ARLINGTON, Texas — The Florida Gators were embarrassed by Michigan on a national stage, exposing the program as a paper tiger yet again.
Since coach Jim McElwain has come to Gainesville, Florida has lost twice to Florida State, Alabama and Michigan by an average score of 36-12. Florida has scored 70 total points in those games, and including field goals and extra points, 44 have been scored by the defense or special teams.
The Gators defense again spotted the offense 14 points (and a blocked punt that led to a missed field goal) and the team still managed to lose by 16. And had Wilton Speight even played average, this would’ve been at least a 40-point defeat.
So with that kind of performance, the natural question afterward was what went wrong? McElwain blamed being physically dominated in his postgame press conference.
“Their guys were bigger and stronger. They whooped us. I mean, plain and simple.”
And at first glance, that appears to be a correct assessment. The Wolverines defense sacked Gators QBs 6 times and had 11 tackles for loss. Florida’s running backs averaged 2.4 yards per rush on 14 carries. The Gators defense gave up 215 yards rushing and 433 yards total. So it was just a physical whipping, right?
Well, this is where McElwain and I diverge. If you actually watch the film (which, I should acknowledge, McElwain had not done when he gave his quote), what you see is a team that doesn’t trust each other and a coaching staff that doesn’t trust its players.
I wrote extensively last season about the little mistakes Florida kept making to kill drives. It happened again against Michigan, and while McElwain threw his offensive line under the bus after the game, he would do well to take a good long look in the mirror as well.
Offensive film breakdown
Florida had a pretty good opening drive. Feleipe Franks hit a 34-yard pass to Josh Hammond but then was tripped up by center T.J. McCoy to make it second-and-14. Anyone who has watched a Doug Nussmeier offense knew what was coming, and Michigan did too (h/t @realbsikes for pointing this play out on Twitter).
You could blame the offensive line there. But wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland (89) ran a route and Michigan corner Lavert Hill (24) ignored him and fired forward in run support. The linebackers also collapsed in, indicating that Michigan had been coached to sell out for the run.
Florida had to settle for a field goal, but this taught Florida something valuable about what Michigan was trying to do. They tried to take advantage of it later in the quarter.
After Franks fell again, putting Florida in a second-and-17, Nussmeier actually went against tendency and threw the ball. He opted for a screen pass to Dre Massey (9), but added a wrinkle from the Gators’ normal screen game.
Franks faked the run to Mark Thompson (24), baiting the linebackers to again fire toward the line of scrimmage. Wide receiver Josh Hammond (10) blocked the play perfectly. Color announcer Todd Blackledge pointed out during the telecast that the play was wide open except for an unbelievable play from Michigan tackle Maurice Hurst (73).
My issue here isn’t the play call. It’s actually a great one. My issue is that this was Massey’s only catch in the game and that Florida never went back to this play later. It was open, and if Hurst misses the tackle or gets lost in traffic, it would have been a touchdown. Nussmeier didn’t trust his own film study, because he had something here and never went back to it.
This play is important to understand because it is also related to the next trust issue. You might have been like me and wondered what happened to the package for freshman Kadarius Toney? Well, Toney was in on a second-and-8 to end the first quarter.
Toney (17) is on the bottom of the screen, and completely misses his blocking responsibility. To be fair, Hill is collapsing as soon as he senses run. But still, Toney knows it is a running play and has to get in Hill’s way, or at least allow running back Lamical Perine (22) to cut outside. Instead, Hill turns Perine back into the teeth of the defensive line and Perine is dropped for a loss.
Maybe I missed it, but this was the only time I saw Toney until the second half when the game was pretty much decided. For a guy who was talked up all offseason — and who had such a huge role in the spring game from the wildcat formation — it seems ludicrous that this missed block would keep him out of the game.
But recall that after Perine fumbled on his first carry last season as a freshman against UMass, he never saw the field again in that game. I can’t help but wonder whether McElwain and Nussmeier simply felt they couldn’t trust Toney completely and didn’t put him out there.
The Gators struggled in pass protection as well. While much of that falls on the offensive line, the chaos that surrounded the Gators QB was exacerbated by players trying to do too much.
