GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Well, it’s over.
That’s really the only good news after watching Florida struggle again in a 38-22 loss to Florida State. Sixteen points may be the closest Florida has come to beating FSU in the past three years, but Gators fans aren’t taking any solace in that.
The chasm between the two teams is still enormous, even after all of Florida State’s struggles. And with the news of Chip Kelly signing to coach UCLA, Gators fans are left to wonder whether there are more dark days ahead.
This is a bad FSU team, particularly offensively. Florida State quarterback James Blackman played pretty poorly, especially in the first half. The Seminoles put up only 109 yards of offense and were 1-for-6 on third down, but they still went into the half up 24-13.
They were ahead because the Gators couldn’t stop turning the ball over in back-breaking fashion. There was the strip sack returned for a touchdown after a complete whiff by Florida left tackle Jawaan Taylor. There was the interception of a quarterback Feleipe Franks pass that went right through the hands of wide receiver Brandon Powell that FSU turned into a TD. And there was the pick-6 that Franks threw to Lavonta Taylor after double-clutching on a throw to the outside.
Florida State only had one real TD drive, and even that included a massive Florida mistake. After a 15-yard facemask penalty was called on CeCe Jefferson, Florida immediately sacked Blackman. On second-and-19, Florida for some reason decided it was a good idea to run a defense that forced linebacker David Reese into coverage onto wide receiver Ermon Lane.
Had Florida State dictated a switch or run a formation that isolated Reese on Lane, that would be at least be excusable. Instead, a Gators cornerback stayed in the short zone, passing Lane off to Reese deep. This is incredibly poor defensive design, as it took a matchup favorable to Florida (DB on WR) and forced an unfavorable matchup (LB on WR). These are the kind of matchups Florida has been getting burned on all season, but it’s the first time I’ve seen them intentionally cause that kind of matchup to occur based on a coverage call.
Until that pass, Florida was within 8 points. Florida State converted that drive into a TD two plays later and the game was essentially over.
I’d like to blame that play for the loss, but I can’t. Yes, it was a critical defensive mistake. But the defense played well enough to win.
In what has become a familiar refrain for Gators fans for eight years now, the offense couldn’t even come close to holding up its end of the bargain. Florida’s offense handed 28 of Florida State’s 38 points directly to the Seminoles on a silver platter. And again, the play calling was atrocious.
Coming into the game, FSU ranked 48th in yards per rush attempt allowed and 14th in yards per pass attempts allowed against FBS teams. So what did Florida do? They threw the ball 39 times and only ran the ball 34 times.
The excuse will be that the run wasn’t effective, as the Gators only averaged 2.8 yards per attempt. But Mark Thompson was clearly the most effective back on Saturday (9 attempts for 63 yards), yet offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and company refused to continue feeding him the ball.
Drive after drive consisted of the offense abandoning the run in favor of putting the ball into Franks’ hands. And it became clear pretty early that the gains seen in Franks’ play the previous two weeks were mostly fool’s gold.
I hesitate to pile too heavily onto Franks, as he’s clearly not being put in an ideal situation to succeed. And the strip sack didn’t come on a blitz. It came because his offensive line let him down. His first interception came on a perfectly thrown slant that went right through Powell’s hands.
But just like in the LSU and Texas A&M games, Franks locked onto his primary receiver and never went anywhere else. I’m not sure how Powell continued getting open (9 receptions), as it was clear that he was the only receiver that Franks was going to throw to consistently.
And as the Florida State defense started to figure that out, it began to squeeze toward the line of scrimmage, cutting off the running game. The Gators had 55 yards rushing in the first quarter — and finished with only 96 yards.
That lies on Franks. He has the arm to take the top off a defense, but is either unwilling or incapable of doing so. And while the broadcasters kept pointing toward him being a redshirt freshman, he has also made eight starts this season. It’s just not acceptable to only be able to throw slants to one player at this juncture in the season.
Late Saturday, recruit Jacob Copeland announced on Twitter that he was de-committing from Florida. Copeland was probably intrigued by the idea of playing for Kelly, and with that no longer a possibility, he decided now was a good time to start exploring other options. With the uncertainty surrounding the program, I can’t blame him.
The first order of business should be for the program to hire its new head coach to eliminate that uncertainty. But now that we know it won’t be Kelly, it is probably more important that Florida’s administration get its act together.
Athletic director Scott Stricklin may think he’s cute tweeting memes about fans needing to relax and from campus classrooms to refute potential trips to meet with Kelly, but now that he’s struck out with Kelly, he just looks like a fool.
He needs to get a handle on this search — and maybe more importantly — the leaks in his administration. How the details about the Kelly negotiations got out, I don’t know, but the fact that they did is a reflection on Stricklin and the control, or lack thereof, that he has over this entire process.
This isn’t the first time, either. Stricklin had to address rumors that Jim McElwain would be fired the Saturday morning before the Georgia game because his administration allowed it to leak out to message boards the Thursday prior. It was then taken to a new level when Darren Heitner – a well-connected lawyer and Florida alum – started tweeting about boosters being gathered to discuss details about how to jettison McElwain.
Stricklin may be justified in disagreeing with how McElwain handled the death threats business, or how he was always chirping about needing buy-in from the administration. But I believe Florida fans are justified in wondering about the competence of an AD who lets news leak of a firing the morning of a game against one of its biggest rivals.
Stricklin has never hired a head football coach, and thus far looks completely in over his head. Back channels exist for a reason, and why he can’t use them without everyone immediately hearing what was transferred through those channels is worrisome.
If he hires the right coach, nobody will remember this fiasco. But you’d better believe fans will remember the leaks and the Twitter patronizing should the new coach not win early and win big.
The team and the fans
I’m privileged to write about the Gators and have an audience that is passionate and informed. The combination of those two attributes make Florida fans the best in the country. But the combination of those two attributes also leads to expectations.
Fair or not, those expectations are what a player or coach signs up for when he decides to come to Gainesville. Tim Tebow, Danny Wuerffel and Steve Spurrier are legends because they exceeded those expectations. Eventually, fans will come to feel the same way about Urban Meyer when the sting of him quitting and then going to Ohio State subsides.
Nobody tells the fans to calm down when they cheer for those legends. Nobody tells them to stop heaping adulation on those guys, and those teams, who bring the university together for special rides like in 1996, 2006 or 2008. Perhaps more hypocritically, nobody tells them to stop giving money or buying merchandise when things are going well.
So I have trouble admonishing those same fans for expressing frustration at poor coaching and poor play. Feleipe Franks played poorly this year (QB Rating of 111.7). Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett let the team down with the suspensions. Nussmeier has objectively been terrible as an offensive coordinator for four straight years. McElwain made bad in-game coaching decisions and then blamed everybody but himself.
The fans just pointed out what was obvious. This is part of what makes Gainesville a special place to play. The passion is what intimidates opposing quarterbacks when they come into The Swamp at night. The knowledge of the game within the fan base is really impressive.
Yes, some fans – especially on Twitter – take their passion too far. If you’re making death threats to anybody over football, I hope you find some perspective.
But I also hope those fans who are critical, those who are disappointed and those who choose to not accept average, keep making noise. Ignore those who call you spoiled. You have expectations, and yes, that may force out a coach or make a player or two wilt.
But those expectations are also what makes the program great. It’s part of what will prevent the program from sinking into mediocrity. It’s a part of what makes following the Gators football team so fun.
And it’s a huge part of what makes it great to be a Florida Gator.