he tries to stay medium and just keep everybody’s head above float and keep everybody on the same page. Now if we go down and score and go up 28-21 then that Kyle, the excited Kyle, comes out and is ready to go. But by the time we get back on the field, he will be back calm and poised again.”
Grace under pressure is a quality Trask and his teammates displayed vs. LSU.
While courage is a wonderful attribute for team-building, it can take you only so far. Talent and coaching have to drive you home. The coaching department seems to be intact.
In what appeared to be one of the Mullen-Johnson-Hevesy-Gonzalez play-calling consortium’s best nights, as they rolled up a remarkable 511 yards of offense, there were only a couple of hiccups.
The substitution pattern for quarterbacks clicked nicely as Emory Jones took most of the red zone duty and made one brilliant desperation fourth-down fling for a score to Lamical Perine that tied the game 14-14. The Gators went up 28-21 lead on the opening drive of the second half, but without Zuniga and Greenard, Burrow and his running backs were free to roam.
Later, down 35-28 to LSU late in third quarter, for some reason Mullen chose to give Jones the full series after falling behind 35-28 and it cost him a killer three-and-out series, the likes of which could not be overcome.
These were probably minor setbacks compared to the overall excellent strategy and execution of the game plan devised by Mullen. Clearly outmanned, Mullen was also outgunned, particularly when he lost Zuniga and Greenard. In shoot-outs like that, when injuries start to mount and you need to go deep into your bullpen for help, depth becomes an issue. And Florida’s bullpen will have to pass the stress test these last five (six now that they are bowl eligible) games.
A slow start to recruiting upon Mullen’s arrival has gotten the program a bit behind, but based on what the experts have said the quality of commits and prospects, there has been an upgrade to both.As many have pointed out, Mullen’s proactive approach to the grad-transfer and more liberal transfer rules landed major contributors who played right away – notably Greenard, Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes and Adam Shuler.
Mysteriously, the case of sophomore LB Brenton Cox from Georgia remains in limbo with nobody able to explain why the SEC and NCAA have dragged their feet. The resolution to the Cox case could have an impact on Florida’s banged up defense in these final games. And it would also add some spice to the Nov. 2 WLOCP meeting.
So as this team evolves, hoping TO make a New Year’s Day Bowl, or perhaps something better, so much is yet to be learned, and so much is expected.
As for the future, Mullen is also wondering.
“Everyone after a win thinks it’s the greatest thing in the world and after a loss that it’s the most terrible thing in the world. It’s really not,” said Mullen. “…We’re going to correct things just like we would every single week. The same thing applies: if we don’t practice better, if we don’t prepare better, and if we don’t perform better, we can’t expect to win this week. But that’s the same thing that goes every single week throughout the year. Hopefully that goes all the way through January or whenever we play the game.”
Teams change over a season.
Meanwhile players like Kyle Pitts can emerge.
For instance Marco Wilson points out when somebody is injured, like Greenard, it’s next man up for everybody. “We need to learn to play without Jon.”
Just as it was forced to learn how to play without Feleipe Franks. Remember him? Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?