On this play, Michigan linebacker Devin Bush (10) came on the blitz. He is running back Mark Thompson’s (24) responsibility. But right guard Fred Johnson (74) gets beat so quickly inside by Hurst (73) that Thompson hesitates. Johnson pushes Hurst down where Franks would have been able to probably get away. But Thompson’s hesitation allows Bush to run free at Franks, causing an eventual sack.
It’s hard to blame Thompson here. This is a split-second decision and Franks likely gets flushed either way. But Thompson didn’t trust that Johnson would recover. That is what made him hesitate, and instead of doing his job, he tried to do Johnson’s. The result was that his man is the one who caused havoc in the backfield.
Up 17-10, Florida blocked a punt and subsequently faced a third-and-2 from the Michigan 29-yard line. The Gators decided to run off tackle to the right side and it was stuffed.
But the question you should be asking is how did Bush (10) get to Perine without being touched? Well, it was a chain of events. First, Johnson (74) got blasted two yards behind the line of scrimmage by Hurst. This tripped up left guard Brett Heggie (61), who was pulling across the formation and responsible for blocking Bush.
Even still, that leaves Perine to beat Bush. Just as it looked like he might break free, Michigan safety Tyree Kinnel (23) came up to finish him off. Why was Kinnel free, you might ask? Well, Florida tight end C’yontai Lewis (80) tried to cut him to the ground and completely missed. Out trotted kicker Eddy Pineiro to attempt a field goal.
But that was also a mistake, as Florida should have gone for it on fourth down. It was clear by this point that Michigan was superior up front on both sides of the ball. The calculation for McElwain was whether he thought his defense would hold a 10-point lead. Based on how the team was getting manhandled to that point on defense (the Gators gave up 84 yards on 7.0 yards per carry in the first quarter), it seems clear that it was going to take more than 20 points to win the game.
While I understand the reasoning for sending out Pineiro, this is very clearly a situation where the math dictates that a coach should attempt the fourth down. But McElwain didn’t trust his offense to get that three yards (and with good reason). As it turns out, whether Pineiro made the field goal or not was immaterial, as Michigan continued dominating in the trenches without any more backbreaking turnovers.
Defensive film breakdown
Michigan clearly expected a lot of zone from Randy Shannon’s defense, and that’s exactly what they got. Harbaugh exploited it by having his receivers flash in and out of zones to confuse Florida’s defensive backs.
Immediately after starting safety Nick Washington went out with a shoulder injury, Michigan went deep. Blackledge blamed the breakdown on freshman safety Shawn Davis — who had entered for Washington — but I think the blame lies with Chauncey Gardner.
Harbaugh ran a two-man route, with Kekoa Crawford (1) crossing in front of Gardner (23) and out of his zone with Tarik Black (7) starting in corner Marco Wilson’s (3) zone and running a post behind Gardner. Gardner bit on Crawford crossing in front of him, Wilson properly let Black run free expecting Gardner to pick him up. Easy touchdown.
When Florida did bring pressure, Wilton Speight’s experience was the difference. Late in the fourth quarter, Michigan faced a third-and-4, and Blackledge pointed out that Florida didn’t have any safeties deep and that Speight was checking to another play. Michigan isolated two receivers — Crawford (1) and freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones (9) — against Florida’s freshman corners, Marco Wilson (3) and C.J. Henderson (5).
Crawford faked like it was a running play and then ran around Peoples-Jones, who ran a perfect curl route that ran Wilson and Henderson into each other without actually making contact himself. The play design is beautiful and it was executed perfectly and without committing pass interference. This is an incredibly tough play for Florida’s corners — and Shannon leaving them in Cover 0 is unfair — but they have to switch. Speight missed the throw, but it is indicative of the advanced concepts Harbaugh is running, even with his young players.
Even when things went well, Florida’s defense was not always in the correct position. With a third-and-9 in its own territory, Michigan decided to run the ball.
Florida left defensive end Jabari Zuniga (92) pinned his ears back to rush the passer. The left nose tackle — Taven Bryan (93) — jumped inside, leaving a huge hole on the right side of the line. Why Michigan running back Karan Higdon (22) decided to turn back into CeCe Jefferson (96), I don’t know. But this could have been a huge play if the running back had read it correctly.
