(Photo credit: Florida Gators)
Ah, so that’s what beating Jimbo feels like. It had been ten years. I had forgotten.
Anyway: by no means did the Florida Gators put on a display of perfect football in College Station, but it was more than good enough for Florida to come away with a 41-24 victory. So, what stood out along the way?
1: The Florida Gators’ second half defensive adjustments won this game
The Florida Gators put on a classic display of “A Tale Of Two Halves,” at least on defense. Defensive coordinator Patrick Toney has come under fire from some fans for the way his defense has performed, both in the eye test and on the stat sheet. And although it’s his first year and the players he’s working with were not recruited by him or for his scheme, there’s still a certain baseline expectation for how a Gator football team should perform— and for much of the first eight games, Florida simply wasn’t hitting it.
The first half against Texas A&M appeared to be more of the same. The Gators appeared to not have any interest in doing basic things right on defense. As a result, Florida’s defense could neither generate any semblance of a pass rush nor provide strong coverage in the secondary, and as a result, the Aggies did pretty much whatever they wanted in the first two quarters. The day started off on the wrong foot for the defense with a missed tackle that led to a huge Devon Achane run and didn’t get much better for the rest of the half. And Florida got lucky that Texas A&M finished the first half with 24 points, not 28- Haynes King had a touchdown on a wheel route and just missed the throw.
Then a switch flipped in the second half. Florida’s defense became more aggressive, pulled off a few stunts in the trenches, and apparently decided it wanted to bully Texas A&M’s young offensive line at the point of attack. And they did. The Aggies gained a grand total of four yards on their first two drives of the third quarter; though they did begin moving the ball a little more effectively after that, the results were no better; the Aggies remained scoreless for the entire second half. Twice in the fourth quarter, Florida got to Haynes King in the backfield. Both times, the hits (delivered by Princely Umanmielen and Antwaun Powell-Ryland) jarred the ball loose. And both times, Florida recovered, snuffing out Aggie drives.
There are still plenty of things for this Florida defense to work on, make no mistake about it. There’s also the fact that one strong half of football is simply not enough to objectively believe that this unit has turned the corner. But it may have- we’ll just have to see what happens in the final three games. In any case, a tip of the cap goes to Patrick Toney and his players for the 180 degree turnaround in the second half.
2: O’Cyrus Torrence just gets better and better
There never really has been anyone saying that Torrence, who came over from Louisiana with Napier, is a bust, or underwhelming, or anything of the sort. Offensive linemen tend to only get noticed when they do something wrong, and then they’re the target of all kinds of criticism. When fans don’t mention an offensive lineman’s name very much, it’s usually an indication that he’s doing a good job.
No more. Let’s give the man nicknamed CyBo the credit he deserves. He was a monster on Saturday, routinely clearing Aggies out of their gaps and giving Montrell Johnson (100 yards on the day) and Trevor Etienne (80 yards) more than enough room to run. Twice, he bulldozed an Aggie out of the way and then started looking around, as if saying, “alright, I did my job, now who else’s job should I do before I have to get back into my stance again?”
Even on the play where none of the offensive linemen did their jobs- the 4th and goal from inside the one yard line that got crushed- Torrence at least engaged with his defender for a moment before a sea of maroon jerseys converged and he got knocked off balance. Other than that, Torrence did everything that could reasonably have been asked of him. It’s no surprise that he was named the SEC Offensive Lineman Of The Week, and if he keeps doing what he’s doing through this offseason, he’ll be a first-half-of-the-first-round selection in the NFL Draft.
3: Anthony Richardson played well, but still has room to grow
For the most part, Anthony Richardson played very well. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 201 yards, and also rushed seven times for 78 yards. Highlighting his day were two touchdowns through the air, and two more on the ground. On his first touchdown pass, he lofted a gorgeous rainbow to JaQuavion Fraziars, who made a tremendous catch on the ball, and on the second one, he eluded two rushers while at the same time reading the defense, and heaved an off-balance ball too a spot where only Caleb Douglas could grab it, and he did. To be clear, the sum of Richardson’s performance was very good.
But Richardson also missed a couple of throws, and at times, failed to go through all of his progressions- not just the primary and secondary option, but all of them. Every now and then, when he has a clea pocket, he just forgets how to move defenders with his eyes and scan the field- an extremely frustrating caveat for a ridiculously talented quarterback. We know he can do this. We know he’s capable of it. But on some plays, he just… doesn’t.
