Photo credit: Florida Gators
After a month filled with close calls, heartbreak and nail-biting, the Florida Gators got to play on cruise control. And they enjoyed every minute of it.
Although Eastern Washington actually scored first and only trailed 14-3 with ten minutes left in the second quarter, the Florida Gators eventually put the game away and got their third victory of the season- and their first by more than a field goal- by a 52-17 margin.
What stood out along the way?
1: The Florida Gators defense still needs work, and it’s running out of time
It’s evident on some individual plays that there are real gears turning in Patrick Toney’s scheme, but giving up 411 yards of total offense to an FCS opponent is never good. Sure, go ahead and blame the backups for some of that, but EWU also methodically marched into the Florida red zone on each of its first two possessions, and the reasons they did were pretty much the same reasons why USF and Tennessee moved the ball effectively: bad angles, missed tackles, and simply not fulfilling assignments.
To Florida’s credit, the Gators did hold EWU to a field goal on that first drive and then stop the Eagles on downs on the second one. And the Gators’ starting defense did more or less clamp down from that point on (although the Eagles did engineer a third solid drive at the end of the first half down to the Gators’ 23).
But as simple as simple can be, this isn’t going to fly for too much longer. It may not even be good enough to win next week. Missouri running backs Cody Schrader and Nathaniel Peat are very difficult runners to bring down- even Georgia struggled to tackle them- and QB Brady Cook, while not a Heisman candidate, is still good enough to exploit busts if they happen.
2: Anthony Richardson is (hopefully) back to his old self
Two games in a row of Richardson playing above-average football is enough tape for me to think (and hope) that he’s exorcised whatever demons were hampering him against Kentucky and USF. Sure, Eastern Washington is an FCS team, but South Florida isn’t exactly a New Year’s Six contender either and his play against the Bulls was so bad that it nearly lost the game. Thankfully, that version of Richardson remains in the rearview mirror- at least for now.
Richardson did throw an ill-advised pick into quadruple coverage, but other than that, he seemed to be at least somewhat close to the player that Florida Gators fans thought he could be all offseason long. He made some nice reads. He took what the defense gave him. He flashed his ridiculous athleticism on a long, weaving 45 yard run. And he put the ball into some nice spots.
Obviously, we can’t take too much away from this game. It was Eastern Washington on the other sideline. But given that Richardson has previously played terrible (his words, not mine) against supposedly overmatched opponents before, this was a good sign that he’s moved past that.
3: Is Jalen Kitna the Florida Gators’ QB2?
All offseason long, Ohio State transfer Jack Miller was thought to be the second in command on the Florida Gators’ quarterback depth chart. And he may still be, even after a thumb injury cost him a good bit of time. But if nothing else, Jalen Kitna is making coaches think twice about that.
Kitna looked fabulous. Yes, you can insert the disclaimer that he was going up against an FCS team’s backups, but still- he looked poised, confident, and more than anything else, ready. He fired off twelve passes, completing eight of them for 152 yards and one touchdown bomb to Caleb Douglas. You could really tell he’s the son of a former NFL quarterback: he stood in the pocket, went through his progressions, stepped into his throws, followed through, and then did it all again on the next snap.
Miller won’t be forgotten about on the Gators’ depth chart, you can be sure of that. But if a scenario arises where Kitna is forced into action, there’s at least some confidence for him to build on from prior game experience.
4: New faces shine
Many of the sparingly-used players that fans have been clamoring for got their moments in the sun on Sunday. And they all took advantage.
Linebacker Diwun Black came in and promptly blew up a running play for a loss; he flashed his incredible athleticism throughout his time on the field and finished the day with three tackles. Lorenzo Lingard toted the ball five times and made the most of them, rushing for 45 yards and a touchdown. Daejon Reynolds reeled in his first 74 positive receiving yards of the year, including one 54 yard bomb. And playing in place of the injured Trey Dean, highly-touted true freshman Kamari Wilson stepped on the field for the first time as a starter and did everything that could have been asked of him.
You can again insert the disclaimer that Eastern Washington was a wildly overmatched opponent from a pure talent standpoint here. That said, it was still nice to see the aforementioned players finally get their opportunities to perform on the field for the Florida Gators- and take advantage of them.
The verdict: we’ll take the win and move on. And we’ll see what this team is made of.
Playing Eastern Washington had many positives, not the least of which was takeaway #4: seeing new faces shine. Another positive was that it gave the team the pick-me-up it needed, a feel-good ego-builder as the most daunting part of the schedule still lies ahead with LSU, Georgia, and a road trip to Texas A&M lurking.
But one negative is that there was a pretty clearly defined ceiling for grading this team’s performance against the Eagles. And now, Florida is out of time to fine-tune any remaining issues.
Anything short of completely bottling up the Eastern Washington offense was going to be a cause for concern, and the possibility of that categorization evaporated on the first two drives of the game. Is the week of practice between game five and game six the period of time in which the defense magically cleans up its assignment and tackling issues? It could be. It also… might not be. We will just have to see.
And now we’re at the point in time at which one more loss to a team not named Georgia- forget the CFP and the SEC East, those goals are already out the window- will cost Florida a chance to reach double-digit wins and a New Year’s Six Bowl, which are solid consolation goals for what Florida Gators fans pretty much unanimously agreed was always going to be a rebuilding season.
Of course, you could spin that the other way, too. If the Florida Gators do bounce back from two September defeats to finish 9-3, they’ll likely be in a New Year’s Six Bowl as ranked teams start playing each other and take losses left and right. Win that New Year’s Six Bowl game to go 10-3, and Billy Napier’s maiden voyage in Gainesville is undoubtedly going to be hailed as a rousing success.
Eastern Washington, though, was never going to serve as too strong of an indication that this was in the cards. This game was always calculated to make fans and players feel good, not to teach us anything about this team’s DNA. Future games, each of which will be against either an SEC opponent or FSU, will.