There was a different coach roaming the sidelines for the Gators. The venue was the once feared Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The teams wore much more colorful uniforms.
But the results were still the same as they were in Birmingham nine months ago, right down to the last detail: a sloppy, back and forth game that featured a pick six by Florida ended with an ECU turnover deep in Gator territory, and the far superior Florida team held on to beat the Pirates by a touchdown.
This is about to get ugly, so let me say this before I do any finger pointing: Florida won the game. OK? They got the win. They’re 2-0. The 10-14 record Will Muschamp finished his Gator tenure with strongly suggests that this is a game Florida would have lost last year or two years ago, and they didn’t. Credit where it’s due. Florida won. And I’m happy about that. Seriously, I am. Just ask Arkansas fans how they’re feeling right now.
Unfortunately, that’s about the only positive thing there is to say about this game.
Despite the lopsided odds in terms of sheer talent, ECU drove deep into Florida territory with the clock winding down, looking to tie the game down seven. They made it into the red zone, where quarterback Blake Kemp drew his arm back to throw on a second and ten- and promptly lost control of the ball, which Florida’s Alex McCalister pounced on. And with that freak play- which bore a strange resemblance to Vernon Hargreaves’ game ending interception to win the Birmingham Bowl- Florida had survived East Carolina’s gargantuan upset bid despite making a litany of mistakes on both sides of the ball.
Let’s start with the defense, because it’s a more fixable problem than the offense. ECU’s Air Raid offense caused Geoff Collins’s defense problems all night, as the Pirates dinked and dumped their way to nearly 400 passing yards while the Gators ran around chasing their tails all night. In fact, the Gators looked so confused in the backfield that Collins quickly abandoned his MO of using creative blitz schemes to create mistakes. What’s the point if your secondary is just going to get beat anyway? The fact that ECU’s running game finished with a grand total of minus 13 yards probably had a lot to do with why the Pirates lost the game, as putting together even some semblance of a ground game on top of the Air Raid passing game likely does the Gators in.
But that said: Florida was missing its best cover corner, Vernon Hargreaves, who could only watch as Duke Dawson got beat on a deep touchdown pass early in the game, and starting safety Keanu Neal. Having both of them back next week is a major upgrade; that alone figures to clean up the issue at least somewhat.So while getting gashed like that wasn’t really too pleasant of a sight, I’m not too worried long term.
Onto the offense, now. The real problem.
Contrary to popular belief following the 61-13 slaughter of New Mexico State, this offense is not a good one right now. It may soon become one, maybe even in a game or two, but it isn’t one at this point. Sorry, but somebody had to say it. The 31 points scored, given the fact that ECU’s defense struggled mightily against Towson, isn’t that impressive. It’s even less impressive when you realize that seven of those came on a Jalen Tabor pick six. Oh and speaking of Towson- an FCS team- they actually gained more yards against ECU than Florida (416 to 373).
If there was an MVP of the Gators’ offense, it was DeAndre Gooslby. The tight end caught three passes for 94 yards and a touchdown. But the offense was otherwise abysmal. The offensive line, as we feared in the offseason, needs a lot of work. What may be the fourth best defense in the American Athletic Conference consistently got push up front, even when only sending a minimal amount of guys. The other big question mark- the pass catchers- fared no better. Drops continued to plague the Gators’ receivers, most notably Alvin Bailey Tevin Westbrooking a Will Grier pass into the hands of an ECU defender.
On the subject of Grier, he again seemed to be the best quarterback the Gators have. His final stat line wasn’t too bad: 10-17 for 151 yards, two touchdown passes and an interception (which was not his fault- see previous paragraph). He made several great throws, but his highlight of the night was this beautiful sell of a fake, which turned into a touchdown for Goolsby:
GREAT fake and subsequent throw on the run by Will Grier- leads to a touchdown by DeAndre Goolsby https://t.co/IzyEvRqpxH
— InAllKindsOfWeather.com (@AllKindsWeather) September 12, 2015
And while this time, Grier wasn’t flawless, throwing behind receivers a couple of times and one hopping a few other balls, he may have all but locked up the starting QB job. For one thing, he got a lot more snaps than Treon, which is an indication that McElwain trusts him more with the game on the line. And for another… Florida just moved the ball better with him at QB. The Gators stalled on their first drive, but then scored on back to back drives with Grier at the controls. The fourth drive resulted in a punt, but then an ECU turnover gave Florida the ball in the red zone. That’s when McElwain put Treon Harris into the game. ECU simply stacked the box and dared Harris to beat them on an end zone pass, he didn’t, Florida went nowhere and Austin Hardin subsequently shanked a field goal.
I’ll touch more on the QB situation more later in the week, but for now, know this: yes, I’m every bit as certain that I want Grier to be the lone guy taking snaps as I was after last week’s win, if not more so.
Then there were the penalties. I mean, my god. I thought the penalty problem was fixed after week one; silly me. Wow, was I wrong. The Gators got flagged for 12 of them, including a delay of game prior to a punt, and a few false starts. But none were as stupid nor as earth shatteringly unbelievable as the two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties following Gator touchdowns, the second of which was a taunting penalty by Kelvin Taylor that set McElwain into a state of rage that not even Will Muschamp could match:
You wanna know what McElwain really said to Kelvin Taylor after his throat slashing penalty? http://t.co/po4Dm8eLA8
— InAllKindsOfWeather.com (@AllKindsWeather) September 13, 2015
And for the record: Taylor completely, absolutely deserved every word of that obscene tirade, and he should get more of it in the film room today, if you want the truth. Making a throat slashing gesture in a two touchdown game with plenty of time left is perhaps the dumbest thing you could possibly do after scoring. Listen, I totally get that there are emotions running high in games like this, and I can’t even hate the fact that Taylor wanted to rub it in. It’s an emotional game. But for the love of all things holy: if you must do some taunting, do it after the damn game, when there’s zero mathematical possibility your team can lose. And the fact is that ECU nearly came back and forced overtime. How stupid would Taylor have looked then?
But the bottom line- for now- is the same thing I said before I launched into all the finger pointing. I’m upset about things that happened during a game in which Florida won. Sure, the Gators won’t win too many games playing like this, but unlike with Muschamp, I get the sense that we’ll actually see major improvements following such a horrid display with McElwain. So if it had to happen at some point in the season, I’d much rather it happen against ECU than, say, Georgia. At the stage we’re at right now, everything is correctable.
This was a wake up call for McElwain and the Gators. And I trust McElwain, unlike Muschamp, to respond to it.