This is where the rubber meets the road, it’s time to find it or grind it, everything matters from here on out…and any other number of cliches one can think to describe the turn the No. 9 Florida Gators season is taking after a 38-0 win over the Towson Tigers.
The Gators pitched their second shutout in five games, the first time that feat has been accomplished since 2012. If you remember, that season the Gators had a Top 5 defense and entered the postseason No. 3 in the BCS rankings.
The Gators offense put up 422 total yards, the fourth straight game of doing so, matching a run in the 2018 season of 400+ total yard in each of the last four games. Quarterback Kyle Trask (18-20, 188 yards, two touchdowns; one rushing touchdown) and tight end Kyle Pitts (four receptions, 28 yards, two touchdowns) have found a connection that is working more often than not.
Florida has scored 24+ points in nine straight games and quarterback Kyle Trask went 15-15 to start the game, tying back to three completions at the end of his play against the Tennessee Vols last week, to set a new school record of 18 straight completions. This breaks the previous record of 17 set by Chris Leak in 2005.
But is it enough? The Gators have a gauntlet of a stretch approaching beginning with a date next Saturday with No. 7 Auburn Tigers and then a trip to Baton Rouge to meet No. 4 LSU. Oh yea and don’t forget the November 2 Cocktail Party showdown with No. 3 Georgia (all rankings subject to change).
Is giving up 17 first downs to a FCS opponent and only rushing for 160 yards against that same opponent going to stand the test of the SEC? This was the Gators last chance to work out those kinks before beginning the games were one mistake can mean a loss. So was it enough? Are they ready to go to the next level?
"We're certainly going to find out next week, aren't we,” quipped head coach Dan Mullen following the win.
"I thought we played solid. You know, first half we didn't do a good job getting off the field. That's something we've got to get better at. Even for the day, we gave up 8-of-15 third-down conversions on the day and didn't do a great job of getting off the field in the first half. They had a good plan, though, well-executed. They did a good job slowing the game down. We wanted to get a lot of plays in, try to play with some tempo. We only had 60 plays in the game.”
“It was little things like different fronts we were getting so we had to get everybody on the same page and executing,” said Trask of the 17-0 first half.
That score, and the pace of game for that matter, harkened back to the Gators game two weeks ago against UT-Martin. Mullen said after that win that the halftime speech he gave “wasn’t very friendly” and echoed the sentiment today.
“It wasn’t super friendly, either. I don’t know. I guess I was mic-ed up on HBO so you’ll have to tune in [Wednesday[ night to find out what happened.”
*The Gators were filmed by HBO this week for a new college football docs-series. Florida’s episode will air Wednesday, October 2.
Some of the first half woes could be forgiven when seen through the scope of gamesmanship. The Gators ran a lot of different plays today, like a reverse handoff to Van Jefferson on the first drive of the day that saw the wide receiver running a jet sweep from the left up the middle for seven yards. Or Jacob Copeland seeing four targets throughout the day. Or the jumbo tight end package on the goal line in addition to folding freshman tight end Keon Zipperer into the gameplan. Then there’s the fact that the offense went under center much more today than typical. All things that Auburn will now have to plan for after watching film.
But there’s also the worry that the offensive line–which saw shuffling again today—isn’t ready to face arguably the best defensive front seven in the country, leading to even more rushing woes and possible sacks for a quarterback that is clicking in every area but pocket awareness.
“The mental toughness of the offensive line in their preparation has got to improve as we move forward,” admitted Mullen following the 160 yard rushing performance and three sacks (one leading to a fumble) leveled on Trask.
“Those guys have got to. I know [offensive line coach] John [Hevesy] gets on them. They’re young guys. They go, ‘Coach, I’m working.’ No, you’re not, obviously not, because if you were working we wouldn’t have missed assignments, so what you’re doing is not enough. They need to do more. OK. If you want to keep doing the same thing over and over again, you’re not going to improve, what are you doing at night? Everybody learns differently. Are you walking it through in the dorm at night, are you drawing it, are you watching film? Everybody learns in a different way, OK. And guys have got to learn what’s the best way they learn, what’s the best way they can improve at processing information as they get going, and they got to do it. And if they don’t, then they’re not going to get better, and then we got to find somebody that can.”
The leader of that line, center Nick Buchanan, knows what went wrong and more importantly what it will take to fix the problem.
“Just not taking care of the little things, not focusing in on every single little detail that goes into one single football play. We run a lot of plays out there on offense, so some things can get overwhelming, but you have to have that ability to calm yourself down and really hone in and play the next play.
“I feel as though everyday we can get better at our technique and our fundamentals, the little things that go into being great offensive lineman. When it comes to better competition and getting into SEC play, of course you have to take it to another level and we’re prepared for the challenge.”
The rushing game did increase by 40 yards in the second half.
On defense, Todd Grantham’s guys pitched a shutout and forced the Tigers to go 0-3 in the redzone. Of the Tigers nine drives, three ended in turnovers and one in a blocked field goal thanks to Adam Shuler getting a hand up on the kick. The latter came after the Swamp sang Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down” and Brad Stewart with Mohamoud Diabate sacked Towson’s Tom Flacco, providing one of the most electric moments in the game.
“I think that's huge for the defense. Like I said, [Towson] was a team that was lighting up scoreboards,” reminded Mullen of the team that is a Top 10 team in their FCS rankings.
The shutout against a team of that caliber, as Mullen likes to say, is nice but the missed tackles were also a glaring point the coaching staff will address this week.
“I was disappointed with that. One of their backs wasn’t real big, a couple of times he was really low center of gravity and got underneath us. That happens with Dameon Pierce and people, too.”
The takeaways (Gators have 13 this season) were one of the most encouraging aspects of the defensive performance and we will break them down more soon. And the turn aways in the redzone though are what this defense feels they can build off of before facing Auburn’s freshman phenom quarterback Bo Nix. It requires a mindset that linebacker Jon Greenard (5 tackles, 1 interception, 3 quarterback hurries, 0.5 sacks) explained isn’t easy to accomplish, but necessary.
“It’s hard. You’re tired. You’re sore. All of that plays into it. The momentum’s obviously not going our way; they’re driving. Their offense is clicking, so it’s really easy to give in. If anybody could do it, it would be easy. So, we know we have to take that chip on our shoulder every time we go into a game. I feel like we pride ourselves on finishing everything. So, no matter how the drive starts or what they’re doing in the middle, we just basically have to stop and put the fire out.”
Receiver Tre Grimes (five receptions, 55 yards) feels that more than a third of the way into the season, this is where that maturation happens and starts to create the identity of the 2019 Florida Gators.
“I feel like we’re getting to that point where everybody’s locking in and doing things that they need to do. Like I said, it was here and there, there’s some games where the passing isn’t there, some games where the offense is not there. That comes with time, that comes with experience and I feel like we’re at that point in the season where everything is starting to mesh together and we’re gonna be good.”
That mindset, as described by Greenard and Grimes, no matter how difficult to keep, is what Mullen feels has led to a 5-0 record thus far. And it’s going to be what this Gators team will need to continue their SEC run.
"You look at this team, we've taken care of business to this point. We have taken care of business. Whatever the situation, good or bad, we've taken care of business so far this season. We've played some good teams, but now it's going to go to a whole new level for us. Now you've got a Top 10 team coming in here next week. It's going to go to a whole new level."