Vanderbilt beat Florida, 34-17, on Saturday. Yes, Vanderbilt. You read that right. You can relive the game through our Game Thread, if you're a masochist. The Rapid Recap is our comprehensive first look before a second full viewing of each Gators game. It is usually more Rapid than this, so this week's edition is just The Recap.
Just before halftime, after Florida's third turnover of the day — the one that thwarted a last-minute attempt to cut into Vanderbilt's 17-3 lead, not the ones that helped create it — the PA system at The Swamp played Avicii's "Wake Me Up." The song, if you haven't heard it, is sung by an uncredited Aloe Blacc, and revolves around this hook:
So wake me up when it's all over
When I'm wiser and I'm older
All this time, I was finding myself, but I
I didn't know I was lost
And, well, what words could be better for this Florida team?
How Florida Lost
Three turnovers and another huge hole
Florida's defense couldn't get Vanderbilt off the field on its first drive of the game, allowing the Commodores to convert two third downs and a fourth down en route to a field goal. Florida drove down and appeared to put itself in position to answer that opening score with its own field goal, but Austin Hardin pushed a 49-yarder wide right, leaving the Gators in a hole — and the defense answered the bell, forcing a three and out that gave Florida the ball back.
Two plays later, Tyler Murphy threw his first interception of the day; one play and an extra point after the pick, Vandy had a 10-0 lead. Nine plays later, Murphy threw his second pick; four plays after that, Vanderbilt had a 17-0 lead.
Florida scrapped and fought from that point on, despite facing its biggest deficit of the season after falling behind 24-3 in the third quarter, and played Vanderbilt to a 17-17 tie over the final 39 minutes. But it was over at 17-0.
Guided by a beating heart
Nothing was truly and consistently outstanding in a good sense on the field, but Florida fans, save a couple thousand students, turned out en masse to see a 4-4 team, and those who left early largely waited until the fourth quarter to do so. (Florida giving up a touchdown six seconds into the fourth quarter that made it 31-10 was the catalyst.) I predicted that Florida's official attendance figure would be ridiculous; Florida reported an attendance of 88,004 fans, though, and that's not all that ridiculous to me.
Furthermore, the fans who stayed in the student section around me and I thoroughly enjoyed our mutual company, even if it required frequent doses of snark. And after about half the crowd left, I still got to see Ahmad Fulwood make an absurd catch in person, and saw Keanu Neal rock someone on a kickoff return — not the most honorable play in Gators history, but a tremendous hit that happened right in front of me. Tyler Murphy kept on throwing and trying in a doomed effort.
Many things have been said about this Florida team this year, but I've watched every second of every game, most of those seconds in person, and I think saying that the Gators have quit at any point is just wrong. There is pride to be taken from that.
But I only have two hands
The Fulwood catch, as a reminder, is stoopid. He's almost falling out of bounds, but keeps his feet in, and sticks out a paw when the football ricochets off a defender's foot. It's a heady play from a kid who was due to get a big touch given his improvement in recent weeks, and I'm so happy I saw it.
When I'm wiser and I'm older / I can't tell where the journey will end
I'm ready to write off this 2013 season as a lost one. Florida's got to engineer a massive upset of either South Carolina (on the road) or Florida State (one of the two best teams in college football) to go to a bowl game, and will have to do it with even fewer players available than it had for this Vanderbilt game. All the fun facts about not having a losing record since 1992 and beating Vanderbilt all the time and going to bowls every year are either no longer true or very likely to be proven untrue.
If it bears fruit at all, this season will bear it down the road.
Murphy's not exactly a "good" quarterback, but he's proven to be serviceable against bad teams, which is honestly better than I would have thought him to be coming into this year. Florida's offensive line has actually gotten marginally better over time despite amassing injuries, which suggests that the guy coaching the line might know what he's doing. Kelvin Taylor's emerged as a talented runner; Fulwood looks like a very good receiver to be. Jarrad Davis and Neal have played well on special teams, and Davis getting action at linebacker bodes well. Vernon Hargreaves III will be a lockdown corner at Florida for all of his three years in town, and Florida's sophomore defensive linemen, Dante Fowler, Jr. and Jonathan Bullard, have been good despite having to make up for many other issues up front.
