(Photo credit: Florida Gators)
It was ugly. It was grotesque. It was downright frightening. And it was nearly a loss that would have been up there among the worst in school history. But the Florida Gators did get the job done against USF, winning 31-28.
What stood out along the way?
(I think we can all guess.)
1: The Florida Gators defense was objectively awful: statistics edition
Yes, there were a few nice plays sprinkled in there from this defense. Jalen Kimber’s pick six and Desmond Watson’s body slam TFL at the end of the third quarter stand out in particular. And Tre’Vez Johnson saved the day with a late, diving pick. But the totality of these four quarters of football against USF from this Florida Gators defense was— keep it respectful but keep it real, right?— just awful.
For starters, Florida’s defense allowed 242 yards of offense in the first half. Consider that number, and then the level of the opposition. If Florida had allowed 242 yards over the course of an entire game, that number still would have been considered subpar given that South Florida’s roster is largely comprised of players who did not have scholarship offers to Florida.
But look beyond that one stat, and the numbers just get worse. The Bulls finished with 402 total yards, and even that number is misleadingly low because USF lost fourteen yards on one bad snap that got away from Gerry Bohanon and Brian Battie was forced to fall on. USF also registered 23 first downs, and six different drives that went at least 35 yards— including two drives that spanned 70 yards or more. And on the first drive, USF was moving the ball at will with no resistance before Xavier Weaver fumbled.
It’s true that USF did import over a dozen Power Five transfers last offseason, and that does help make the performance seem marginally more understandable. But the bottom line is a very simple one: it is completely, wholly, indisputably unacceptable for a Florida Gators defense to allow a directional Group Of Five school to amass over 400 yards of total offense in a single game, in the Swamp, at night. Ever. Period. Point blank.
2: The Florida Gators defense was objectively awful: tape edition
As bad as the raw statistics were, the game tape was even more difficult to swallow. After all the strides this defense seemed to make from the offseason in the first two, the display of team-wide freelancing against USF was… something. And not a good thing.
When a defensive coach calls a play, each player has an assignment, and each assignment has a purpose. For example, on a particular hypothetical play on third and ten, four down linemen are supposed to rush the passer, while a linebacker is ordered to “spy” on the QB, and shut things down if the QB decides to take off and run, while the cornerbacks play press coverage and a safety roams in center field. It’s not the sort of thing where each player’s assignment is handed out randomly, as in, “hmmm, this guy should do a stunt because that’s what I pulled out of a hat, this nose tackle should bull rush because this coin I flipped came up heads, this corner should play zone coverage because I feel like it,” and so on. Part of Patrick Toney’s genius is ensuring that each defensive player has an assignment that, when all eleven players execute correctly, results in a fundamentally sound defense.
That is not what happened on Saturday night. At all. And it led to a multitude of breakdowns throughout the defense. When even one defensive player doesn’t do his assignment, a ripple effect is created and other players have to try to cover for their rogue teammate, and attempting to perform two players’ assignments at once seldom works out. Ten out of eleven players can do their assignments right, but when one doesn’t, the whole defense collapses.
Again, that’s the effect of one player not doing his job. When multiple players on defense don’t do their job on the same play, it makes a bad situation worse. That’s what happened throughout the game. Brenton Cox approached the right gap but never filled it on two separate occasions in the first half. And he wasn’t the only one. Amari Burney ran himself out of position on three separate plays, and I’m not sure if that’s him going rogue or him trying to cover for another teammate who didn’t do his job, but I’m not even interested in pointing fingers here- this just has to get cleaned up. Making matters worse, Gervon Dexter was double-teamed much of the night, but nobody stepped up and produced for him until the fourth quarter, when Cox took over. This defense doesn’t merely have a long way to go, it has light years to go.
3: Anthony Richardson (Utah version), where are you?
Anthony Richardson did, to be fair, have a few plays here and there where he looked like the quarterback the Florida Gators need. He threw one nice ball to Justin Shorter, another nice ball to Trent Whittemore, and he did once take off on a 16 yard run because the defense did not place a spy on him and thus gave him the space to do so. That was all positive.
But Richardson- keep it respectful but keep it real- did little else right on a night that started off bad and only got worse.
One of my personal pet peeves at the QB position is that when all else fails, hit your checkdown options. Your running backs are, by definition, the best ball carriers on the team. Give it to them. That’s an easy way to hit some completions, build a completion percentage, and thus gain some confidence.
Even if it’s third and twelve and the running back you check it down to in the flat only gains five yards, that’s certainly preferable to getting sacked for a loss of five. By doing this, you just tacked five yards on to your punt, and most importantly, you don’t turn the ball over and give the other team good field position. And with the talent that Trevor Etienne, Nay’Quan Wright and Montrell Johnson have, there’s a real possibility that they make defenders miss in the open field and get the first down- but Richardson missed multiple chances to allow them to do so throughout the night.