And it did hurt on one play late in the first half. It was first and ten Florida at the Gators’ own 28, with two and a half minutes to go. Richardson took the snap and started looking downfield. The pocket was clean, as his OL did its job; unfortunately, his receivers did not, and he couldn’t find a teammate open. If he’d looked to his right, he would have noticed wide receiver Xzavier Henderson wide open on the checkdown. Henderson, who is also a punt returner, would have gained at least five yards before the closest defender could have entered his vicinity, which would have set up a one-on-one situation in the open field, featuring a chance for Henderson to make a man miss in the open field and turn a five yard gain into a twenty-five yard gain.
However Richardson never even thought about that. He did turn in Henderson’s direction well before the pocket collapsed- and proceeded to throw the ball away, and Florida gained nothing on the play. Making matters worse, the incomplete pass stopped the clock, Florida had to punt, and the Aggies scored a touchdown just before the half. This was not a game-losing mistake, to be clear, and if Florida had lost this game it would have been because of the defense, not AR’s play. But regardless, this is the kind of thing he needs to learn from before he can go make millions as a top-five NFL Draft pick.
4: Let’s keep perspective; this Texas A&M team is down bad
Expectations were high in Aggieland to begin the season as Texas A&M began the season ranked #6. One week into the season, and the Aggies were flying high after a 31-0 shutout win of FCS opponent Sam Houston State. Then, the Aggies stumbled amidst the rarefied air just outside the top five and plummeted earthward with a loss to Appalachian State on their home turf. Somehow, the Aggies recovered and strung together back-to-back wins over Miami and Arkansas.
But then they totally collapsed, and began a downward spiral the likes of which haven’t been seen in over 40 years in College Station. Once 3-1, Texas A&M went on to lose their next five games in a row- their longest losing streak since 1980. Losing to Mississippi State and Alabama on the road was bad enough, but at least those teams have talent. Handing South Carolina a free 17-0 lead five minutes into the game, though, signified that the problems were deeper.
And that was when the Aggies were healthy. (Well, mostly healthy. Ainias Smith was a big loss back in September.) Cue the flu, and a complete evisceration of the Texas A&M depth chart, and that was the Aggies’ B team- and at quarterback and safety, the C team- that suited up on Saturday. It was this team that Florida took the field against, and defeated 41-24.
Now the Aggies have lost back-to-back games at Kyle Field to teams ranked outside the top ten for the first time since 2017, are stuck with a coach who would be owed $8.6 million for every season left on his contract if he were to be fired- and there are ten years left on that deal after this season- and with the season in a tailspin, the fan base has more or less checked out (as evidenced by the massive Florida crowd and the thousands of empty seats at the usually-packed Kyle Field). Making matters worse, five-star linebacker Anthony Hill just decommitted from Texas A&M, which of course doesn’t have anything to do with this year’s team, but goes to illustrate the horrendous state of affairs in Aggieland right now.
So yes, celebrate the win. It was an SEC road win. Those are hard to come by. And all you can ask a team to do is play the team that’s put in front of them. Florida did that, and won. And the rare sensation of beating Jimbo Fisher is a great one. It would simply be wise to remember the situation that’s festering in the heart of the program Florida just beat.
The Verdict: The Florida Gators are making progress
It’s difficult to put too much stock into this win. For one thing, it’s the anomaly; Florida’s defense has been atrocious since the USF game, and two quarters of good tape on that side of the ball does not overwrite all of that. It just doesn’t. For another thing, there were the aforementioned Texas A&M health problems, which make it easy to think that the short-handed Aggies just adrenaline-rushed their way to halftime before that adrenaline wore off.
But there’s also no debating this: the 2021 Florida Gators lose this game. We know this because in very similar circumstances, they did: coming off a loss to Georgia in which they were competitive for portions of the game before falling apart, last year’s Florida Gators team trudged up north to Columbia, SC, where a banged-up Gamecocks team down to its third-string QB awaited. And Florida lost that game, and in humiliating fashion at that. Florida actually had the lead at points in that game, but imploded at the first sign of adversity and got ripped apart.
This year is different. Billy Napier has not only not “quiet quit” his job, he clearly has his players bought in and believing. This team also seems to be making micro-strides in the right direction each week. And for a team that I’ve labeled as “not a very good one, but one that fights,” to simply keep heading in the right direction is all I can really ask for.