Those guys and the rest of the Gators are suffering through this year far more than we are. Players take losses harder than fans: For them, losses are failures, while we just deal with them as disappointments, and yet they deal with our disappointments, too. They've also seen a stunning number of their teammates go down due to injury at one point or another, which would be one of the better possible excuses to play more tentatively, and they've generally kept up their effort level.
Will this team get better, smarter, and meaner in what promises to be a long, cold offseason? I don't know. I think there's a pretty good chance that the bad taste this season's leaving in so many mouths is going to have those Gators champing at the bit to get better, but I don't know.
So, really, I'm just hoping that we get wiser and older Gators in 2014.
I tried carrying the weight of the world
I considered shifting this into the Both Good and Bad section, but, shit, I can't help but be encouraged by Tyler Murphy doing absolutely everything in his power to win games. He's trying harder than I can remember any Florida player not named Tim Tebow trying in my lifetime — but he's got a thimble's worth of talent, compared to Tebow's buckets, and it's showing.
It's seeming clearer now that Murphy's been playing while not insignificantly injured over the last month or so, and he's now throwing more than he was ever expected to. And he threw for 305 yards on his 46 attempts against Vandy, chucking it and hurling it and tossing it well beyond the point of likely comeback, because that's what you do when you're still trying to win, even if it's all but impossible to actually do so.
Murphy's been doing that, giving up his body and caring not one bit for his stats, since he got thrust into this situation by Jeff Driskel's injury, and he's done it to mixed results. His 2-4 record as a starting quarterback is almost certainly the worst in Florida history by a quarterback with more than one or two starts in quite a while, and his declining stats — after posting passer ratings over 160.00 in his first three games, Murphy hasn't topped 120.00 since — speak to the erosion of his performance. It's hard to tell whether his ineffectiveness of late is rooted in injury or his baseline level of talent, but it doesn't matter all that much: He's been bad, and there's no way of sugarcoating that.
But Murphy's been a consummate professional through it all. He doesn't blame anyone but himself, doesn't make excuses, doesn't sound dejected, doesn't give up. He's the valiant first mate trying to keep a listing boat afloat with the captain and half his crew dead, and he's doing his damnedest.
It's not enough. But it's the best he can do. And I'd be doing Murphy a disservice not to notice that.
Both Good and Bad
Life's a game made for everyone
Florida had been beating Vanderbilt for so long and, often, doing it so effortlessly, that I think Gators fans may have a difficult time actually grasping the idea that Vanderbilt is now a good team and a good program. And it was a good team that beat the Gators pretty comprehensively on Saturday.
Vandy was playing with its backup quarterback, Patton Robinette, and didn't allow him to do much (he attempted 12 passes, completing six) to screw up its chances of pulling the upset; he also scrambled very well on third downs for back-breaking conversions. Neither of Vandy's two running backs averaged even four yards per carry, and the longest run of the day came on a 19-yard scamper by Robinette, but smart use of a direct snap formation (one that was far closer to the Wildcat than what Florida runs when Trey Burton gets snaps) forced Florida to defend a bunch of different looks, which ended up killing the Gators by a thousand cuts. Florida's defense gave up 183 yards (its smallest total of the season), but Vandy capitalized on Murphy's four turnovers to get great field position and worked efficiently in the red zone.
This was Vandy reading from the Florida script left over from last year's similar bludgeoning of South Carolina, and acting in the role of Florida perfectly. And it takes a good team to do that.
I've used this space to try to contextualize how Florida's opponents looked to me this year, and I think Vandy's probably fifth on the list. (Missouri, LSU, Georgia, and Miami were more talented; Vandy's better-coached than Miami.) And I think there's a pretty good argument that Vandy's actually better than Florida this year, even given that both teams are starting backup quarterbacks: Vandy's offensive coaching and recruiting (and the bye the 'Dores had last week) made it easier for James Franklin and Co. to beat Florida's defense in crucial spots.
Vandy deserved this win, and Florida deserved the loss, but there's very little disgrace, in my mind, in this Florida team deserving this loss to this Vanderbilt team.
Vandy gets to win games every so often, too.
