Time for the Gators to Grow Up

Okay, the Gators are 2-0. That’s what they should be. There is no way Ole Miss or South Carolina could have or should have beaten them. And, 2-0 looks really good right now, particularly when we’re seeing Oklahoma with two straight losses for the first time since 1999 and Texas losing to TCU and Auburn looking like a lost ball in the tall grass against Georgia.

What Florida’s 2-0 start has taught us is that when the Gators are fully focused, they are capable of blowing up scoreboards with their high tech offense that sports weapons at every skill position and a QB in Kyle Trask who sees the field with such clarity that if you’re open, the ball will come your way. What the defense has taught us in these two wins is that talent alone isn’t enough to get the job done. All the talent in the world can’t help you if you consistently miss tackles or blow assignments.

Dan Mullen has so many weapons at his disposal that the Gators are capable of hanging big numbers on any team on their schedule. Trask (10 touchdown passes, 684 yards, 9.63 per attempt) might set school records even in a season shortened by two games. Tight end Kyle Pitts (12-227, 6 TD catches) is playing himself into a top ten pick in the next NFL Draft. Kadarius Toney is scary good (11-145 receiving for 2 TDs, 4-57 rushing for 1 TD, 21.0 average per punt return) and a threat to do something electric every time he touches the ball. Dameon Pierce (18-106, 1 TD) looks like a beast although he needs to get the ball more often in the run game. Eleven different Gators have caught a pass. Through two games, the Gators are averaging 495 yards and 7.8 yards per play.

That bodes well for shootouts but there is no reason the Gators should have to win games in shootout fashion. At some point the defense has to live up to its talent and billing. There is no reason or excuse for what has happened so far.

Against Ole Miss (51-35 Florida win), the Gators held a 35-14 lead after their first possession of the third quarter. There was no way the Ole Miss could stop the Florida offense that game – six touchdowns and three field goals in 11 possessions – but the defense spent what seemed a lifetime on the field. Ole Miss racked up 613 yards and averaged 7.9 yards per play. The Rebels converted 9-14 on third down and had seven drives of at least 50 yards, four that were 75 yards or more.

Now Ole Miss has a brilliant play caller in Lane Kiffin and some outstanding offensive weapons, but the Gators could have gotten the Rebels off the field time and time again except for more than 20 missed tackles and probably as many or more missed assignments. Far too many times, an Ole Miss receiver was wide open in space because a Florida DB made the wrong read or Matt Corral was scrambling for big yardage because the contain was AWOL.

The South Carolina game (38-24 win) wasn’t exactly a shootout the Ole Miss game was but it was far closer than it should have been. The Gators held a 38-14 lead with 4:44 remaining in the third quarter at which point the offense seemed to punch the cruise control button. That put the defense back on the field and while they didn’t give up huge, explosive plays, they allowed the Gamecocks to dink and dunk while keeping the chains moving. The Gators simply couldn’t get the Gamecocks off the field. The Gators managed just 53 offensive snaps which were good for 342 yards (a respectable 6.6 yards per play), but only 12 of those snaps came in the fourth quarter when the Gators netted just 11 yards. Three of those snaps were in victory formation.

South Carolina, meanwhile, got off 83 snaps and held the ball for 36:23. As bad as that sounds, the Gamecocks snapped the ball 29 times in the fourth quarter alone while holding the ball for 11:12. South Carolina scored a touchdown on an 11-play possession and drove the ball 74 yards in 18 plays to the Florida four before the UF defense rose to the occasion and got four consecutive stops to prevent the game going into white knuckles territory. Although South Carolina managed only 329 yards (just 4.0 per play) for the game, the Gamecocks ground out 25 first downs (Florida only had 18) and converted 5-6 on fourth down.

Those are troubling numbers. Some of the blame – not all of it for sure – can be placed on the offense. Mullen alluded to that in his post-game remarks.

“Offense going three-and-out concerns me,” Mullen said. “That’s really bad defense. Our offense is extremely responsible for playing defense. Twice we give them the ball at midfield and in the fourth quarter we come out with two three-and-outs offensively, so that’s really bad defense played by the offense.”

Missed tackles and blown assignments are usually a sign of inexperience but the Gators have too many veterans on that side of the ball for the inexperience excuse to work. Lack of focus and immaturity seems to be a more likely reason for the lack of defensive productivity. It’s alarming enough that Mullen indicated there will be a wholesale evaluation of everything that’s going on defensively this week.

“We have to evaluate our assignments,” Mullen said. “Have to evaluate if we’re making the right call. Have to evaluate if we’re making tackles the right way. If we’re executing the right way.”

Maybe the best way to describe what we have seen so far with the defense is the old one step forward, two steps backward adage. It seems that every time the Gators make a good play on defense it is followed up by a combination of missed tackles or blown assignments. That can’t continue if this team is to move forward and play to its potential.

There is championship potential in this Florida team. There is championship personnel. There is depth like Dan Mullen has never had before. It’s an SEC roster from top to bottom. The offensive line isn’t functioning at the highest level yet, but they are markedly improved over 2019 and it’s not difficult to see the growth even through two games. There is explosiveness with the offense and the kind of speed that can turn a routine pass into a 57-yard touchdown (see Trask to Toney with 4:44 left in the third quarter to make the score 38-14 against South Carolina). Trevon Grimes, Jacob Copeland, Justin Shorter and Trent Whittemore are all capable of breakout games.

There is no shortage of talented defenders, either. This is what is so befuddling about the first two games. We see the possibilities of an elite pass rusher in Brenton Cox Jr. and in Ventrell Miller we see a middle linebacker who can go sideline to sideline. There have been occasions when Tedarrell Slaton will clog up the middle or Kaiir Elam shows that burst of speed it takes to break cleanly on the football, but the exceptional plays are sandwiched between the kind of plays that must make defensive coordinator Todd Grantham want to pull his hair out.

Mullen is rightly concerned with the fact the Gators are giving up 143.5 yards per game on the ground, 327.5 yards per game through the air (8.19 per pass attempt) and 5.9 yards per play. He has to be even more concerned with the fact that the Gators have forced only two turnovers. Those numbers have to improve and improve quickly.

The next two weeks are going to go a long way toward telling us how good the Gators are as well as how good they can be. Texas A&M looked horrendous both offensively and defensively against Vanderbilt in game one. The Aggies had spurts against Alabama that tell you they are capable of turning things around. Next week’s game is in College Station and while Kyle Field won’t be filled to the rafters with the usual 102,000 fans, it’s still a road game for the Gators. You know the Aggies will be far more comfortable at home than they were in Tuscaloosa. Against Mississippi State, LSU’s defense played as if it was observing social distancing protocols but the Tigers looked like a different team in game two. They held Vanderbilt to 256 yards and a single touchdown while the offense put up 41 points and 498 yards. Against Vanderbilt, LSU looked more like a team that is capable of running the table for the remaining games on the schedule.

If the Gators can score a win on the road at Texas A&M and then whack LSU in The Swamp on October 10, then they will have generated the kind of momentum that makes them a legitimate threat to unseat Georgia at the top of the SEC East. Lose one and there is time to recover. Lose two and you can forget championship aspirations. The potential is there to go 10-0 even though we haven’t seen it in weeks one and two except on the offensive side of the ball.

The Apostle Paul said, “When I was a child I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I set aside my childish ways.”

To go 2-0 in the next two weeks will require a team that can look itself in the mirror and decide it’s time to set aside the childish ways and play like grown men. It’s time for the Gators to grow up.

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