The Florida Gators have some soul-searching to do after one of the most embarrassing performances in school history. (Photo credit: Vanderbilt athletics)
Despite all that had gone wrong for the Florida Gators in the first 59:52, there they were in Vanderbilt territory with one final chance to to salvage something from an embarrassing performance against a team that doesn’t even bother to go after the same caliber of athlete as Florida.
But Anthony Richardson’s last ditch heave sailed through the end zone, and the Gators’ unacceptable, abysmal, horrifying, putrid, and downright disgraceful performance had finally netted them a loss against the Commodores, 31-24.
Through the years, (2013 aside) Florida had tried to give away a bevy of games to the Dores. You can go back to the 1996 national championship season, and start with that ugly 28-21 Florida victory. There was the 2005 game that featured Jay Cutler and a double overtime Florida win. There was a nauseating 26-21 Florida survival in 2011. There were back-to-back all-time ugly football games in 2015 and 2016; Florida escaped those with wins by a combined score of 22-13. And then there was 2018, a game that Florida trailed 21-3 before waking up just in time to pull off the comeback.
And then there was yesterday, the latest in a long line of games where the Florida Gators either didn’t take Vanderbilt seriously or actively cannibalized itself. Only this time, the Gators couldn’t survive.
Now Florida, at long last, has earned the ultimate badge of dishonor that an SEC team can get in conference play: a loss to Vanderbilt.
Florida actually scored first. The Gators opened the game with a nice drive before it stalled in the red zone. Adam Mihalek kicked an easy field goal, and Florida went up 3-0.
From there, though, Florida began a long, frustrating day of doing little other than self-destruct.
Despite throwing for 400 yards, Anthony Richardson missed some easy reads and misfired on some critical passes— among them a two point conversion throw that needed to go to the pylon with some air under it to a leaking receiver, but was thrown too far inside and too low and broken up. He also flung the last-ditch Hail Mary a solid ten yards out of the end zone.
But the most costly mistake attributed to him on the stat sheet wasn’t actually his fault. Under duress, Richardson got off a low, off-balance throw to Thai Chaikhaio-Bowman that he dove for, bobbled, and deflected high in the air for an interception by a diving Jaylen Mahoney. Though any ball a receiver has to dive for requires a great effort, Chaikhaio-Bowman was there. He should have caught the ball. Because he did not and instead deferred that ability to Mahoney, he gave the Commodores the ball inside Florida’s 20 and spotted Vanderbilt an easy touchdown, a 28-yard connection from Mike Wright to tight end Ben Bresnahan.
The self-destruction for Florida was contagious on this day. Florida pass-catchers dropped at least seven passes that hit them in the hands (and may have been more, I’ll have to see what the advanced stats say when they come out tomorrow— that was just my unofficial count). Antwaun Powell-Ryland was whistled for a facemask penalty on a play in which he sacked Vandy QB Mike Wright for a 15 yard loss on 3rd and 12, a 30 yard swing that eventually led to a touchdown. And that was one of just eight penalties on the day for Florida— three of which came on third downs after Florida had made the stop. Florida’s entire defense consistently failed to make tackles, leading to at least three plays (again by my unofficial count) that yielded 10 or more yards after first contact. Oh! And Florida missed an extra point, just for fun.
Making matters worse, Florida’s offense suffered from a fatal cocktail of an atrocious offensive line and bad play-calling— and it’s impossible to know which was more responsible for Florida’s offensive stagnation. On the one hand, coming out and throwing the ball a ton when the running game is clearly your offense’s strength— and now you’re down Xzavier Henderson (and early into the game, Ricky Pearsall as well)— is puzzling. On the other hand, when Florida did try to run the ball, the offensive line rarely controlled the point of attack, resulting in negative plays, or, at best, stalemates that resulted in no gain.
It was a classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Two critical things came together to kill the Florida Gators. The bottom line was that for one reason or another, Florida’s run game simply did not exist on this day.
To be fair to Florida, the officials did not help matters. The Commodores appeared to be holding on more plays than not and only once the whole game got called for it, while Florida got whistled for some questionable stuff that very easily could have been let go— and in today’s college football, usually is.
Make no mistake. The Florida Gators absolutely, unequivocally deserved to lose this game, and face all the embarrassment that comes with it. Because while all of the aforementioned errors could have been written off as either small stuff that everybody does wrong at times or just bad luck in the way of officiating or just crazy metaphysics, the Florida Gators made two unforgivable mistakes that cost them the game. And there was nobody to blame for them but two of the team’s best defensive players.
The one of the two that hurts more in the long term was when Ventrell Miller lowered the crown of his helmet making a tackle and got himself ejected for targeting. That cost him not only the remainder of this game, but the first half of next week’s showdown against FSU as well.
But the real killer against the Commodores was when Jason Marshall— thrust into punt return duties without Xzavier Henderson— tried to chase a punt backwards inside his own ten yard line. He couldn’t handle it, fumbled it, and Vanderbilt’s Wesley Schelling recovered it for a touchdown just before the half to turn a 7-6 Vandy lead into 14-6 at the break.
At that point, many thought that Florida would simply regroup, figure stuff out and come back to escape against Vanderbilt in the second half, as they’ve done so many times before.
But this time they didn’t. And now the Florida Gators, which barely survived against USF and looked suspiciously weak against Eastern Washington for a quarter, has its albatross in year one of the Billy Napier.
It’s not the worst loss in school history. Georgia Southern in 2013 easily takes that prize. And it’s not even the most embarrassing loss to Vanderbilt; getting curb-stomped 34-17 by the Commodores in Gainesville wins that award.
But this is easily one of the ten most despicable, disgusting, humiliating, appalling, logo-disgracing, program-desecrating, and just simply unacceptable losses in program history. That’s on the 2022 team’s record now, and on Billy Napier’s permanent record. And Napier now owns one of half of this statistic: Florida has now suffered losing SEC records in back-to-back seasons since 1958-59.
And although I do trust Napier to get this ship righted in the future when he has his recruits in place— I truly do think he’s the man— in the meantime, he still has a rivalry game to coach next week against FSU. And it is a loss of that aforementioned gravity that he and his team will be trying to shake off next week in Tallahassee— a game that, if Florida loses too, will complete a two-week stretch that completely undoes all the positive moments that the Florida Gators have given us in 2022. And that, in turn, would make 2023 a much more pressure-packed year than it had to be.