This one was a little rougher than Week 1.
The No. 3 Florida Gators (2-0) defeated the South Carolina Gamecocks (0-2) by two touchdowns, 38-24, yet it somehow didn’t truly feel over until there were 0:55 seconds left on the game clock and Gamecocks quarterback Collin Hill (28-27, 212 yards, 2 touchdowns) threw what should have been a touchdown pass only to see it fall out of the hands of the typically dependable Shi Smith (12-85 yards-1TD).
“Great win, 2-0 in the SEC. Obviously tough opponent,” reflected Head Coach Dan Mullen following the win.
“I thought we came out and we did some things better than we did last week. We made some mistakes that you can't make throughout the course of the game…we certainly have to get a lot better with how we finished the game. Offensively should have finished the game much sooner. Defensively have the opportunity to get off the field.”
It will be that last drive—and the fourth quarter—that will stick in minds as evaluations of the Gators second win of the season rolls in. The Gamecocks ran an 18 play, 74-yard drive that lasted 7:23 of game time…and resulted in no points.
While watching those drives or South Carolina’s sideline celebrate moments like stopping Kyle Pitts on four of his eight targets—while still giving up four receptions for 57 yards and two touchdowns to the tight end—or drain time off the clock with little thought for clock management, it all seemed strangely familiar.
Because it was.
In so many ways this game was a testament to where Florida was at the outset of this decade versus where they are now.
Everything South Carolina did today was the story of the Gators under Will Muschamp from 2011-2014. One of Muschamp’s favorite sayings was, “win the turnover battle, win the game. Control the time of possession, win the game.”
The Gamecocks operated under that mantra, controlling the time of possession 36:23 to the Gators 23:37. They also won the turnover battle, grabbing two off the Gators (an interception and a fumble) off which they scored 14 points while only giving up one off which Florida scored a touchdown.
The South Carolina defense played well enough, as those under Muschamp are oft to do, holding Florida to 348 total yards, a full 294 yards less than Florida put up versus Ole Miss in that 51-35 win. It wasn’t enough to stand up to what is proving to be one of the country’s most prolific offenses, but more on that later. Yet after the game, Muschamp was still spending time answering questions about clock management on the final drive, knowing they had to score twice.
“It wasn’t a deliberate pace. We were trying to get first downs. They were playing more coverage and staying on top of us. We weren’t able to get explosive plays down the field; we were taking what they were giving us. We still had a minute to play in the game with two timeouts and an onside kick, we could go score and win the game.
“There were a lot of plays strung together, but no explosive ones because they were playing coverage. Did we want more time on the clock? Yes, but at the end of the day we have to take what they were giving us, and that’s what we were doing.”
Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham talked about “giving” the offense some room when recapping the Ole Miss win. He did much the same against South Carolina.
“The way you lose the game is you give up an explosive play right off the bat and you force an onside kick. Now you’re down to a two-possession game, then you’ve got to play with them with time on the clock. There was a third and 1 there where actually going against Lane before in that situation, you’ve gotta be ready for a shot.
“There’s two and a half minutes in the game, and it’s third and 1. You give the first, keep the clock running at that point. You understand what I’m saying? Because at the end of the day, if they score on third and —if they take a shot on third and 1 and don’t get it, they’re going to run for it on fourth down. You have to understand the clock is a factor in what you do, and you’ve got to keep it moving to allow you to get it down to where they can’t win the game.”
While this is a bit of a chess move on a checkers board, this can’t take away from the fact that there are glaring deficiencies on the defense that have to be addressed. The pass defense looks to have the pieces in place to be good. Getting Shawn Davis (8 tackles, 1 pass breakup) back—after he was ejected for targeting versus Ole Miss—helped. He broke up a pass in the endzone that would’ve been a touchdown.
Sophomore corner Jaydon Hill (2 tackles, 3 pass break-ups) did the same, and he did it twice in the endzone.
“I'm very proud of Jaydon. We came in together and I think he's gotten a lot better from last year to this year and I think it's just the beginning for both of us,” said corner Kaiir Elam.
Elam as well made the jump from freshman to sophomore—and Week 1 to Week 2—that should be encouraging. He finished tied with Davis for a team leading 8 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 2 pass breakup’s. Having Marco Wilson at nickel STAR on Saturday was a difference maker as well. Several times, he was able to drop into double coverage next to Elam and contest catches, including one in the endzone.
"It's great to have a good cover guy in the slot. That's where some teams have their best receiver, so for Marco to play there is a big help,” said Elam.
It’s primarily the middle of the field and the interior defensive line that needs to take that next step forward. The outside linebackers of Brenton Cox and Jeremiah Moon helped push Collin Hill’s pocket much of the day and Brenton Cox is proving to be all he was advertised to be. But there isn’t consistent play around them.
On the last South Carolina play of the game, 4th and goal from the four-yard line, linebackers coach Christian Robinson and Grantham were both jumping and waving, attempting to get the attention of redshirt freshman Ty’Ron Hopper. They wanted him to move to the other side. Eventually they just called a timeout instead to get the defense reset.