Trust and Michigan
So what does trust look like? Look no further than Michigan. I already outlined the pick play that they entrusted to a freshman receiver. Harbaugh also trusts Speight to allow him to make those kinds of checks. But what impressed me the most was the trust level in the face of adversity.
Michigan actually ran a play designed to make the Gators secondary switch earlier in the game, this one involving Wilson (3) and linebacker David Reese (33).
Michigan receiver Eddie McDoom (13) and Grant Perry (88) crossed in front of each other. Reese and Wilson switched it perfectly, but the action left Perry open just enough to catch a first-down pass. Perry — a junior — spun the ball on the ground after the catch, incurring a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. We’ll come back to that.
I already mentioned that Michigan expected a lot of zone, and two plays later that was the coverage Speight got.
He made the right read and Crawford (1) beat corner Duke Dawson (7). Speight needed to deliver the ball and in front of Gardner (23) without leaving it too far behind for Dawson to break up. The ball was delivered a little bit high, bounced off Crawford’s hands, and was intercepted by Dawson and returned for a touchdown. Speight would follow that up with another pick-6 on the very next drive, and that one was his fault.
The reason I bring these two plays up is to point out the two most important plays of the game on the opening drive of the second half. Fans and pundits alike probably will laud Harbaugh for his halftime adjustments, but he didn’t make any adjustments. He just trusted his players to execute the game plan they had practiced all summer.
CJ Henderson had just tackled Perry a yard short of the first down on third down. Michigan went for it even though it was facing fourth-and-1 from its own 44. Had Michigan not made it, Harbaugh would have been second-guessed repeatedly. But again, the math is clear that this is the correct call.
Harbaugh trusted his players and he also trusted what he saw on film and in the first half. Florida’s defense collapsed toward the side of the handoff, leaving a huge cutback lane. Henderson missed the tackle this time, but the first down was already gained at that point anyway.
And perhaps the biggest play of the game happened just two plays later.
Florida gave Speight a single high safety look. This time, Florida had underneath coverage on Perry (88) with Reese (33) and safety help with Gardner (23). Speight had to throw the ball over Reese and in front of Gardner.
Speight threw the exact same pass that he had thrown earlier for the pick-6 to Dawson. This time though, Perry snatched it. Two plays later, Michigan had the lead and was off.
This play showed me a lot about Michigan. First, Harbaugh put Perry back on the field in spite of his stupid unsportsmanlike conduct penalty earlier in the game. Harbaugh trusted Speight to throw the exact same type of pass that had been returned for a touchdown earlier in the game. And Speight trusted his ability to throw the pass.
Michigan is a physically talented team. But it’s not that much stronger, faster or quicker than the Gators. What was apparent going back and watching the film was that Michigan trusts its players, even after they make mistakes. Michigan trusts its film study and game plan. Michigan trusts freshmen to execute complex concepts that some seniors would struggle with. And the Michigan players are expected to trust each other.
Florida showed none of that. The coaches didn’t trust their own film study, going away from plays that should work against what Michigan was trying to do. McElwain didn’t go for it on fourth down because he didn’t trust his offense to get the 3 yards, even though that was the right call.
The offensive line, tight ends and running backs could not trust each other in either run or pass blocking. And the defense could not trust each other to maintain gap discipline or stay in their zone assignments.
The first step to solving a problem is figuring out what it is. And McElwain won’t solve any of these problems by — as he stated — reevaluating what his players are doing in the weight room. Physical strength isn’t the main problem. The problem is between everyone’s ears, coaches included.
Plenty of people are going to call for Nussmeier to be fired or to have his play-calling duties taken away. His track record is unimpressive. But I think McElwain has to own this one. He has to get up in front of the media and say he was wrong for blaming the offensive line or anyone else.
His players haven’t completely bought in. To hear him tell it, they haven’t bought in in the weight room. They certainly haven’t bought in when it comes to being cited for marijuana possession or allegedly committing credit card fraud. So I’m not sure why it should be a surprise that they haven’t completely bought in on the field?
One of Bill Belichick’s favorite sayings is “Do your job.” This entire Gators team could use that lesson.
Perhaps no one more than its coach.