The Florida Gators have earned the right to party… for now. (Photo credit: Matt Stamey, Associated Press)
At long last, a game in which the Florida Gators sprinted out of the gates and knocked their opponent down for the count.
It felt good, it looked good on TV, it looked good on the stat sheet, and it’s a good sign about where this program is headed under Billy Napier (more on that later in this piece.) So, what did we take away from the Gators’ 38-6 win over South Carolina?
1: The Florida Gators rattled Spencer Rattler and his offensive teammates
Contrary to the 2020 Cotton Bowl when Rattler was skipping up and down the field mocking the Gator Chomp, the Oklahoma-turned-South-Carolina QB never looked the slightest bit comfortable. It’s possible that he was too busy being a bad teammate during practice that week to focus on his own preparation. It’s also possible that Florida’s defense banded together and made a pact to better itself following the departure of Brenton Cox. And it’s also possible that South Carolina offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield, who oversees the third-worst offense in the fourteen-team SEC, just generally does not give his personnel anything to work with.
Either way, the Gators’ front seven turned in its best performance of the year. Florida’s defense sacked Rattler three times, flushed him out of the pocket six additional times, and dropped Carolina running backs for losses on four other plays. And best of all, in an astounding epidemic of fumblitis, Florida took the ball away on three straight possessions.
There was Rashad Torrence II barreling into Antwane Wells Jr., dislodging the football, and falling on it. There was Desmond Watson simply ripping the football out of Jaheim Bell’s hands, delivering a picture-perfect stiff-arm to Rattler, and having the presence of mind to go down after a ten-yard return as the ball was slipping out of his grip. And there was Kamari Wilson delivering a big hit on Jalen Brooks after he caught the ball and knocking it directly into the right hand of an incoming Trey Dean.
There were a few plays to nitpick- such as, for example, Florida giving up a 3rd and 17- but this Florida Gators defense dominated the game from start to finish. And that is worth a round of applause.
2: AR really needs to come back, but he was more than good enough to win
The talk these days in Gainesville mostly centers around Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson’s upcoming decision: should he stay another year at Florida, or leave early for the NFL Draft? On Saturday, he did some things that bolstered the argument for each.
A few throws from Richardson early on did not exactly help his draft stock. He nearly threw a pick on the Gators’ first drive of the game- and had it been picked, it might have gone all the way back the other way for a touchdown- but the Gamecock defender dropped the ball. Two drives later, Richardson made a terrible decision: he locked on to his primary target, Ricky Pearsall, and threw one in his direction; the problem is, that was also in the direction of three different Gamecock defenders. Can’t try to force passes into triple coverage. That’s a no.
In the NFL, or even against a great college team like Georgia or Alabama, those two passes are picked off. And against that type of competition, where the margin of error is small to begin with, those mistakes could be critical. That’s not to harp on the kid; that’s just the way football works.
To be clear, Richardson did far more good than bad against South Carolina. For the most part, he did a great job commanding the offense, ran with a purpose, and threw some beautiful balls to places where only his guy could get it (such as his touchdown to Ricky Pearsall). He’s also seeming to get better and better with timing routes in general, which he displayed early in the game to Caleb Douglas and then sporadically at points through the night.
Richardson will soon make the decision that he deems to be the best for him. I’m in no place to tell him what that decision is, and whatever decision he makes, I will obviously support him with nothing less than my whole heart. It’s just that my head is saying he would probably be wise to come back.
3: Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson are the future
Florida’s running backs will sorely miss the presence of O’Cyrus Torrence, who yet again grabbed SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week Honor. The Gators will have to replace him next year, and those are going to be enormous shoes to fill. But nevertheless, Florida is set at running back through at least 2023- and maybe longer.
Montrell Johnson abused South Carolina for runs of 22, 31, 20, and then an eight yard touchdown run to cap off a wild day that included a career-high 161 yards on 24 carries. He brought, in a metaphorical sense at least, a heavy supply of thunder. He ran angrily all day, alternating between juking South Carolina defenders out and simply running through them. And he also did the fundamental things right, such as switching the arm he’d carry the ball with when he changed fields and picking the right gaps to run through between the tackles.
