Are the Florida Gators indeed back? (Photo credit: Florida Gators Athletics Association)
It certainly seems as though the Florida Gators are at least back-ish after a roller-coaster ride on Saturday night that culminated in a 29-26 win over No. 7 Utah. But at least now we finally know some things about this team after seeing them play for the first time since an embarrassing 29-17 loss to Central Florida last December.
So what changed since then? What, exactly, is different? And what do we make of this team?
Here are the five things that stood out to me in the victory:
1: Anthony Richardson is legit
There was never any doubt about what Anthony Richardson could do, at least not among those with basic understanding of the game of football. But now, at last, we got to see him finally do those things in a real, live game- and in a non-thrown-into-the-fire-against-a-historically-strong-defense situation. With a full offseason at the controls, Richardson looked like the star that Florida Gators fans all knew he could be. He did nearly throw what would have been a costly pick, but other than that, he provided little data that contradicted his hype. For the most part, he was poised, calm, cool, and collected, zinging fireballs to receivers with confidence at times and making athletic plays with his legs at others.
Two plays in particular stand out. One, the second touchdown- the long one before the half. Richardson’s blazing speed meant 40 free yards before he was even intruded upon by a defender, which he promptly dispatched in the open field with a downward-aimed stiff-arm before trotting the final five yards. And two, the two point conversion. Richardson embarrassed former teammate Mohamoud Diabate, putting him through the spin cycle with a crazy jab-step-spin-pirouette combo move before wheeling to his right and hitting Ja’Quavion Fraziars for the two.
We’ll need to see more of him before anointing him as a Heisman Trophy favorite, of course. But so far, so good from #15. Put it this way- he’s done nothing to dissuade those conversations.
2: The run defense needs work
Let’s start by acknowledging that Utah is not a bad rushing team. It wasn’t like Florida’s defense got pushed around by the offensive lines of Ohio, or Wyoming, or Nevada. The Utes have an above-average Power Five offensive line and good runners behind it. Even QB Cam Rising is a chore to bring down.
But the Utes’ ground attack also doesn’t hold a candle to Georgia’s, or Alabama’s, or Texas A&M’s, or even LSU’s- yes, for as bad as they looked against FSU, that LSU roster is still littered with five-star talent- and those are the teams that the Florida Gators will have to beat if they want to reach their goals this year. And yet Utah punished Florida for 230 yards on the ground, much of it between the tackle box. You can live with Rising bailing on a crumpling pocket and escaping for 28 yards on the scramble drill in the final minute, but Utah abusing Florida for 5-7 yard runs on dive and slash plays on a consistent basis is not something that bodes well for this team moving forward.
So Florida needs to get better in the front seven, particularly at the line of scrimmage. They need to get meaner, they need to get more gap-sound, and they need to be the ones delivering the push, not reacting to it being delivered. And fast. If they do? Things will work out all right for this team. If they don’t? The joy of this Utah win could be pretty short-lived.
3: The Florida Gators’ running game is terrifying
The inverse of takeaway #2 is also true: Florida’s rushing attack is nasty. Who would have thought? Of course, Anthony Richardson has a lot to do with that from a pure athletic standpoint, but Florida’s offensive line is now… dare I say… really good. And the runners behind them are too.
It begins with the offensive line. O’Cyrus Torrence coming over from Louisiana gave the unit an instant boost, and the man called “CyBo” is certainly not without praise. Torrence was phenomenal at his guard slot. But the rest of the linemen more than held up their end of the bargain. Ethan White, Richard Gouraige, Kingsley Eguakun, Richie Leonard, and Austin Barber all stood up and did their jobs for four quarters. (Side note: Eguakun gets a game ball for slinging a Utah defender to the ground like a doll on Richardson’s 45 yard touchdown run late in the first half.) They all fired off the ball, engaged with their defender quickly and then kept them at bay for several seconds while the play developed behind them.
Speaking of which: Florida has three playmakers at running back that we know of, and might have a fourth pending Lorenzo Lingard’s situation. Trevor Etienne ran hard and angry, making the most of his five carries with 64 yards and multiple broken tackles along the way. Montrell Johnson was also a terror, breaking free for 75 yards on 12 carries. And stalwart Nay’Quan Wright did nothing to hurt his standing in the running back pecking order, running the ball ten times for 39 yards. If the Gators can just hold onto the ball, this ground game can be a nuisance for opponents to deal with.
4: Ball security, ball security, ball security
For as stout as Florida’s ground game was on Saturday against Utah, two plays wiped a lot of the shine out of it. And it’s unfortunate that two plays could ruin an otherwise stellar team rushing performance, but those two plays nearly cost Florida the game.
On the first drive, Florida was coasting up the field and seemed certain to score points of some type… but then Montrell Johnson fumbled. Utah’s RJ Hubert picked it up and returned it deep inside Gator territory, and Rising hit Brant Kuithe for the score soon after. Fast forward 55 minutes of game action later, and Etienne put the ball on the ground. Only because of pure, dumb, stupid luck was Etienne- who, as mentioned in takeaway #3, was otherwise tremendous- able to fall on the oddly-shaped object, which could have bounced in any of a limitless number of different directions… most others of which would have given a Utah defender the first crack at the football. And if Utah falls on that second fumble, the game is effectively over.
I do think ball security is something that Florida coaches will harp on all week in practice. I do think Etienne and Johnson, with a combined zero SEC games under their belts, will grow and learn about having grown men signed to play SEC football punching the ball out of their arms vs. Sun Belt or high school players doing so. So it’s not time to sound the alarms yet. But until we can see that improvement having been made, it’s a cause for concern.
The Final Word: a lot to work on, a lot to lean on for the Florida Gators
Any time you beat a top ten opponent, even one which garnered that top ten ranking based on the previous season, it’s a great feeling. And though I do think Utah was slightly overrated- I would have ranked them between #11-#15 if I had a preseason ballot- this was a team of grizzled veterans that would probably finish with a winning record in the SEC. It’s a very, very good win.
But bringing the “keep it respectful but keep it real” mantra over from our podcast to our written work: Florida did not play a perfect game by any means. You could logically argue that the Florida Gators made two different mistakes that deserved to lose the game: Etienne’s fumble (bailed out because of a lucky bounce by a weirdly-shaped object), and Ventrell Miller dropping the pick on Utah’s final drive (bailed out by Burney’s pick moments later). Additionally, the defense simply has to get better against the run.
Still, Florida did far more right than wrong in this game, and for all the things they did do wrong, the natural talent of Anthony Richardson plus this team’s grit and resolve can overwrite some of those weaknesses (particularly the lack of depth at receiver behind Ricky Pearsall and Justin Shorter, which I didn’t even get to today). Florida may not be a supremely talented team, but they do seem to be a supremely resilient one. And if Richardson can keep making strides as a quarterback, being supremely resilient might be the catalyst for a special season for the Florida Gators.