GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators lost at home Saturday night to a team that only ran for 83 yards and completed only 33 percent of its passes.
The 19-17 loss to Texas A&M wasn’t a complete surprise. I thought the Gators would get beat much worse than this, actually. But I also said there were two ways they could win. That didn’t happen.
Here’s a breakdown:
The first way Florida could have won was if Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond played like a true freshman on the road. Mond obliged, completing only 8 of his 24 passes and throwing an interception. He contributed 52 yards on the ground, much of it in the second half.
The Florida defense — missing linebacker Jeremiah Moon — decided to play almost the entire game in nickel coverage with only two linebackers. The defense alternated between single-high safety looks — walking one safety up into the box — on first and second down and then switched to cover-2 on third downs.
You can only do this if your defensive line can win the battle in the trenches. Florida was able to do that, led by defensive tackle Taven Bryan’s 1.5 tackles for loss and linebacker Davis Reese’s 9 tackles. The Aggies three main running backs had 20 carries for 43 yards and could never get going. Florida’s defense has struggled mightily against the run this year and A&M was averaging 4.9 yards per rush coming in, but on this night, the Gators defense stepped up.
Mond couldn’t beat the coverage either, particularly early. He completed 4 of 11 passes for 61 yards in the first half and only ran for a single yard as the Aggies sputtered to just 3 points. The defense also got the ball back on the very next play after a Feleipe Franks interception when Quincy Lenton intercepted Mond.
A&M finally got some traction in the second half, and Florida gave up 9 points and 127 yards in the fourth quarter. But Mond didn’t throw the ball any better in the fourth quarter, going 3 of 9. The issue was that two of those three completions were for 40 and 42 yards, respectively, and set up field goals.
The final field goal didn’t require any big plays because Florida decided to punt to Aggies returner Christian Kirk. Kirk had only been given the opportunity to return punts twice this season. That was because in 2015 and 2016, he averaged 23 yards per return on 27 attempts. After the game, McElwain said the plan was to punt out of bounds or pin Kirk in. Florida did neither.
The truth is that the Gators defense is the only reason Florida had a chance to win this game. If A&M had been able to convert any of its red zone chances into touchdowns, the game would have been a blowout because of the Gators offensive futility.
The other way I thought Florida could win the game was if quarterback Feleipe Franks played lights out.
Early on, it actually looked like that might happen. Franks started 6-for-8 passing for 54 yards on a drive that led to an opening field goal. Unfortunately for Franks — and Gators fans — he only threw for 73 yards from that point on.
It became clear that the Gators’ plan early was to get the ball to wide receiver Brandon Powell and running backs Lamical Perine and Malik Davis. Those three touched the ball on 9 of the Gators’ first 12 plays on the effective opening drive. Davis caught 2 passes for 22 yards and Powell caught 3 for 24 yards.
Powell only caught 2 more balls and the running backs never caught the ball again the rest of the game.
I noted last week in the loss to LSU that Florida was unsuccessful when it went away from its playmakers (Toney, Perine and Davis) and tried to put the game on Franks’ shoulders. The same thing happened against Texas A&M, and the statistics bear that out if you substitute Powell for Toney.
On non-scoring drives, the three most-important offensive players touched the ball 51 percent of the time. On scoring drives, they touched it 65 percent of the time
On drives that ended as 3-and-outs, those same playmakers only touched the ball 43 percent of the time. Perhaps the most egregious example was when Florida got the ball at its own 49 with 4:22 left in the third quarter with the score tied at 10. Nussmeier called a roll out for Franks, who ate the ball for a 3-yard loss. He then air-mailed a screen to Powell and ran for 6 yards after being flushed from the pocket.
Now, you could say that Nussmeier tried to target Powell on the second play, and you would be right. But what about the other two play calls? Neither of them targeted Powell, Davis or Perine. And that doesn’t excuse the 43 percent ratio on 3-and-outs the rest of the game.
Yes, Feleipe Franks needs to play better. But he also needs someone calling plays who puts him in a position to succeed. Look at that chart again. Is it a coincidence that the Gators had 41 total plays in the first half when the key players touched the ball 59 percent of the time and only 27 plays in the second half when that ratio dropped to 52 percent?
The Gators ran one play from the wildcat formation, and on that play little-used receiver Dre Massey showed the same burst that he did on his touchdown run later. Did the Gators come back to it? They did not.
The Gators threw to Malik Davis twice on the opening drive (granted, once in desperation) and saw immediate dividends. Did they come back to it? They did not.
Five of Franks’ first 6 completions were to Powell or Davis. Only 2 of his final 11 were. And on the interception that sealed the game, Franks’ throw was heading towards tight end Deandre Goolsby. Goolsby was open, just as he was much of the night.
But isn’t it telling that on the play that decided the game Powell was the only one of the three playmakers who was even available to make a play. Perine was in for pass protection and Davis was on the bench.
And therein lies the problem. Coaching is putting your best players in a position to succeed, and this staff continues to find ways to avoid doing just that.
McElwain again threw his players under the bus after the game, saying the “plan was good, but the execution piece needs to get better.” He’s full of garbage.
The truth is that the Gators won the time of possession battle by more than 6 minutes. The Gators outgained Texas A&M by 159 yards on the ground. The Gators scored on all three red-zone possessions, 2 of those touchdowns while holding A&M to 3 field goals. They executed well enough to win.
The reason the Gators lost was because McElwain didn’t challenge the spot on a 5-yard throw to Powell to open the second half where it looked like he might have a first down.
The reason the Gators lost was because McElwain didn’t know how many timeouts he had at the end of the half and let the clock run out on a lame attempt to gain a pass interference penalty.
The reason the Gators lost was because the staff refuses to put Perine and Davis in the backfield together, never making the defense account for all three of the Gators’ playmakers at one time.
The reason the Gators lost was because the staff refuses to run wildcat formations with Perine, Davis or Powell to gain an extra blocker in short-yardage situations.
None of that has to do with injuries, suspensions or the inconsistent play of a young quarterback. It has to do with a staff that would rather blame the players for a lack of execution than to look in the mirror at their own significant shortcomings.
I’ve consistently defended Jim McElwain’s abilities and the job he’s done at Florida. And I still believe that he needs to be given the entire season before any decision is made about his job status.
But his job is to put his players in a position to succeed. Instead, he — the offensive guru with a dog who could supposedly quarterback his teams — just lost to a team that averaged 2.2 yards per rush and completed 8 passes.
And yet, he has the gall to blame his players?
I was no fan of Will Muschamp, but at least he stood up at the podium and took responsibility. He took the heat for his players so they wouldn’t have to shoulder that burden. The humane thing to do would be for McElwain to either take the blame himself, or at least let Nussmeier shoulder the blame. He’s had no problem calling out Randy Shannon publicly for issues on the defensive side of the ball. A leader would take responsibility for this dumpster fire of an offense.
Instead, McElwain has decided that his redshirt freshman QB and the rest of his players are going to shoulder the blame. In the meantime, his offensive coordinator is still presiding over a team that has averaged 23.2 points in 2015, 23.9 points in 2016 and now 23.7 points in 2017 (against FBS teams).
Perhaps I missed one reason in that list earlier that the Gators lost this game: Doug Nussmeier is still the offensive coordinator.
That is what I’d call a lack of execution.