NASHVILLE — Florida coach Jim McElwain protected and shielded his offensive line last week even though the unit had struggled to do the same for the Gators.
He declined to assign the group any blame in Florida’s second-half collapse at Tennessee even though the running lanes filled in faster than an open parking spot on campus and quarterback Austin Appleby faced consistent pressure in the pocket.
It was much the same story Saturday at Vanderbilt, but this time McElwain didn’t hold back.
“We’ve got to play with better pad level and we’ve got to get off the ball with a sense of urgency and quit waiting for somebody else to hit you in the mouth,” he said. “It’s that simple, and I’m sick of seeing it.”
That wasn’t all, though.
The defensive line had its own issues as Florida struggled up front on both sides while holding on for a closer-than-expected 13-6 win against the Commodores at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“Give them credit, they knew where they needed to get the shades and that kind of stuff and took advantage of it. I don’t think we played physical up front on either side of the ball. I think they out-physicaled us in all phases,” McElwain said.
That’s an issue in a game where the Gators (4-1, 2-1 SEC) were supposed to come out with something to prove after taking a second-half shellacking the previous week.
The defensive line matter is at least easier to explain.
Senior nose tackle Joey Ivie, who was off to a strong start this season, missed his first game and will be out several more weeks with an unspecified hand injury.
Redshirt-junior defensive end Jordan Sherit was held out of action with a knee/leg injury of some kind after testing himself in warmups Saturday.
And yet a third starter, redshirt-junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley, missed a chunk of the game with a hand injury before later returning. He was sporting a wrap or cast of some sort afterward and declined to address the injury.
“It will be all right,” he said.
That put more responsibility on guys like redshirt sophomores Khairi Clark and Taven Bryan in the middle while testing the Gators depth across the line. Sophomore CeCe Jefferson, who had been working inside, and sophomore Keivonnis Davis made their first starts of the season at defensive end while fifth-year senior Bryan Cox Jr. came off the bench for the first time. Freshmen ends Antonneous Clayton, making his collegiate debut, and Jachai Polite played in key moments, as well.
Vanderbilt was very effective at times with its ground attack, totaling 147 rushing yards with almost all coming in the first three quarters before the offense turned more to the passing game while trying to rally in the fourth. The Commodores had chances to drive for a potential tying score even while finishing the game with a backup quarterback.
“Obviously with Joey down, we had a bunch of new guys in there and new faces,” McElwain said. “I think this was a great game for them. I’m not saying they played particularly well, but they’re going to have a great opportunity to see themselves on film and learn how to control blockers. Offensively, their inside guys just beat the heck out of us, and that was very disappointing. We’ll go back to work and get ready for a home game next week.”
Brantley dismissed the idea that guys stepping into bigger roles led to any issues, communication-wise or other, along the defensive line.
“It’s them just getting the nervous feeling out. After that, it’s OK. There’s no miscommunications, nothing hard,” he said.
And the fact is the Gators still managed to hold Vanderbilt to a season-low 6 points while forcing three turnovers. It may not have been the most visually impressive performance, but it got the job done.
Moving forward, Sherit seems like he’d have a chance to play next week, Ivie will return eventually and Brantley seems like he’ll play through whatever ailment he incurred in the win.
The bigger question is what is going to change on the offensive line?
The onus has been on that unit since the preseason to key Florida’s desired offensive improvements. Aside from a plus performance in Week 2 against Kentucky, the group hasn’t answered that challenge.
The Gators should get sophomore right guard Tyler Jordan back at full strength next week after he missed two games with an eye injury and played limited snaps Saturday. He was playing as one of Florida’s better blockers early in the season.
But he alone won’t solve the issues up front.
Florida has been held to an average of 99 rushing yards the last two weeks. It averaged a meager 2.6 yards per carry Saturday and needed sophomore running back Jordan Scarlett creating yards on his own to find the end zone for the team’s only touchdown of the game.
Also, Vanderbilt, which had 3 sacks total through its first four games, sacked quarterback Austin Appleby twice on one drive, plowing him into the turf from both the right and left sides.
“I mean, everybody plays a part in protection,” Appleby said. “A quarterback getting the ball out of his hand. Backs picking up guys and helping out and chipping, same with tight ends and receivers getting open. Everybody plays a part in it.”
This time, though, McElwain was not as reserved in his evaluation of the group.
He admitted he was surprised by the struggles up front.
“Yeah, I am, because they’ve been having pretty good practices. Yeah. Call it the way it is, guys. I mean, shoot, we were getting sacked on four-man, three-man rushes, getting pressured,” he said. “And then not being able to run the ball inside, it wasn’t like they were loading the box or anything. But we’ll see on film. Look, I know those guys are working hard and they feel as bad as anybody.”
The Gators managed a season low 236 yards against a struggling Vanderbilt defense that came into the day ranked 102nd nationally in giving up 452.5 yards per game.
Fans are hoping the return of injured quarterback Luke Del Rio, who could be back in action as soon as this coming Saturday against LSU, will elevate the offense, but he can’t do it himself.
The Gators have real issues up front again, and the answer to those problems is not so clear almost halfway through the season.
“We’ve got to learn to play physical and play with some pad level because we just got pushed around,” McElwain said.