SMOKE & MIRRORS

There are flaws in Dan Mullen’s offense, which is why he keeps tinkering with it to compensate. No doubt Florida needs to find a way to run the ball.


By FRANZ BEARD

GatorBait Senior Columnist


In the perfectly designed offensive world – the kind that exists on chalkboards – every play is a success. There is always a hole through which running backs can get to the second level and with well executed blocking can take the distance. Quarterbacks always have time to throw to open receivers and they are such a threat to run the football that it takes a linebacker or a safety out of coverage.


In the imperfect world that is Dan Mullen's reality in 2019, there are all sorts of flaws in the offense. The line does a better than decent job protecting the quarterback but it's not strong or physical enough that Mullen can trust running the ball on third-and-one. Because Feleipe Franks has been done for the season since he dislocated his ankle in game three against Kentucky, the quarterback has been Kyle Trask, good enough to get occasional tough yards running but never a threat to take off for 20 or so yards the way Franks could. On the other hand, Trask completes passes that Franks probably couldn't or wouldn't and the Florida passing game thrives while the running game continues to search for some measure of consistency.


What Mullen and the Gators live with is a pass-first offense that takes advantage of a receiving unit that ranks with the top four or five in the entire country. The running game, which has had several huge gainers like the 88-yard touchdown by Lamical Perine that sealed the win over Auburn or the 76-yard jet sweep by Josh Hammond that was the 9-inch stiletto in Kentucky's heart in game three, has relied more on the passing game putting opponents on their heels than the O-line going belly-to-belly with the big guys up front to create holes big enough to drive a truck through.


This isn't the way the offense works on the chalkboard but it is Mullen's reality and since he can't run it the way it's designed for reasons that go beyond the obvious, his only choice is to adapt. The way the offense is designed is a spread option, but since the option part is limited due to the limitations of the offensive line, this is pretty much a smoke and mirrors approach.

With a few exceptions, it's working fairly well. Having a deep, talented group of wide receivers led by Freddie Swain (29-430, five touchdowns) and Van Jefferson (29-362, four touchdowns) complemented by tight end Kyle Pitts (39-469, four touchdowns) has allowed Mullen to transition the Gators into a team that more resembles what Mike Leach does at Washington State and various outposts where his disciples employ the Air Raid than previous Mullen teams that used the running game to open things up for the pass.


Although there is a tremendous discrepancy in balance if you compare yardage figures – Florida averages 275 yards per game throwing the ball, 128.9 running it. The Gators have the SEC's third best passing attack, 13th best (out of 14 teams) rushing attack. If you check the numbers when it comes to play calls, the Gators have only attempted 20 more passes (304) than run plays (284) through nine games. Florida averages 8.1 yards per pass attempt, 4.1 per running play.

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Mullen goes into every game with a play sheet that includes contingencies for just about every defense the Gators might expect to see and a few that might be a brand new look. There were plenty of running plays built into the Georgia game plan but what actually gets called once the clock starts running usually depends on circumstances and what's working at the time. The Gators ran only 52 plays the entire game in four first half possessions and three in the second half.


“Many weeks we have 167 play calls going into a game,” Mullen said. For Georgia he estimates there were 130 on his master play sheet. “Let's say we got 130 plays into the game We ran 52. That means there are 80 things we wanted to do that we didn't get to do during the course of the game offensively, but you have that many because you don't always know how the game is going to play out and what's going to dictate what's going to happen out there on the field.”


To compensate for the lack of running game against Georgia, he wanted more plays for dual threat quarterback Emory Jones, who got in one running play. Jones has very quick feet, the ability to make good decisions in the option game and a good enough arm that opponents have to respect him. The perfect time, it seemed to give Jones a chance to impact the Georgia game was on Florida's first offensive possession when the Gators had second-and-less than a yard at the Georgia 40. Instead of three cracks into the Georgia line to pick up the yard that would have moved the chains, Florida threw on fourth down and turned the ball over to Georgia.


Mullen had planned to get Jones involved in the game, but the Gators fell behind and never caught up. Complicating matters was Florida's inability to get Georgia off the field on third down. Georgia converted 12-18 on third downs, controlled the clock and more or less forced the Gators into a situation where perhaps 80% of the play calls were passes, altering whatever plans Mullen had to use Jones to jumpstart the running game. Making matters worse, Florida had only seven possessions the entire game – four in the first half when the Gators managed a single field goal and three in the second, the last two which resulted in Trask touchdown passes.


As much as Mullen would have liked to use Jones, circumstances wouldn't allow it.

“Our job is to make sure we're adapting to put us in the best position to win that specific game at that time, so obviously I wanted to get him [Jones] in the game a lot more on Saturday,” Mullen said. “We had a plan to get him into the game a lot more on Saturday. As the game played out, it didn't dictate that to happen for us."


Once the Gators fell behind 16-3, there was no other choice but to turn the game over to Trask who responded by driving UF to the two fourth quarter touchdowns that made it a close call.

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Throwing nearly every down isn't the Mullen offense but he hasn't had the offensive line to run like he wants and with a gifted passer like Trask to go with so many quality receivers, the offense has been adapted to what the Gators do best.


“So many games end up differently than you'd expect them to end up,” Mullen said, pointing out that he's got to adapt to whatever the defense is throwing at him as well as what's working and what isn't.


If there is some sort of silver lining to this smoke and mirrors offense that sprinkles in a few running plays with a heavy dose of passing, it is the final three games on the schedule are Vanderbilt, Missouri and Florida State. Vandy's defense has been a train wreck all season whether against the pass or the run. Missouri gave up 297 to Kentucky a couple of weeks ago and 297 to Wyoming in the first game of the year. Florida State gave up 320 yards to Clemson. There will be opportunities to run the ball, opportunities to get Emory Jones on the field to show that he can move the team with feet and arm, but even with increased opportunities to work on the running game, don't expect the Gators to depart from what's working now.


The Gators need to run the ball and Mullen wants more of a statistically balanced team, but he's also going to play to the team's strengths. Right now that's throwing the football.

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