GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Jim McElwain thought the Gators’ offense was lacking explosive plays Saturday night, he felt the defense was “just OK,” and in general he was incredibly frustrated by the team’s penalties.
He highlighted the positives too, but overall McElwain was pretty blunt in his assessment after the Gators’ season-opening 24-7 win over Massachusetts.
“Obviously, as you watched the game, we’ve got a long ways to go,” he said.
Florida, ranked No. 25 to open the season, was clinging to a 10-7 lead entering the fourth quarter against a UMass team that came in with a combined 8-40 record over its first four seasons since moving up to the FBS.
The Gators would score 14 points in that final quarter to take any suspense out of the game and ward off any true upset threat, but it wasn’t the kind of opening performance expected for a program that won the SEC East last fall and one that hopes to perhaps be even better in McElwain’s second season at the helm.
On a positive note, McElwain was mostly complimentary about new starting quarterback Luke Del Rio, who finished 29-of-44 passing or 256 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“I thought Luke did some pretty darn good things, took care of the football. I think if there’s some real positives out of it, you know, the turnover piece was something that I thought was really good as far as taking care of the football,” he said. “And you know what, that’s how you become successful as a team.”
But overall, it was not the offensive showing McElwain envisioned.
Asked about the lack of explosive plays, he acknowledged that is something that has to change next week with SEC foe Kentucky coming into The Swamp.
“We didn’t have any,” McElwain said. “We’ve got to get ‘em. We dropped a couple. We had the first one pretty much wide open. That’s something that we’ve get to get a little bit better at, obviously.”
One of the major story lines for this Florida team is whether the offensive line can improve after yielding the most sacks (46) in the country last year. The Gators gave up just one sack Saturday night, but Del Rio took some hits and got flushed out of the pocket on a number of occasions.
That isn’t what McElwain singled out about the line, though.
“I think they played better in our up-tempo stuff. I’ll tell you what bothers me is the way they just mope around and walk around out there instead of hustling to the line of scrimmage and getting ready to go,” he said. “I thought they did better in the second half, but that energy has got to be — that’s all part of it. Their energy has to be a lot better. Those tackles have to get up and get set so we can execute and get more plays than what we did in this game.”
The defense kept Florida in the game while holding Massachusetts to just those seven points and only 187 yards.
But that side of the ball wasn’t spared from criticism either.
Especially in regard to the 80 yards of penalties the Gators racked up, with 55 coming from the defense. On the Minutemen’s lone scoring drive late in the first quarter and into the start of the second, the Gators chipped in 35 yards from penalties — including a 15-yard flag on linebacker Jarrad Davis for roughing the passer and a 15-yard personal foul on defensive lineman Taven Bryan.
Nose tackle Joey Ivie added a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty later in the game.
“It’s unacceptable. We had like eight of them for 80 yards? The thing that bothers you probably more than anything is they were unforced,” McElwain said. “… We’ve just got to play smarter and we can’t put ourselves in holes. That was a big thing when we got here — we did a good job of kind of eliminating some of those. But when you have three majors like that in a game, that ain’t right.”
McElwain did offer high praise for Davis and fellow linebacker Alex Anzalone, but he said he thought the defense left a lot to be desired overall.
“I thought they played just OK, and we can play definitely better. And they will,” he said.
It was clear throughout his postgame press conference that McElwain wanted his players to know that this kind of effort won’t get the job done in the Gators’ SEC opener next week with Kentucky.
He referenced multiple times that Kentucky has been very competitive with Florida in recent years and that he thought the Gators gave the Wildcats even more reason to be confident with how they played Saturday night.
Florida edged out a 36-30 overtime win against Kentucky two years ago here in Gainesville and pulled out a 14-9 win in Lexington, Ky., in the meeting last year.
“We’ve got a team coming in next week, guys, that’s hungry as heck, that came into this place a couple of years ago and probably thought they won the game,” McElwain said. “They continue to get better last year. Last year, we had to fight our tails off there to get a win, and I’m sure they’re going to take a look at this tape and come in here and take a look at us the last whatever, three games of the season a year ago and say, ‘You know, we can beat these guys.’ I’m sure that’s what Kentucky will do. And you know what, we haven’t given them any reason not to think that. Should be a lot of fun next week.”
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.