JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Jim McElwain had just said a couple minutes earlier how he feels his team — particularly the offense — gets picked apart each week, and how he believes the Gators are good enough overall to win the division and perhaps more.
So, he wasn’t exactly in the mood to thoroughly break down the performance of redshirt sophomore quarterback Luke Del Rio, who completed 15-of-25 passes for a season-low 131 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception Saturday in a 24-10 win over Georgia.
“You know, I thought he did OK. Obviously, they knew that we had a cut split. And they know, they robbed the over route and he threw it, which wasn’t good. I mean, that’s a staple in their defense,” McElwain said of the first-quarter interception. “But other than that, for the most part, we took care of the football and managed the game well. And did we win? OK, good. All right. Just want to make sure. I mean … unbelievable.”
McElwain has every reason to believe that his Gators (6-1, 4-1 SEC) have the talent and team to win the SEC East title again and return to the conference championship game.
Florida’s defense was absolutely stifling once again, holding Georgia (4-4, 2-4) to just 164 offensive yards and 8 first downs in the rivalry game at EverBank Field. The defense coupled with redshirt junior Johnny Townsend’s punting to win the field position game and give the Gators an average starting position at their 40-yard line.
That’s enough to cover for a shaky offensive performance in a lot of games, and it sure did the trick Saturday.
But that doesn’t hide the fact that Florida received a second straight underwhelming performance from Del Rio.
That’s not to look for a negative in what was a significant win overall — no doubt, a big victory in a meaningful rivalry game and one that keeps Florida in control of the SEC East.
It’s not to pile on or even suggest that Del Rio can’t get the job done for the Gators — heck, he’s only played five games for Florida and had his progress stalled by a bad knee sprain in the middle of it. There isn’t a huge body of work to judge yet, and it’s far too early for a final verdict either way.
It just simply wasn’t the kind of assuaging, question-answering, confidence-building performance coaches, fans and Del Rio himself were hoping to see.
After completing a season-low 47.4 percent of his passes and throwing a season-high 3 picks against Missouri in his first game back from that knee injury, there was optimism — first and foremost from Del Rio — that the quarterback was going to bounce back and give fans a reason to be encouraged.
Florida managed a season-low 231 yards Saturday and will need more from the offense — and the quarterback — in some of the tougher tests that remain down the stretch.
Del Rio stuck to the positives in his own self-assessment.
“You know, we eliminated some of the turnovers. Other than the first throw that I had today, I thought I didn’t force that many balls,” he said. “Just kind of coming back from the injury it was a little rusty, but as an offense we’re doing such a great job of getting in a rhythm during these drives. When you get those 8, 10, 12-play drives, those are big and they tire out and demoralize a defense.”
It was better than the performance against Missouri, that’s for sure. The Gators had 20 first downs and kept the chains moving enough to give the defense some rest, even if their longest drive of the game was 56 yards. Thanks to the defense, they didn’t have far to go most possessions.
Del Rio was intercepted on the opening possession when Georgia’s Dominick Sanders jumped in front of sophomore wide receiver Antonio Callaway to steal a pass over the middle and return it 31 yards. That set up a Georgia field goal, but it was the only turnover for the Gators all day.
The quarterback seemed to hold the ball too long at times, taking three sacks (one via intentional grounding) in the process. There were some open receivers he didn’t notice, missing out on potential big gains.
That said, he did come through with some big third-down throws.
A 13-yard connection to freshman Tyrie Cleveland down the sideline on third-and-11 kept alive what would be a 10-play drive on Florida’s second series, though it ended with a punt.
He found redshirt sophomore tight end C’yontai Lewis on third-and-7 on the next series, and Lewis broke a tackle to turn the short catch into a 19-yard touchdown. The Gators seized some momentum on that drive after starting at the Georgia 39 following a Bulldogs’ three-and-out.
Del Rio executed a sideline pass to Callaway that went for 13 yards on third-and-6 to extend an 8-play, 44-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter while capitalizing on more great starting field position.
And he fired a strike to Callaway for a 21-yard gain over the middle on third-and-10 in the third quarter to prolong an eventual 10-play touchdown drive that pretty much put the game away.
Those were positives, but Del Rio and surely McElwain know he’ll likely need to do more against Arkansas, LSU and Florida State … and maybe even South Carolina.
Like his coach, though, Del Rio was upbeat Saturday night.
Florida earned a big win, and as sophomore Jordan Scarlett picked up a final first down to run off the rest of the game clock, the quarterback gave a Gator chomp to the sideline.
“Yeah, you know, you never really think to do the chomp, but it’s such a cool thing. Not every team kind of has a thing that they can do,” Del Rio said. “It’s a rivalry game. Our fans stayed the entire game. You know, their fans had a reason not to, but it was more of what was going on at the line of scrimmage. I didn’t want to say anything and get a penalty, so that was kind of my way of taking care of that.”