I didn't know I was lost
I was quite laudatory of Antonio Morrison earlier this season. He was Florida's best linebacker, and the commander of the defense, and he was pretty clearly an upgrade on what Florida had on the field against Toledo when he returned from his suspension. When he had Dominique Easley in front of him to occupy blockers and free him up, he was good at playing run support.
But without Easley, Florida's linebackers have been exposed, none more than Morrison. And even though Morrison set a new career high for tackles on Saturday, I think he'll be better-served by his unfortunate injury and a fresh start in 2014 than most. He had begun to overthink and overcorrect, and, combined with his weird combination of a large upper body and twiggy calves, was putting himself in bad positions over and over. He's never been good in pass coverage, and so he probably knows he needs to work on that, and he'll be ready for spring practice, in all likelihood, so he can.
Morrison was what Jarrad Davis, now replacing him, is: A talented freshman linebacker who took his work seriously and developed as a result. But he regressed in 2013 when asked to do more than he did in 2012, and though his stats show a competent middle linebacker, his flaws became so glaring that his rep is probably closer to "He's the worst player on the defense" than "He's a good young player being asked to do too much and failing."
Morrison also scotched his 2013 offseason with two arrests and months spent as a punchline and a distraction. If there's any one player that needs to buckle down and devote himself to his craft and his schooling on this team, it's him. An injury, unfortunate though it is, might actually help in that respect.
Wish that I could stay forever this young
I expect this is easier to say as a non-student who has student seats and none of the pressures of being a student, but, hey, kids: Go to the games.
This isn't a commentary on the thousands of you who were in attendance on Saturday; your attention is appreciated. But the thousands of empty seats where those of you who bought and paid for tickets should've been were frustrating, largely because I know full well the writing is on the wall for future generations of students that won't have the opportunities to get cheap, readily available tickets.
Florida's response to the declining attendance for college football games can't be downsizing its stadium; part of what makes The Swamp so great is its capacity, and renovations would cost too much. And Florida can't raise prices in the middle of a likely bowl-less season because of optics. So what Florida's going to do, and trust me on this, is carve out pieces of the student section to sell to the general public. If I were doing the carving, the first things I'd grab would be many rows of the north end zone — the awesome seats that don't need to be filled by attractive young people for TV purposes and would go for a pretty penny to alumni — and the seats near midfield. I would put the students in the sunshine seats and make them bake for their first year or two, with the option to upgrade based on seniority and loyalty. I would incentivize coming to and staying at every game.
And I would generally penalize the entire student body for the actions of a minority of it, because I don't see any other way to do this.
If students show up and pack The Swamp against Florida State, I'll be pleasantly surprised. But I think this is a problem that is now endemic to the point of requiring action, and I kinda hope that action gets taken sooner rather than later.
Not afraid to close my eyes
Closing one's eyes may be the best way to watch Florida's offense right now.
Murphy's best plays are the ones that require him to throw the ball no further than 10 yards. Vanderbilt knew this and sat on Florida's running game early on, daring the Gators to throw deep ... which Murphy failed to do, throwing two picks and looking like a mangled swan. Neither Kelvin Taylor nor Mack Brown averaged four yards per rush; Valdez Showers did, but he had one rush for four yards. Murphy, when taking out sacks, rushed four times for seven yards, and he checked to the dumbest running play of the day: A short-side speed option from the 1 that was poor in every respect, losing yardage, producing a fumble, and drawing rare snark from me for Brent Pease, though it later proved to be not his fault.
Pease wasn't a heck of a lot better, though he somehow got Murphy a 300-yard passing day by running out eleventy receivers. Florida never made any headway of value on the ground, and succumbed to the great trick of falling behind late in the game, totally abandoning the run (Florida didn't run the ball on its final two drives) and putting the Gators in tough down-and-distance situations. Florida's 5-for-14 performance on third downs was somewhat mitigated by its 2-for-2 day on fourth downs, but one of those fourth down conversions was literally the penultimate play of the game.