Florida gave up 6-17 on third down to the Gamecocks.
“You can’t dwell on those things like that,” contemplates Elam.
“All those third down conversions are just learning lessons to help us execute next time. I feel like we should get off the field every third down. If not, you can’t dwell on it. You’ve just got to learn from it, and come smarter and harder.”
This issues are fixable according to Mullen, and a combination of several problems.
“I think it’s a yes, a combination of a bunch of different things. It’s not one thing that’s going to show on one specific play or one thing that’s gonna show up 15-20 times during the course of a game. I think there are a couple of different things, execution, when we get to tackling in the open field, we’ve got to make sure we’re getting lined up properly, making sure we get 11 guys running to the football properly. I think just combinations of those things.
“Then again, looking at it another high scoring game, a little more high scoring than what you’re used to seeing this time of year. I think defenses will start catching up as the year keeps moving forward.”
Of course all this talk is distracting from another marquee day for the Gators offense. Well, it w as marquee at least on paper. The Gators put up 38 points and 348 yards and afterwards, Mullen was disappointed.
“I didn’t think we played exceptionally well today offensively, to be honest with you. We made some critical errors in the course of the game. I expect us to play a lot better than we did today offensively. At times, we did some really good things, guys made plays, distributed the ball well at times. But we had a couple of three-and-outs, we had two turnovers. We missed a touchdown in the red zone. Just little things that a really efficient offense, when we’re rolling, that we aren’t going to do.”
Still, if a a team can put together those numbers in a relatively off performance, then how potent can it be overall? And that’s where Florida is now. No more excuses for poor clock management or game planning. Five touchdowns isn’t enough. Trask’s 684 yards are the most through the first two games by a Gators quarterback since Rex Grossman opened his 2001 Heisman Trophy runner-up season with 706 in UF’s first two games is standard.
Going into the game, Kyle Pitts had more touchdowns individually than the rest of the TEAMS in the SEC. That’s nothing. Because now this offense is expected to be high powered and electric.
And on Saturday, in a day offense could have done so much more, there were still those electric moments. None more so than the seven-yard pass Trask sent to Kadarius Toney over the middle of the field. The senior receiver made five different D-1 defenders slip and/or run into each other as he hoofed it another 50-yards for the 57-yard touchdown.
Said Mullen of the day Toney (6-86 yards, 1 TD) had, “He’s a guy you can move all over the place, put him in the back field, motion him out of the back field. To be able to do all the different he has to be smart and not really just intelligent, but a smart football player to learn how to do all the different things. He did a really good job of that today.”
Of course there was Kyle-to-Kyle, which looks to be one of the most well oiled machines in the country. They’ve now connected for six total touchdowns. Pitts’ second touchdown reception this afternoon was the 12th of his career and tied the school record for career receiving touchdowns by a tight end.
“I would say that with our relationship it’s that when we go out there he trusts me and I trust him to put the ball there. And Coach Mullen the play calls to get me the ball,” explained Pitts.
Running back Dameon Pierce (9-51 yards, 1TD) carried the first scoring drive of the game, often with defenders his back. He redirected himself to open lanes, lowered his shoulder and plowed the offense down field to their first score.
“That’s one thing we practiced all week,” revealed Pierce, “you know, practice makes perfect. We were just hitting the gaps, we had great pulls, great blocks. It was a team effort on that drive and we got a touchdown.”
And hometown boy Trent Whittemore made an excellent catch climbing the ladder and then another for his first touchdown off a well-set rub by Justin Shorter.
Whittemore described the touchdown saying, “just a play that we been repping in practice all week and got man coverage and Kyle just put it in a great spot. I praise the Lord I was able to come down with it. I just credit Kyle for a great throw, putting it in a spot where it was going to me or nobody. So, credit to him and praise the Lord I was able to come down with it.”
There were mistakes here as well, like Trask’s interception, which he said was a result of Toney slipping; “I thought he could get back up. It was just one of those fluke deals that we need to clean up.”
And the offense picked up only nine yards total in the 4th quarter while the Gamecocks controlled the time of possession and forced a punt.
But for this team to be at a point where the offense can utilize 11 different playmakers, then they can be a dangerous team that grows stronger as the year evolves. It was how the LSU Tigers grew in 2019 en route to a National Championship. And the game plan Florida used against them in Baton Rouge (running 84 plays to the Tigers 48). is much the same game plan South Carolina tried against Florida today (running 83 plays to Florida’s 53). Control the time of posses and keep the explosive offense off the field. It hasn’t worked either time.
“With the capability and potential of our offense, the playmakers that we have, we expect to score every single time we have the ball,” admits Trask.
“And we should have scored every time we have the ball. There were little things that we did; me personally, I can’t put the ball on the ground. We can’t give the ball to the other team. We’ve just go to out and do a better job of cleaning up those little things. If we do that, there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll be able to score on every single drive.”
It’s an entirely different mindset. And it eases some of the roughness from an earned win. At the end of the day, the Florida Gators are 2-0 in a SEC only season without tune up games. Their defense can be fixed and their offense can’t be stopped.