Florida paid Colorado State $2 million to travel to Gainesville to play this year. So the Gators were going to get their money’s worth out of it.
Jim McElwain’s most recent former team shook off a loss to Kentucky last week and a slow start against his second most recent former team to destroy the Rams 48-10 in the teams’ first ever meeting. Due to the strange circumstances that led to this game being played- namely, Florida paying Colorado State $5 million of McElwain’s $7 million buyout, and agreeing to pay the remaining $2 by proxy with a home game against CSU- it’s also the last for the foreseeable future.
Too bad, because the Rams played the part of cupcake to perfection. The rest of the season will see the Gators play teams much better than the one they beat yesterday, though- and though there were a few signs of improvement around the team, Florida still has a lot of questions to answer.
The Gators didn’t really earn their first six points. They were given to them. Colorado State lost a fumble and failed to get off a punt thanks to a bobbled snap on two of their first three possessions. Those blunders gave Florida the ball at the Rams’ 11 and 29 respectively; the Gators proceeded to gain a grand total of two yards on those two drives and settled for a pair of Evan McPherson field goals.
Jordan Scarlett finally got the Gators in the end zone three minutes into the second quarter by breaking off a 30 yard touchdown run, and Feleipe Franks took advantage of a short field set up by a nice Freddie Swain punt return by finding Swain for an 18 yard scoring strike to increase the margin to 20-0. Colorado State promptly replied by going nowhere and punting- or attempting to. Nobody bothered to block freshman Amari Burney, who raced through the line untouched and got a paw on it, sending the ball skyrocketing backwards. An alert Tyrie Cleveland chased it down and managed to grab it before it rolled out the back of the end zone for a touchdown and a 27-0 lead.
Colorado State, for their part, did manage a field goal on the final play of the first half to chip the lead to 27-3. And when the Rams began the second half with a 7 play, 75 yard touchdown drive that was capped by a 48 yard lightning strike from KJ Carta Samuels to Trey McBride, there was the faintest, slightest glimmer of worry, as just last week the Rams erased a 27-9 deficit against Arkansas to win, 34-27.
But this time the Rams’ offense stalled, never coming particularly close to scoring again, and thus the score remained 27-10 throughout the third quarter. Florida subsequently used the fourth quarter to make their expensive sacrificial lamb appear prettier with a 21-0 blitzkrieg in a seven minute span that covered the 20.5 point spread all by itself. Swain returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown, Franks hit an open Van Jefferson for an easy 38 yard touchdown past a tired Rams defense and then Dameon Pierce delivered the exclamation point with a 68 yard touchdown run on the first play of the drive for the final 48-10 margin.
But don’t let the final score fool you. Florida still has a long way to go to get to where Dan Mullen wants it to be.
For starters, this game did nothing to solve the Gators’ issues at quarterback. If anything, it compounded it. Feleipe Franks started the game by missing his first six throws, which were spread over five drives. To his credit, he did rebound to finish the game 8/15 with 119 yards against a defense that came into the game ranked dead last- as in 130th out of 130 FBS teams- in total defense. The problem is, because CSU’s defense is literally the worst in the FBS, it will never be this easy to rebound from an 0-6 start in any meaningful game. Of course, starting 0-6 against the worst statistical FBS defense does not exactly bode well for how he’ll do the rest of the year in itself, but his final stats are still heavily diluted because 38 of those 119 yards came on his last throw of the afternoon when the outcome of the game was long ago decided and the Colorado State defense had checked out. He also threw an interception on a ball that would have been a touchdown had he thrown it a second and a half earlier.
But while the stats don’t look good, the tape really doesn’t look good. Along the way, he missed at least four reads that would have either resulted in gains of ten yards or more or a touchdown. Worst of all was a belated sighting of a streaking Kadarius Toney on a post route that could have been a touchdown had he released the ball a full second before he did. This wasn’t the worst game he’s ever played by any means, because I think the 2017 FSU game has safely locked up that distinction forever, but nor did he play at the level that’s going to be needed to get Florida back to Atlanta or close to it. Given that this is his third year in the program, it’s getting very difficult to pin a legitimate ETA on when we can expect him to play on that level- or if.