I think Pease is destined for parts unknown after this season, whether he gets fired or simply takes another job, and I think he might well have success elsewhere, because this offense is simply living through a nightmare of miring injuries that makes every bad call look atrocious and makes the good calls (hint: it's actually most of them) hard to spot. Pease has responded well to his challenges this year, for the most part, and he's done what he can, but I'm not really surprised that he hasn't made Murphy a great quarterback, and I'm not going to call for his head because he couldn't. If he gets pink-slipped, Florida will replace him with someone I'll probably be less happy to hail as an upgrade than most, and that coordinator will reap the rewards of a healthier team in 2014.
But Florida fans want an offense they can look forward to seeing, and Pease isn't going to be able to conjure one of those this year, not with this roster, and so he's all but dead to most. That's not actually a terrible reason for him and the Gators to part ways.
But I don't have any plans
Florida's not going to a bowl game this year. I have reconciled myself to this fact becoming true by also reconciling myself to the possibilities of South Carolina and Florida State thumping the Gators becoming near-certainties.
And, sure, that's embarrassing for one of the proudest programs in college football, even if injuries help explain almost all of it. First and foremost, though, it's profoundly weird.
I think, and I could be wrong, that Florida fans who want Will Muschamp gone now or soon are reacting less to the embarrassment of a depleted team playing like a depleted team than to the weirdness of mighty Florida coming back to the pack for once. This is not normal, not for some of us, because our normal was 2012, 2008, 2006, 2001, 1996, 1995, and so on. 10-win seasons are so common for Florida fans that dipping from that mark has us convinced that the Gators "suck" — a refrain that, I swear to you, I heard repeatedly in 2009 — when the stars aren't aligned for 50-20 wins every week.
Florida's wasn't making those lopsided wins happen when it was good in 2012 because it's wasn't that good, and because its style of play means it takes a while to build a program to that level. Muschamp and company made it work in 2012 despite having one valuable option in the passing game and 1.75 running backs (Mike Gillislee was 1.0, Driskel 0.5, Matt Jones 0.25), because Muschamp had a judicious offense that rarely committed turnovers, a lot more seasoned talent on defense to play with, a kicker who made everything, a punter who was a weapon, and some timely luck. Everything about Florida football has seemingly swung to the other side of good this year, mostly explicably, and the small margins the very good 2012 Gators could make work are ones that these not-good 2013 Gators can't work with at all.
I also think the wisest long-term strategy for Florida is to try to build a program like Alabama's, but more fun, because Florida's wealth of skill position talent is best applied to a fun offense. But I think playing for Muschamp, through and through a players' coach, instead of the, uh, less welcoming Nick Saban makes up for a fair bit of the "fun" factor, and playing for Florida, the school most prospects thought of as the Sunshine State's preeminent one in recent years, is still a draw; those two things, and the allure of copious playing time for youngsters who come in and earn it, have certainly made up for the slightly more negative public perception of Florida's offense with a fair number of recruits of late, and recruits' opinions still matter far more than fans' do when putting together a program, seeing as the recruits become players who make plays or don't, while the fans still don't.
Is Muschamp the guy to build that program? He's certainly made that his goal, in many senses, and he definitely appeared to make strides toward that in 2012. Injuries and the losses that have come with them have made his forecast far more cloudy in 2013, though, and put him at risk for an early departure from the plummest job he may ever get, long before a full and fair trial of his process. And if he survives into 2014, as he likely will, there's still a darned good chance that he'll have to alter some of that process, and Frankenstein his defense to a higher-risk offense that might backfire on the field after firing up the fan base.
This is a tough, tough spot for Muschamp and Florida to be in, because he's in a position to have to make concessions that might actually hurt more in the long run than they help in the short run. And while Jeremy Foley clearly hired Muschamp as a long-run coach — Foley doesn't hire short-run coaches — his and others' belief in Muschamp's vision is understandably shaken by what we see on the field. Does it make sense to change course just three years into a tenure that started rather brightly because of, ultimately, awful luck? How much rope can Foley give Muschamp in 2014 and beyond?
These are questions without easy or satisfying answers, and those answers may not even exist until later this year, or next year, because there's so much that isn't known. I truly believe that Florida's plan, right now, is riding out this storm, and then figuring out a plan — basically, there isn't one.
And in a weird season, that may be the weirdest thing of all.
That's what I saw. What'd you see? I'll be in the comments all day.