The Florida Gators had to work for it, but they did battle past Missouri, 24-17, for their first SEC victory in nearly a complete calendar year. What stood out along the way?
1: Welcome back, Jaydon Hill
The return of Jaydon Hill could spark something in this defense. Hill has spent the last year-plus rehabbing a torn ACL, and finally made it back onto the field a week ago against Eastern Washington. Off the field, Hill is a confident and dedicated kid who can make others around him better. On the field, Hill is a smart player who detects tendencies and patterns and makes plays based on that.
And make plays he did. Hill picked off one Brady Cook pass and took it to the house for Florida’s only touchdown of the first half, and he picked off another pass down in the shadow of the goal line to wipe Missouri points off the board. Those plays directly led to Missouri’s demise in their one-score loss.
Florida is going to need players other than Hill to step up, to be sure. Relying on Hill to deliver pick-sixes to bail the team out is not going to be a recipe for success. But Hill does give Florida one more reliable player on its struggling defense, and that’s a good thing because this unit will need all the help it can get.
2: Other than Hill and Miller, the Florida Gators’ defense struggled
Speaking of this defense: Hill obviously had a big game, and Ventrell Miller again flew all over the place making plays. Those two deserve all the credit in the world. Other than those two, though, the defense didn’t do a lot of things that elicited confidence.
It was the same things that have hurt Florida in previous games. Massive holes in Florida’s zone defense were exploited time and again. Florida struggled to generate much of a pass rush for much of the game (although to be fair, on the few plays that Florida did manage to apply pressure, they wound up sacking Brady Cook). Florida defenders took bad angles, missed tackles, and just generally looked lost. And the sheer results showed it.
Missouri gained 370 yards against the Gators’ defense. For perspective, Missouri’s other three games against Power Five competition came against Kansas State, Auburn, and Georgia; Mizzou’s offense gained 222, 312, and 294 yards in those three games. Mizzou also converted five third-and-nine-or-longer situations, including a third and 22 and a third and 15 on back-to-back sets of downs and a third and 18 on the ensuing possession.
Clearly, the defense is what it is at this point. There are lots of youngsters in there registering playing time, and some of them are showing signs of progress. (Case in point: freshman Chris McClellan picking up a sack.) But if the Florida Gators defense is going to be… this, for the rest of the year, it’s at least a good sign that they’re forcing turnovers. And to their credit, at least they got the fourth and two stop to finish the game. But showings like that are not going to result in Florida winning too many more games if replicated.
3: AR was off, but he came through in the end
It’s probably not fair to say that Anthony Richardson was terrible against Missouri for the first two and a half quarters. The more accurate description is that he was just “garden variety bad.” He missed easy throws on screens, overshot receivers that had their defenders beat, and didn’t use his legs to his advantage. And he did lose a fumble; granted, the replay made that call look iffy, but ultimately Richardson did not protect the football.
But then came the final three-eighths of the game, and the version of Richardson that fans had been clamoring for showed up. First, he took off on a 32 yard run to set up a Montrell Johnson touchdown run to give Florida a 17-10 lead. Then, on the next drive, he dropped a perfectly thrown ball in to Ricky Pearsall in the corner of the end zone to make it 24-10. On those two plays, Richardson cooked up 14 points for Florida in a game that they would win by seven.
Now- this doesn’t undo the fact that Richardson wasn’t very effective for five-eighths of the game. He will have to play better if Florida wants to do any better than 6-6, because as we’ve said all year long, the success of the Florida Gators as a team will depend on how Richardson fares as a QB. But it’s nice to know that even on his bad days, Richardson is still a threat to make big plays for the Gators that can help decide the game’s outcome.
4: The Florida Gators’ kicking game needs a reboot
With all due respect to Adam Mihalek- and much of that respect comes from acknowledging that making 50+ yard field goals is not a task that most people on the planet could complete- it might be time to give Trey Smack a chance at kicking field goals.
Missing one 50 yarder against Tennessee was one thing. But on Saturday against Missouri, Mihalek missed from 50 and from 47, and neither kick was even within three feet of the upright. Florida could have really used those six points- or at least half of them- in the closing minutes of what was a 24-17 game. Had Missouri driven down the field on Florida and scored a touchdown, which wasn’t exactly a stretch given how the Florida Gators defense was playing, and then gone for two and gotten it (as Mizzou did last year) the Gators would have been staring right into a loss that could have been avoided if its kicker had hit just one of the two field goals he’d missed.
To be clear, these kicks were not from gimme range, but going 1-3 on field goals from 50 yards and closer isn’t going to cut it in the SEC. And it almost bit Florida this time as it stood. So all the videos of Trey Smack blasting 60+ yard field goals in practice combined with what we’ve seen from Mihalek may justify switching things up there, at least to see what he can do.
5: The verdict: ugly wins are wins
Florida’s win over Missouri didn’t really teach us anything we didn’t already know, other than Jaydon Hill’s emergence. Florida’s defense isn’t great (although at least now it’s forcing turnovers), Anthony Richardson is hot-and-cold, Ventrell Miller is a stray playmaking machine on that not-great defense, the running game with Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne is stout, and all things considered, this whole Florida Gators team has more or less shown its final form.
Richardson won’t morph into a Heisman Trophy contender overnight. This defense might continue to take the ball away, but it will never become a defense that Florida fans remember as a great one. This team’s strengths are pretty clearly defined, and its weaknesses aren’t going away- at least, not this year. This Florida team does do certain things well, but all in all, it’s simply not a great team.
And it’s not supposed to be! Florida tried the “quick fix, just win now” approach with no regard for the program’s long-term health. It was great when Jim McElwain and Dan Mullen won a lot of games in their first two seasons, but things quickly unraveled because there was no long-term plan. Florida hired Billy Napier to win in the long term, and sometimes, winning in the long term means taking your lumps in years one and two. Installing culture and gaining buy-in can come with the price of losses, and it’s not easy. If it was, everyone would do it (and that, by definition, is impossible, because not every team in college football can win every week, or even 75% of their games. This is mathematically not possible.)
So we have to make peace with that. For this year and this year only (OK… maybe 2023, but that’s it, this stops in 2024), we should just acknowledge our team’s shortcomings, know that losses are coming (and possibly in horrendously grotesque fashion) and celebrate the wins accordingly. And celebrate wins over Eliah Drinkwitz I shall! The thing is, it was never about 2022 for Billy Napier; it’s always been about using 2022 as a springboard into the future.
And right now, for all its many weaknesses, this Florida Gators team sits at 4-2… exactly halfway to the 8-4 record that many of us predicted in the first place, and agreed would be a respectable springboard into that future that we are all so high on.