GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators finally did what they were supposed to do against an inferior opponent. Dominate.
Sure, the game against Vanderbilt was 17-all at the half. Yes, the defense is still struggling at times. And of course, there will be tougher opponents down the road.
But the yardage totals tell the story. Florida outgained Vanderbilt 467-310, including 136-22 in the decisive third quarter. The Gators ran the ball 51 times for 218 yards, holding the ball for 12 minutes more than the Commodores, and battering a Vanderbilt defense that wilted in the second half while being unable to get off the field.
The Gators did most of their offensive damage with the backup QB, someone who just last week had fans and columnists asking whether his confidence was irreparably damaged. Instead, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks put up the best performance of his career thus far, cementing his status as the starter going forward.
Franks wasn’t spectacular, but was pretty solid. Yes, there were some plays he’ll have to button-up down the line. But he completed 10 of his 14 passes for 184 yards and didn’t turn the ball over.
And while Malik Davis is going to get much of the publicity (and rightfully so), the offensive line is starting to play better.
On this fourth down, Vanderbilt has nine men in the box against eight Florida players to block. But the Florida offensive line — specifically left tackle Martez Ivey (73) — pushes Vanderbilt backwards, and there isn’t any space for either of the linebackers to shoot a gap and make the tackle until Lamical Perine has the first down.
Another thing to note is that the snap came with 14 seconds on the play clock. This is a far cry from taking the full 40 seconds that has become the norm around Gainesville, particularly under Franks.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing is that Florida put up 38 points and left quite a few points on the field. On the drive at the end of the half, Franks found Tyrie Cleveland in the end zone, but the throw was a little high and Cleveland could not get his foot down in bounds. On the next play, he threw the ball a little bit behind Mark Thompson for what would have been a walk-in TD.
And while his stats were not spectacular (27 yards from scrimmage), wide receiver Kadarius Toney was again one block away from making a huge play.
On this play, there are three offensive linemen out in front. Ivey completely whiffs on his block against the cornerback and Toney is unable to slip the ankle tackle. The play call was perfect and everyone was in the right position, but that one critical mistake blew up the play.
On the broadcast, analyst Greg McElroy stated that he thought the Florida offense was close to breaking out, and I think this is what he was talking about. These types of mistakes were much rarer Saturday than they have been. And if Florida can start executing all of these plays correctly, they have the skill players to put up some points, despite the limitations they may have at quarterback.
In a development that should be encouraging to fans, the Gators offense is also starting to develop an identity. Last week against Kentucky, Florida scored its 4 TDs on drives that consisted of 21 rush attempts to 12 passes. On Saturday against Vanderbilt, the Gators had 5 TD drives, and those drives consisted of 31 rush attempts to 11 passes.
This is how Florida is going to score points. And with Malik Davis avoiding any of the negative runs that have plagued the offense in the past, that is no longer the obvious liability it has been the past two seasons. For sure, there is still work to do. But this game showed definitive progress, both from the players on the field and the play calls coming from the sideline.
On the other side of the ball, the defense struggled in the first half. The Gators surrendered 199 yards in that half, giving up two 75-yard touchdown drives to Vanderbilt immediately after Florida touchdowns.
The common theme of those drives was that Randy Shannon was determined to stop Ralph Webb. To do that, he was in his base 4-3 defense a lot, even on third downs.
This is the play preceding Vanderbilt’s first touchdown. It is third-and-6 and Vanderbilt has four wide receivers in the formation. Yet, Florida still has linebackers Jeremiah Moon (50), David Reese (33) and Vosean Joseph (11) in the game instead of playing nickel. With two safeties deep, that means Joseph has to guard wide receiver C.J. Duncan (19) 1-on-1.
This is a mismatch, Vanderbilt QB Kyle Shurmur finds it, and it’s an easy first down. This isn’t Joseph’s fault. This is a faulty design putting someone in a coverage situation where he shouldn’t be. Because it is 1-on-1, Joseph has both inside and outside responsibilities. The minute he jumps outside, the receiver is wide open.
The problem is that this is third-and-6, and Vanderbilt is in a four-wide formation. There should be more corners on the field. But with the tackling difficulties the Gators have shown in the secondary, this is the trade-off. Take Joseph off the field and you may get gashed on the ground. Leave him in and you’re vulnerable to the matchups through the air.
In the second half — perhaps because Webb wasn’t able to get anything going, or perhaps because the defensive line was starting to get more pressure — Shannon made the adjustment to only play his base defense on first down or second-and-short.
On third downs, even short ones, he went exclusively with nickel defenses. You can see that in the play above, where he only has Joseph and Reese on the field on a third-and-3. This is the exact same formation as the first play I showed above, and the run is even more of a threat in this case because of the down and distance.
But Florida has its nickel defense on the field. The linebackers are allowed to drop into zones rather than having 1-on-1 responsibilities. While Shurmur gets pressured and doesn’t have time to go through his progressions, the man who comes open is his running back, Ralph Webb. And Webb is covered pretty well by linebacker David Reese.
This adjustment played a major role in Florida holding Vanderbilt to just 22 yards in the third quarter. By the time Vanderbilt adjusted again, Florida was up two touchdowns.
But Vanderbilt did adjust, and so will other teams. On the play above, they send the wide receiver across Joseph’s zone, forcing him to pick him up. But because he is playing zone, Joseph doesn’t have outside responsibility and doesn’t jump outside like he did on the previous play. Also, because it is a crossing pattern, it takes a while to develop and enables the Florida defensive line to get pressure.
But even with all that, the pass should have been completed for a first down. Other, more skilled teams, will take advantage of these linebackers in coverage like Tennessee and Kentucky have. Vanderbilt was unable to do so consistently — at least until the Gators switched to a nickel defense — and that was the difference in the game.
Some people will find a way to complain about 38 points and a two-touchdown win, but I’m not one of them. If you had told me 38-24 to start the day, I would have taken it and not looked back. The Gators looked good at times and bad at times, but at least in this one, the good far outweighed the bad.
The other thing is that the depth of the team is starting to expand. On offense, Malik Davis had the largest impact, but Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson got major carries. Ten different receivers caught a pass, with four passes being categorized as explosive (longer than 20 yards). Even tight end Moral Stephens had 2 catches, both of them on the key TD drive to put the Gators up 24-17.
On defense, there were appearances from defensive backs C.J. McWilliams and Brad Stewart, defensive linemen Antonneous Clayton and Tedarrell Slaton and linebacker Kylan Johnson. And these guys weren’t just playing mop-up duty, but were in the game in the first half when the game was still in significant doubt.
The Gators schedule is starting to look a little less formidable. LSU lost to a middle-of-the-pack Mississippi State team and to Troy. Texas A&M has played a ton of close games and has to play Alabama next week before coming to the Swamp. And Florida State nearly dropped to 0-3 against Wake Forest on Saturday.
That doesn’t mean Florida can relax, because it has flaws too. But the margin for error that the Gators have to play with seems to be increasing by the day, and they appear to be improving as well.
As currently constituted, this team isn’t ready to contend for an SEC Championship. But it is in the pole position in the SEC East yet again. Had you told me that the day after the Michigan game, or even one drive into the second half of the Kentucky game, I would’ve taken it in a heartbeat.
More than anything, it was nice to see the team get a win that didn’t require heroics combined with some miracle coaching mistake by the opposition. This was a game where Florida came in with a plan to run the ball, stuck to its plan, and was rewarded.
LSU will come into the Swamp next week wounded and angry. But the Gators will have a plan, and it likely will look much like the one they implemented against Vanderbilt.
We’ll see if they can stick to it again.