Instead, Richardson frequently locked onto his receivers, threw balls into double or even triple coverage, and even when he did throw to the right receiver, many of his passes were off target. Even some of his passes that were caught weren’t super accurate.
Two plays in particular stand out- his two picks.
On the first one, he sits in the pocket and waits for a late crossing route to Ricky Pearsall to develop, but he never notices USF linebacker Dwayne Boyles quietly lurking in the vicinity. Boyles got a head start and began the process of jumping the route before Richardson even threw the ball because he was that sure he knew the ball was going there.
The second one, down in the shadow of the USF goal line, was even worse. Immediately upon taking the snap, Richardson turned his head to the left front pylon and did not move it an inch as he waited for the right moment to toss it to Justin Shorter. The problem is that when you telegraph your throw that clearly, there is no right moment to throw it; the right moment is created by moving your eyes around the field even if the play has a clear primary route to throw to so that the defense doesn’t know it’s coming. Worse yet, Richardson tossed a line drive change-up, which at least wasn’t a 95 mph fireball, but by putting air underneath it, a bad decision could have at least potentially been mitigated if Shorter’s athletic ability had a step or two more of time to display itself, and thus resulted in him making a play and beating the corner. Instead, USF’s Aamaris Brown easily stepped in front and picked it off.
And the play was made all the more horrifying by the fact that Napier had called a running play and Richardson checked into the pass play that resulted in the fade. (To his credit, Richardson did also check into the running play that resulted in a 62 yard touchdown run from Montrell Johnson. The audible giveth, and the audible taketh.)
That second pick came at a bad time, too. USF was leading 28-24, and this was Florida’s attempt to take the lead midway through the fourth quarter. A legitimate opponent would have then put the game away. Thankfully, Gerry Bohanon gave the ball right back, but that’s a gift Florida can’t bank on receiving moving forward.
I’m not even asking for Anthony Richardson to be the Heisman Trophy contender many fans thought he could be. I realize that’s not realistic. That’s gone, done, out the window. Instead, I’ll settle for the version of Richardson that we got against Utah- not making a ton of huge plays, but making two or three of them a game with his arm and legs each. A dual-threat game manager, if you will. With Florida’s offensive line and running back combo, that could be enough.
4: The Florida Gators offensive identity should be clear now
Fans asked me throughout the course of the offseason what the offensive identity of the Florida Gators be in 2022 with Billy Napier, and my response was always to wait and see. Or “give it a month.” There’s still one game left to go in that timeline, but I’ve seen enough to know the answer now. I think we all have.
Sure, it was against South Florida, but Saturday ended all remaining doubt. Florida has to be a run-first team. Anthony Richardson is welcome to be a component of that, because he’s a hell of an athlete and a great natural runner. But that has to be this offense’s go-to method of moving the ball.
Highlighted by O’Cyrus Torrence, the Gators’ offensive line is quietly elite. Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne are great runners, but Emmitt Smith and Dalvin Cook would have struggled behind the offensive line that Florida trotted out there from 2019-21. It all starts with the guys up front. And with two offensive line coaches plus a Louisiana transfer came a 180 for this unit.
Guys are firing off the snap and delivering heavy initial punches to stymy defensive rushers. The pad level is consistently good. The linemen are blocking with anger. And when Michael Tarquin went down? No problem, Austin Barber stepped in and filled his shoes admirably.
Oh, and then there’s the fact that Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson already seem to be above-average SEC running backs. Etienne in particular has a nasty way of making defenders miss, and coaches rewarded him for it with four straight carries following a late Tre’Vez Johnson interception at the USF 28- the last of which hit pay dirt. He finished with eight carries for 56 yards; meanwhile, Montrell Johnson carried six times for 103 yards, which resulted in a crazy 17.2 yards per carry.
Of course, Johnson’s numbers are skewed by the one 62 yard touchdown run, but between his stats and Etienne’s tape against USF, the last remaining shred of doubt is gone. Cue Sandra Bullock from The Blind Side: run the dang ball.
The verdict: Florida needs answers, now
South Florida was supposed to be the game where the Florida Gators figured things out and answered some questions. Instead, the Gators barely escaped with their metaphorical lives, produced more new questions than answers, and are now out of time to find those answers. Sure, there’s another tune-up game next week against Eastern Washington, but Tennessee is a game that, if Florida loses, will sink the Gators’ season.
We do know beyond a doubt that Florida is a run-first team, but will the coaches utilize that? Will Anthony Richardson be able to return to his 2021 form, or even his 2022 Utah form? Can this defense function without Ventrell Miller?
The learning phase is over. We need answers. And for better or worse, we’re about to get them.