GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators are 3-3 heading into their bye week.
After a three-game stretch during which it looked like the Gators would always find a way to pull out wins late, the luck ran out with losses to LSU and Texas A&M.
There have been highlights and lowlights throughout the six-game stretch to open the season. Here are five of the bigger surprises thus far.
The Gators finally established the run game…
Florida’s rushing offense was virtually non-existent in coach Jim McElwain’s first two seasons, with the Gators ranking in the bottom two of the conference both seasons.
It has changed for the better in 2017.
After a dismal performance in the season-opener against Michigan, Florida has averaged 201.6 rushing yards over the past five games. That mark would rank 32nd nationally and sixth in the SEC if the performance against the Wolverines wasn’t included.
And Florida is accomplishing this without junior Jordan Scarlett, the team’s starter from last season who is one of nine players indefinitely suspended while being investigated for credit card fraud.
Instead, it has been the combination of freshman Malik Davis and sophomore Lamical Perine carrying the load.
Davis is averaging a team-best 84.33 yards per game and is the only freshman in the SEC with three runs of at least 30 yards. Perine has scored 6 rushing touchdowns in the past three games.
The offense overall is still struggling
Even with production from the run game, Florida’s offense still hasn’t been able to turn the corner.
The Gators are ranked 10th in the SEC in total offense (351.2 yards/game, 106th nationally), 12th in scoring offense (23.7 points/game, 97th nationally) and last in third-down conversions (33.3 percent, 103rd nationally).
These struggles stem from Florida’s inability to get something — anything — going in the passing game with redshirt Feleipe Franks at the helm. Outside of two plays — the game-winning touchdown pass to Tyrie Cleveland as time expired against Tennessee and his blistering 79-yard run against Texas A&M — Franks has underwhelmed halfway into his first season as a starter.
He is averaging 132.3 passing yards per game (99th nationally), has 3 passing touchdowns to 3 interceptions, was benched in the second half of two games and regained the starting job midway through the game against Vanderbilt only after Luke Del Rio suffered a season-ending collarbone injury.
Despite the cannon arm and ability to stretch the field, he has relied heavily on check-down passes. Just 6 of his 67 completions have gone for more than 30 yards.
Where did the fourth-quarter magic go?
Four weeks into the season, when Florida was sitting pretty at 3-1 and undefeated in conference play, it looked like the Gators would just continue to find ways to win games late.
Just look at how those three wins finished:
- A last-second, 63-yard touchdown from Franks to Cleveland as time expired to beat Tennessee.
- A 14-point fourth-quarter comeback against Kentucky saved by a holding call and a missed Wildcats field goal.
- A second-half rushing attack outburst against Vanderbilt, capped by a game-sealing 39-yard touchdown from Davis.
Since then, the magic has quickly run out. In home losses to LSU and Texas A&M the last two weeks, the Gators have totaled just 64 yards on six fourth-quarter drives.
That’s concerning as Florida heads into the second half of the season essentially needing to run through three conference games away from home — including a bout with No. 3 Georgia in Jacksonville — to keep its sliver of a chance at an SEC East title alive.
The defense has held its own despite youth
The defense was expecteded to experience a drop-off after losing eight key players to the NFL. The season-ending injury to fifth-year senior safety Marcell Harris added yet another challenge for an already young corps.
But as the season progressed, Florida’s defense is showing it can hold its own.
The Gators have held three of five SEC opponents to less than 20 points and have held four of five below their season average.
On Saturday, Florida held a Texas A&M team that came in averaging 424.8 yards and 224.8 rushing yards per game to just 80 first-half yards (19 on the ground) and 263 yards total in the game.
The defensive line — Florida’s most veteran group — has paved the way to help the Gators rank third in the conference in tackles for loss per game (6.83).
An underclassman-heavy secondary is starting to turn the corner as well. Senior Duke Dawson paces the group with 9 defended passes (7 breakups, 2 interceptions) while playing both outside corner and nickel, but the freshman duo of Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson has held its ground as well.
Wilson’s 7 pass breakups are the most nationally among freshmen and tied for 22nd overall. Henderson opened the season by returning interceptions for touchdowns in back-to-back games.
Add in Chauncey Gardner’s improved tackling (17 tackles last two games) and the emergence of sophomore Jeawon Taylor last week (4 tackles and an interception) and Florida is beginning to turn the corner.
The biggest need for improvement: forcing turnovers. After nabbing 5 interceptions through the first two games, the Gators have just 1 in the last four. Florida is also the only team in the nation that hasn’t recovered a fumble.
Eddy Pineiro has been underutilized
Somehow, someway, kicker Eddy Pineiro has attempted only seven field goals this season.
And somehow, someway, none of them have been longer than 50 yards. Actually, since the Tennessee game, Pineiro hasn’t had the opportunity to kick a field goal longer than 30 yards — his kicks since then have been from 21, 25 and 29.
Hard to believe for a kicker who went 20 for 25 last season with 11 makes from longer than 40 yards.
Why is that?
It ultimately ties back to three things:
- Florida’s offense stalls well outside of Pineiro’s range and the Gators have no choice but to punt.
- The offense is trailing by so much late in games (i.e. Kentucky, LSU) that the Gators have to go for it on fourth down and try to get a touchdown.
- McElwain has opted to be more aggressive on fourth down this season. The Gators have already gone for it on fourth down 11 times through six games, compared to 15 all of last season.
It’s not as if the Gators don’t trust Pineiro to kick a long field goal. The opportunities just haven’t presented themselves.