The No. 9 Florida Gators will remember the 21st night of September.
It wasn’t mistake free and it wasn’t blemish free but it was perfectly imperfect. The No. 9 Florida Gators (4-0, 2-0) defeated the Tennessee Volunteers (1-3, 0-1) by a score of 34-3 on a near perfect afternoon.
The defense played as ball hawks, forcing four turnovers and held the Vols to 239 total yards; and that was without starting corner CJ Henderson or starting defensive end Jabari Zuniga, both still out with injury. The offense clicked along, giving up three turnovers of their own but making up for it with 441 total yards and scoring on six of their 11 drives.
The story of the day though was Kyle Trask (20-28, 293 yards, 2TD, 2INT). To be fair, the story was always going to be about Kyle Trask, just with the narrative dependent on his performance. Despite giving up the aforementioned three turnovers, Trask came away from his first start since his 9th grade year with momentum and the best passing performance by a Gators quarterback since Austin Appleby threw for 296 yards against these Tennessee Vols in 2016.
"I thought he played solid,” said head coach Dan Mullen.
“Even both interceptions, I mean he kind of threw in coverage but he kind of threw to guys. It wasn't like he threw to a guy and hit a defender in the chest. I mean he took a shot on two plays and gave receivers a chance. Got to make good decisions into taking those chances, but I thought he really managed the game well. He was sharp, good decisions all day long. I think the fumble, that's just one he's trying to hold the ball, hold the ball, hold the ball, hold the ball and make a play. Hey, if it's not there, just burn it and let's play the next play. That comes with experience. But overall I thought he played really well.”
Given that Trask hasn’t started a game in such a long time, Mullen admittedly changed up his approach during the week.
"I thought he was relaxed. You know, he'd never been in that situation before, in a long time. I kind of always was joking with him, 'Make sure you have fun. You've prepared for this. You've prepared the right way, make sure you have fun,' instead of my normal deal, 'If you're really nervous, you can go out there and throw a bunch of picks and you won't be nervous anymore. We'll fix that problem.' But just go out there and relax and have fun. But I think he prepared the right way. He's been preparing the right way, and so he got his opportunity and it's kind of what I would have expected.”
For the kid who grew up in Texas with a tire in his backyard for passing practice, this past week has been a bit surreal. The scenery has changed as his media responsibilities have increased, he was pushed onto the national stage overnight and his chance to take over the Florida Gators following starter Feleipe Franks season ending injury has been a bit like a movie. The constant through it all has been the football field.
“It's been pretty surreal but I feel I've done a great job of staying focused and locked in on the task at hand…there was a little bit of nerves going into any game just like anybody. Once you're preparing all week you feel confident so once you go out on the field you get locked in. You don't think about anything else. The crowd may be pretty loud but all you hear is silence when you focus on the task at hand.”
“It’s an honor to be able to go out there and say that’s my quarterback now,” bragged receiver Tre Grimes (two receptions for 60 yards).
“It’s kind of like a movie. He’s been through so much and had to overcome so much adversity, but he’s still stood strong and shows why he’s Kyle Trask and who he is today. It made him who he is, and now he’s our quarterback and doing really, really well.”
Trask’s day started early due to the noon kickoff. He found a way into that silent bubble, coming through his first Gator Walk as a starter, completely locked in, eyes up, head forward, focusing only on the stadium he was walking into, not the thousands of screaming fans flanking his either side.
Once in the stadium, the calm before the storm allowed him to walk across the field in that same silence and begin to imagine the noise.
He came onto the field for warmups and was joined by Franks, who used his scooter (needed for his casted ankle until his Monday surgery) as a chair and was there for support as Trask began his pregame drills.
The Gators offense received the ball first, so as the units prepared to take the field, Trask stood in the middle of that group of 11, just off the sideline, delivered the play call, clapped once and led the team to the line of scrimmage. It was a mild 81 degrees, a slight breeze and perfect football weather, primed for a perfect football story.
A quick rush by Lamical Perine (14 carries, 62 yards, one touchdown) set him up for a 2nd and seven from their own 28-yard line. With Antonio Callaway, hero of the 2015 Tennessee game, watching from the sidelines, Trask took the snap in shotgun, dropped back and the crowd of 82,776 audibly drew in a breath. The ball sailed in a perfect arc, harkening back to former corner Jalen “Teez” Tabor in 2016 saying “he has the prettiest ball, Kyle Trask has the prettiest ball.” Then the crowd erupted as Tre Grimes hauled in the spot on 43-yard post pass. Two rushes later, tight end Kyle Pitts came across on a slant and pulled in the easy 19-yard throw from Trask for the touchdown.
On the sideline, teammates celebrated but Mullen immediately pulled Trask and redshirt freshman quarterback Emory Jones (4-6, 20 yards) over for a meeting. As he went down the call sheet, the head coach asked what Trask had seen on each play.
"I thought, especially early in the game, they were trying to give some different looks, coverages,” explained Mullen.
“You know, show one thing but play something else, something opposite than what they’ve shown us on film…I thought [Kyle] did a really good job on those reads and those first few drives and managing what they were giving us. I’m on the sidelines here, going ok he’s going to go here with the ball, uh-oh, they’ve rolled it completely different than what they showed, then he goes to where he should have gone before.”
From then on, the noise was often too deafening for Trask to block it out, but it was encouraging he and the offense on as they posted the fourth straight Gator game with 250+ passing yards. This is the first time Florida has had four straight with 250+ passing since 2007.
Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt acknowledged Trask’s impact afterwards saying, “this kid played last week too and he played good last week and played good today. And we hit him a little bit today, too. But bottom line is we let them create too many explosive plays.”
Those explosive plays, 15 in all with 10 coming on Trask throws of 15+ yards, were a result of a poise in the pocket and a command on the sideline. Nearly each time Trask came to the sideline he was met by Franks who went over the previous drive with him on the bench. Then he went and took over the huddle like he had from the beginning.
“He came through like he’d been starting every game,” remarked receiver Freddie Swain (three receptions, 67 yards, one touchdown).
“He’s comes and taps you on the butt and, ‘hey, let's go, we pick it up.’ You know, tap the O-line, you know. That's the kind of thing you need out of a quarterback, and he has good traits, so I think we’re pretty good.”
Pretty good? That’s fair to say. Sitting at 2-0 in their division and undefeated overall, the Gators have a game against FCS Towson before hitting their brutal October slate—Auburn, LSU, South Carolina and Georgia (technically the first weekend of November). But they’ve found a way to rally around Feleipe Franks and if Saturday is any indication, they’ve found their next quarterback to lead the way. The rest of the Florida Gators season began today, meaning by this season’s end—no matter the outcome—we’ll remember the 21st night of September.