Of course, every good batch of thunder needs some lightning, and Trevor Etienne was more than happy to provide it. Etienne exploded for an 85 yard touchdown run late in the first quarter, searing the Gamecock defense through its right side and turning on the jets to leave his pursuers behind. Only in the final few yards of the footrace did Etienne get touched- ideally, you’d like to see him utilize the sideline instead of cutting back inward and potentially giving defenders a whack at the football to save face- but Etienne survived that and dove across the goal line for the score.
So much about next year’s team will center around if Richardson returns at QB, and how Florida fares in its quest to replace O’Cyrus Torrence. But one way or another, no matter what this offense looks like in 2023, you can bet that Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson will have large roles in it.
4: This may have been the worst special teams performance in Florida Gators history
Note the words “may have been” in the section header here. I wasn’t alive for, nor do I have the game film from, Gator games in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It’s possible that there was a football game before the Korean War in which the Florida Gators’ special teams more completely and utterly humiliated itself than it did on Saturday against South Carolina. But as for the modern era, it’s between Saturday and the 2014 Missouri game for the title of “Worst Special Teams Performance.”
It begun with Xzavier Henderson fumbling on a punt return, which thankfully Florida recovered. But the nightmare was only getting started. Later in the first half, Florida called a timeout preceding a South Carolina 4th and 6; the Gators then took a nap and woke up only after punter Kai Kroeger had suddenly stopped his punt motion and lofted a pass to Dakereon Joyner, who took it 48 yards for a touchdown. Getting burned on a fake punt is one thing, but getting burned on a fake punt for a 48 yard touchdown after your team took a timeout, presumably to gather its wits and be on the lookout for exactly that, is quite another.
But there were still more horrors to come. After Florida’s defense forced the first of three straight turnovers, Adam Mihalek’s field goal attempt was blocked. Two turnovers later, Florida’s field goal team had a chance at redemption- and blew it, as holder Jeremy Crawshaw couldn’t handle the snap. And for a finale, Florida’s punt team surrendered a punt return by Josh Vann that netted 52 yards: 37 on the return and 15 more with a facemask.
It’s ultimately not a big deal because Florida won the game 38-6. And at this point, if it does cost Florida the rest of the year, it would be doing so in a season that already has four losses in it. But after five massive special teams gaffes in one game, hopefully this will be used as a point of emphasis this offseason.
The verdict: this is what you do with inferior opponents. You blow them out.
A year ago, South Carolina embarrassed Florida in Columbia and sent Dan Mullen’s career into a downward spiral from which it would not recover. This time around, the Florida Gators flipped that script- and delivered an even worse beatdown to Shane Beamer’s Gamecocks.
To go from where the Florida Gators were one year ago today to where the program wants to be is not going to be a process that is completed very quickly. There will be learning curves. Lumps will be taken. Growing pains will be suffered. And more frustration likely lies ahead on this journey- possibly even in the next two weeks. That’s right- it’s very, very possible, if not even likely, that Florida loses to FSU next weekend in Tallahassee.
But the moral of this story is, when an inferior program that embarrassed you the year before gets some momentum and starts thinking it belongs on the same tier as you as a program, you have two options: either (figuratively) stomp on their throat and unceremoniously decapitate them, or prove them right and let them join you. And this is not a scenario where sharing is caring. You have to put an end to that thought process of theirs before it can even really formulate.
Florida has enough challengers to deal with on a yearly basis, such as LSU, Georgia, and Alabama that make their road back to the top plenty tough. There’s no reason to give another program any sense of legitimacy, and adjust your own mental breakdowns of your schedules to include a new team in the category of “this team is going to be a problem.” Oh, sure, every opponent must be respected, but there’s a difference between adequately preparing for a fellow SEC team and executing against them while knowing you’re going to blow them out and beating them, and mentally viewing them in the same fashion as the top dogs in the league.
The Florida Gators had a score to settle here, and they settled it. And that right there is an indication of growth. Last year’s team would have lost this game, and the reason we know that is because last year’s team did lose this game. This year’s team eliminated any budding sentiments that Shane Beamer would turn this series into a competitive one, and proved for all the world to see which program is superior.