That only segues into a bigger issue, though. If Franks isn’t the best option Mullen has- or if Mullen doesn’t want to throw Emory Jones into action before he’s ready- something tells me he wouldn’t have monopolized the playing time during the meaningful minutes during the season’s first three games with the games only getting more important from here. Two full years and a quarter of a third year of the same problems is enough time for me to bank on Franks not making any significant improvements, ever. And that vicious Catch-22 basically means that it’s extremely unlikely Florida is going to get competent quarterback play at any point this season, and will have to win without it.
But Franks wasn’t the only one who failed to take advantage of the FBS’ worst defense. As a team, the Gators finished the day with 341 total yards of offense against a Colorado State defense that entered the game allowing 550 per game, a stat that the Rams built against Hawaii, Colorado and Arkansas. Though McElwain wasn’t a great recruiter for Florida, he did recruit better than each of those three schools, and thus it stands to reason that Florida should finish somewhere other than last on a list of “Most Yards Gained Against Colorado State.” Making matters worse was that the Gators gained 106 of those 341 yards on the final two offensive plays of the game- Franks’ deep ball to Jefferson and Pierce’s house call- when the game had long been decided thanks to CSU’s freebies, and eleven more came in clock-killing time in the final minute with a pair of token touches for Pierce.
That means that against a defense that was allowing 550 yards a game, Florida had a paltry 224 yards of total offense and 14 self-generated points to show for itself with ten minutes remaining in the game. Play at that same level against better opponents, and not only will that number drop, but Florida won’t get the benefit of three turnovers and two special teams touchdowns to help try to hide it.
And this all comes back to the offensive line, which didn’t take advantage of the favorable matchup and instead played about even with a far lesser Ram front seven. So while the line looked better than it did against Kentucky, that doesn’t mean that they’ve actually improved in the least bit because it’s pretty easy to appear to have improved when you drastically lower the difficult level. Over the years, we’ve seen what Jordan Scarlett, Malik Davis and LaMical Perine can do; finishing a game against the nation’s worst statistical defense with a combined 101 yards, even in a lessened workload of 16 total carries, is not ideal. Because that yards per carry average is going to take a beating against more fundamentally sound defenses (by which I mean every remaining opponent not named Idaho) when it takes at least twice as many carries from its main rushing trio to hit triple figures. And that’s what’s going to happen without significant improvement from the line in terms of opening bigger holes.
There were a few positives, though. Linebacker David Reese missed his third straight game, but Florida may have unearthed a hidden gem in James Houston IV in his absence. Houston led the Gators with eight tackles, including one on CSU punter Ryan Stonehouse that served as a de facto blocked punt. Similarly, Marco Wilson’s ACL tear has opened the door for freshman Trey Dean, who had one overaggressive pass interference penalty and otherwise played a fine game at the CB2 slot. And though the defense wasn’t perfect as a whole, it definitely took a step in the right direction, generating more pressure and slightly decreasing its missed tackle rate.
But the bottom line is that Florida cannot count on opponents handing out the amount of mulligans that the Rams gave them, and what frightens me is that I honestly don’t know if the Gators would have even beaten the Rams without them. Colorado State picked up 22 first downs to Florida’s 14, and trailed the Gators in total yardage by just nine yards prior to Pierce’s run in mop-up time. On top of everything else they did wrong, Rams kicker Wyatt Bryant also missed two field goals. But this game is over, and Florida won 48-10, so there’s no need in thinking too much about that. The issue, though, and I can’t harp on this enough, is that Mullen’s squad will not play another team as bad defensively as this CSU team was, and so we will soon find out for certain if this team really did take steps forward after the Kentucky loss or if not getting totally dominated by Colorado State was the outlier given the Rams’ extremely weak defense.
Now, though, the Gators’ margin for error is gone. Florida’s next two games are on the road against Tennessee and Mississippi State. Lose either of them, and the Gators are essentially done in the SEC East race before the calendar even flips to October, which is unheard of for this program. Lose both of them, and the Gators are looking at missing a bowl game for the second consecutive year. But if this team can’t take a gigantic step forward, the former is a guarantee and the latter is a legitimate possibility.
I believe that Mullen was the right hire for Florida as much today as I did the day he was hired. Things are eventually going to get better for this program. But yesterday was a mirage, and it’s highly likely that things get worse before they get better.