No Gators defender in sight = only bad things can happen. And they did. (Photo via Tennessee athletics.)
As the Gators trudged off the field, they were forced to observe a sight that has occurred exactly two times in the past eighteen years- a Tennessee football team celebrating a victory.
And for the first time since 2004, it wasn’t a complete shock to see the Vols celebrate their victory over Florida- a direct indication of where both programs are. Billy Napier may be building something special, but Tennessee is currently ahead of where Florida is. And they proved it with a 38-33 win in Knoxville.
It wasn’t for a lack of effort on the Gators’ part.
Anthony Richardson played his best game as a Gator, amassing 515 yards of total offense and four touchdowns. His receivers came to play, too, with Justin Shorter and Ricky Pearsall totaling over 250 yards’ worth of receptions. Keon Zipperer finally broke through on a 44-yard touchdown reception in which he spun free of one tackle and muscled his way past two more. Linebacker Ventrell Miller, operating at maybe half capacity due to an injury, was flying around the field making plays all day.
And finding themselves down 38-21 midway through the fourth quarter, the Gators rallied. Richardson commandeered back-to-back touchdown drives to cut the deficit down to five- we’ll talk more during the week about the coaching decisions that led to a five-point deficit rather than three- and then Diwun Black recovered the onside kick with seventeen seconds to go to keep it interesting.
But Florida still lost, 38-33, thanks in small part to Richardson losing one costly fumble and his last-gasp heave being picked off on the final play, and in much larger part to a horrendous defense that continued to make mistakes from start to finish.
It could have been so much worse. Tennessee fumbled the ball away- thank you, Ventrell Miller- on its first drive of the game, which had already traveled deep into Florida territory. And on the second drive, Hendon Hooker had tight end Jacob Warren open on a slant route on third and seven in the red zone but threw it behind him, forcing a field goal. After one quarter, it was 3-0 Tennessee; Zipperer then scored to give Florida a 7-3 lead.
From that point on, though, Tennessee seldom missed an opportunity to exploit the Gators’ weak defense. The Vols totaled 576 yards of offense, scoring touchdowns on five of its next six possessions. When Tennessee scored back-to-back touchdowns to close the first half and open the second, it forced the Gators into the unenviable position of having to play catchup without a defense that was capable of holding up its part of the bargain.
And the Gators couldn’t.
There are plenty of long-term, multi-year fixes that lay ahead, but the one thing that has to be addressed immediately is the safety position. I held my tongue on this subject after Trey Dean was caught wagging his finger at a South Florida running back who had just picked up twelve yards and a first down, but enough is enough. The bluntest way to put this is that Trey Dean simply is not doing his job, and reasoning for continuing to play him is wearing out. We’ve reached the point where it’s time to make a permanent change there.
Three plays in particular stand out.
First was a second and sixteen with three minutes to go in the first quarter. A simple hitch route to Ramel Keyton for four yards turned into a seventeen-yard gain because first Antwaun Powell, then Trey Dean, missed; Powell’s looks worse on tape, but as the second guy to miss, Dean’s missed tackle tacked on an extra ten yards. Tennessee would kick a field goal on that drive.
Then came the second and most costly of Dean’s mistakes: a 70 yard bust. I don’t know what Dean was supposed to be doing or what he was looking for, but I can guarantee that staring into cyberspace the way he did on this play is never going to result in anything good, particularly not against the teams that are even better than Tennessee. Bru McCoy took advantage of his on-air route for a free 70 yards before Rashad Torrence II finally tracked him down; Hooker danced into the end zone two plays later.
And then came the backbreaker: Hooker connecting with Jacob Warren for a 45 yard gain because Dean again fell into a trance. That got Tennessee out of a hole with the ball at its thirteen yard line, and the Vols would eventually score when Jaylin Wright ran it in to make it 38-21, a lead from which the Gators could not recover.
To be fair, it’s not as though Dean’s defensive teammates were perfect around him. Missed tackles happened at pretty much every level of the defense, and Amari Burney- who to be fair to him, did make some nice plays- struggled mightily at times. Even Jason Marshall, a guy that many Gator fans considered to be one of the pieces of this defense that did not merit concern, got burned on a deep ball.
But you’d like to at least hold out hope that those things are correctable. Unfortunately, Dean is a fifth-year senior who- keep it respectful but keep it real– is racking up a lot of tape that does not justify continuing to start him. It sucks for him, and I do feel bad, but Florida hired Billy Napier in large part because of his willingness to make difficult business decisions when logic says he has no other course of action.
And I’m well aware that benching Trey Dean in favor of Kamari Wilson will not be a silver-bullet fix, A) because Wilson is a freshman who will go through growing pains like all freshmen do and B) because it’s not like the rest of the defense is up for All-American consideration. But in a rebuilding year, the building has to start somewhere, and there’s no more logical starting point than by benching a fifth-year senior who gave up 125 yards of offense on three plays all by himself in favor of the true freshman who you snatched away from Georgia on Signing Day, and who at least carries the hope of learning from any mistakes he might make.
There are, of course, things to build on in what the fan base has generally agreed to be a rebuilding season. Richardson’s performance gave real reason for hope the rest of the way. A wide variety of freshmen played well, including running back Trevor Etienne, defensive lineman Chris McClellan, offensive lineman Austin Barber, linebacker Shemar James, and safety Kamari Wilson. The receiving corps stepped up. And Ventrell Miller gave a hell of a performance at far less than full strength.
It’s not like all is lost, either. The national championship and SEC East hopes are gone, but this team can still reach a New Year’s Six Bowl and a double-digit win season- and those goals even allow room for a loss to Georgia. That would be a hell of a first year for Billy Napier.
But again, in a rebuilding year, the task falls on this team, from coaches to players, to do that rebuilding, learn from mistakes, and get better. Which in this case means making one business decision now, and then being willing to make more down the road- as difficult as it may be.
Then again, nobody said a rebuild was easy.