Playing without an army of starters turned out not to cost Florida against South Carolina and LSU.
It finally did against FSU.
The Gators were able to somewhat contain Dalvin Cook last year for most of the game. This time, though, Cook ran through, around and over Florida’s depleted defense in an ugly, frustrating and inevitable 31-13 loss to their in state rival.
The first clue that this game was destined for failure came on the opening possession. Florida went flying right down the field thanks to a well designed reverse play that saw Antonio Callaway take a pitch and take off down the right sideline. But predictably, the Gators stalled inside the Seminoles’ five. When Jim McElwain elected to go for it, it felt like the entire game hinged on this one decision, one that reeked of desperation and seemed to be more of a wish than anything else. And when Austin Appleby failed to notice a crossing DeAndre Goolsby in the end zone, the play was dead. His incomplete pass set the game’s fatal sequence into motion.
FSU drove down the field right back, but stalled in the red zone and ended up with no points when Ricky Aguayo shanked a 49 yard field. But the Noles got more than they bargained for when Appleby was strip-sacked on the very next play. That directly led to an FSU touchdown, and essentially buried the Gators.
The Gators’ defense didn’t play too badly for most of the game, but the injuries eventually took their toll. Florida was able to survive against LSU because the Tigers made a series of fatal mistakes and failed to capitalize on red zone opportunities. FSU didn’t make those mistakes, and that was the difference in the end. Florida used the exact same personnel against the Seminoles, called very similar offensive and defensive game plans and yet the results were different because FSU didn’t self destruct like LSU did.
But while the real problem was hidden against LSU, there was no hiding it against FSU.
Florida’s total offensive production was six points, on a pair of field goals by Eddy Pineiro. This- as we all knew it was coming, even against such a weak FSU defense- helps me sort of understand McElwain’s desperation to go for it early on. It wouldn’t matter that FSU fumbled a punt right to Marcell Harris, who returned it for a touchdown, nor would it matter that FSU’s offense was shut down for a little more than two full quarters following their first touchdown. The Gators’ offense was bad, really bad, and not even having the special teams score for them was enough help.
I could swear I’ve heard that before.
We have a long offseason to discuss the semantics of it, but it really all boils down to quarterback play. And I’ll say the same thing about Appleby that I said about Luke Del Rio: he’s a good, smart guy with the right attitude and leadership skills, but he is not the answer at QB. If Florida is to ever win a championship, they’re going to need a quarterback/leader that can make better decisions and run the offense more efficiently than both Del Rio and Appleby. To his credit, Appleby quarterbacked his team to a win on the road against a stingy LSU team, and that’s great for him. I’m genuinely happy that he gets to live the rest of his life with that memory. It doesn’t make him a good enough quarterback to lead the Gators’ return to college football’s elite.
And when you think about it, QB play is the only remaining hinderance. McElwain has already developed one gem at the wide receiver position in Antonio Callaway, and appears to have found another one in Tyrie Cleveland. Combine those two big play threats with the bruising runner Jordan Scarlett has become and you have all the other pieces to the offense you need.
But you still need that quarterback.
Sure, Doug Nussmeier gets some of the blame for the struggles this season. His horrendously called second half against Tennessee directly led to the Gators’ demise, and he could be doing a little more to demonstrate his lack of talent on the offensive line (like not having a QB take a deep drop with a line that’s not capable of blocking for more than two or three seconds). But he’s ultimately not the main problem. He doesn’t miss open receivers by overshooting them, throwing rainbows when he should throw a bullet and vice versa, or simply not seeing them. On the other hand, if the line gets healthy, it’s very easy to fathom a guy like Jake Allen or even Feleipe Franks thriving in this system. Guys are getting open, mismatches are taking place, and creativity is there. Now we just need a competent line- a lot of which is a matter of simple healing- and a competent trigger man. Which I believe will be found next year when Allen and Franks compete for the job.
So now we have to listen to Nole fans brag for another year, which really sucks. If you want to feel better: Florida does still hold a 34-25 lead in the all time series, and nothing FSU does will ever erase the memory of the 52-20 curb stomping the Gators handed them in New Orleans for the 1996 national championship, or the Gators’ unceremonious desecration of Doak Campbell Stadium by beating the Noles with Ron Friggin’ Zook- who had already been fired, mind you- on the night FSU named their field after longtime coach and hero Bobby Bowden. But those memories are fading fast now, and they aren’t helping Florida much on the recruiting trail as FSU gradually widens the gap between the two schools in terms of prestige.
Simply put, the Gators are going to have to beat FSU again if they want to take that next step and return to the nation’s elite. And it looks like they’re a quarterback away from doing so.