Florida fell to Auburn, 17-6, on Saturday night. We'll look back at the game in at multiple parts: The Rapid Recap, which reacts to the game in full before a second viewing, comes first.
It is always great to be a Florida Gator. But it hasn't been harder to be a Florida Gators football fan since at least the Ron Zook Era, and perhaps longer. This is a young team with a ton of growing to do, and it doesn't have the reliable stars of 2011 like Ahmad Black and Janoris Jenkins to give fans hope. Florida's best player on Saturday night was either its kicker or its punter: Caleb Sturgis left the game with an injury and Kyle Christy dropped and then shanked a punt.
The middle of the road is where we are, right now, and it shouldn't be a surprise that a young team with no proven quarterback, no wide receivers, no consistency on the offensive line, and no go-to cornerback struggles on the road in the SEC. It's surprising that Urban Meyer left his briefly peerless program in this state, and that Will Muschamp, Charlie Weis, and Dan Quinn aren't better at turning table scraps into passable meals.
How Florida Lost
Florida fell behind 7-0 in the first quarter after a blown call on a Chris Rainey muffed punt; Rainey waved for a fair catch and was pretty clearly interfered with, but the call on the field in that case couldn't be overturned, because a lack of penalty isn't reviewable. Auburn used the best field position it would get all night to score a touchdown when an offsides turned a third down into a free play and Barrett Trotter found DeAngelo Benton, who beat Cody Riggs on a jump ball. Florida never led, and was forced to try for a touchdown instead of kicking a field goal late because of this sequence. The overwhelming majority of Florida's loss was its own doing, but Auburn got two big blown calls from an officiating crew that made many head-scratching decisions.
Lerentee McCray has been one of the better things about the Florida defense in 2011, and he flies around like few Florida linebackers of recent vintage; I think you might have to go back to the 2006 defense, and either Brandon Siler or Earl Everett, to find a guy who is like McCray. He had three solo tackles last night, a season high.
Dominique Easley got the first sack of his Florida career by bull-rushing an offensive lineman into the quarterback and knocking him down. That, combined with the otherwise excellent night he had up front, made him the star of a defensive line that rebounded well from two weeks of being shut down by excellent offensive lines.
Weis' overall gameplan was lamentable and far too reliant on Rainey's eye for the big play, but he did make two superb micro-level decisions. Using Trey Burton as an option quarterback requires defenses to respect him as a running threat and a pitchman, and produced small doses of momentum; calling a flea-flicker from midfield that got Jordan Reed wide open despite what some on Twitter called defensive holding on him on the play was just genius, and Jeff Driskel badly overthrowing Reed was maybe the biggest missed opportunity of the night.
Muschamp laying into the refs after the indefensible missed call on the muffed punt is the latest demonstration of the sort of intensity that recruits notice. The purpose of berating the refs in that instance is two-fold: It motivates players and reinforces what referees will do for the rest of the night. (I think riding refs rarely improves how they call the game, but I doubt it hurts to say "Call that s--t on them, too!") Needing to take a timeout after his tirade wasn't ideal, but Muschamp made his feelings known, and the officials went on to do a poor job overall, flagging Auburn for phantom penalties and missing a pass interference that would have wiped out a big Tigers play.
Sturgis is a reliable kicker. It's nice to have one of tho ... oh, wait, he's hurt.
Florida's defense, as a whole, did good, hard work for much of the night. There are still infinitely frustrating offsides penalties that need to stop, and there's still a remarkable flaccidity up the middle that Auburn refused to exploit. But the defense limited Auburn to 4.7 yards per play and just 3.6 yards per rush, and the passing game's lone big play came on what should have been called pass interference for the stiff-arm Quindarius Carr gave Jaylen Watkins in coverage. This isn't the 2007 defense; it has more talent and a better secondary, and it tightened up in pursuit without the apparently injured Ronald Powell. And limiting Auburn to 17 points and one third down conversion in 13 tries at Jordan-Hare isn't nothing.
Jacoby Brissett threw an interception on his first series that was the result of a bad decision and amounted to an excellent punt. Strip away that pick, and he was five for nine for 45 yards. That's bad enough to get benched for a quarterback who a) demonstrated less pocket presence, b) threw for fewer yards per attempt than Brissett, and c) required the burning of his potential medical redshirt to be inserted?
Frankie Hammond had four catches for a mere 40 yards, but those four catches were the most a Florida wide receiver has had in a game this year. Hammond won't make many big plays. but even medium plays from the Gators' receiving corps would be an upgrade on the minimal production we've seen.
Mike Gillislee's three carries went for 16 yards. Hunter Joyer's one carry went for eight yards. Florida's other running backs carried 28 times for 42 yards. In the parallel universe where Weis is committed to a pro-style running game that uses the middle of the field, I think Florida has two running backs who could be useful.
Christy boomed his punts, with the exception of one terrible miscue, on Saturday night. Why hasn't he been punting in David Lerner's place? We'll probably never know.
Driskel vacillated from awful to decent to skittish all night. He wasn't accurate when he absolutely needed to be, but made good throws that receivers both dropped and snared. He wasn't as active in the running game as he could have been, but he had one good scamper. It boggles the mind that Driskel was inserted into the game if throwing were the focus of Florida's gameplan, because Brissett's both a more polished and a more natural passer, but Driskel's execution during his time at the controls wasn't exactly good work.
Rainey's eight-cut running style just isn't working against the more talented SEC defenses, which is troubling, because two more, in Georgia and South Carolina, await. He can be effective with his speed if he makes more decisive cuts, and he could be helped by a gameplan that doesn't rely so heavily on him, but he's been a disappointment, too; he's working harder than ever before, and getting diminishing returns.
Andre Debose had two kickoff returns and a catch in the first half, then spent the second half in a track jacket on the sideline. It would be really cool if he were not made of balsa wood.
Jordan Reed had multiple drops and a catch nullified by a foot out of bounds on the night, and is now afflicted with the strain of Carl Moore Disease that involves going all out for a catch, failing to make it, and doing the "I may be hurt in my pride bone" routine. And he's Florida's best tight end.
Florida's offensive line gave both Brissett and Driskel a workout, and didn't offer much in terms of run blocking, but there's not a whole lot to say about the group in whole other than "It needs to get better."
Christy dropped a good snap, then recovered to shank a punt. It led to an Auburn field goal try. He should probably not do that again.
My goodness, the referees were bad. It went both ways, with Florida conceding chunks of field position to Auburn on two plays with obvious uncalled fouls and Auburn "shooting itself in the foot" on personal fouls that didn't appear obvious on film, but this crew needed to take the time to review whether a pass that was obviously thrown forward was a forward pass. That took the cake for frustrating, mind-boggling decisions.
Xavier Nixon had a truly abysmal night in pass protection. Turnstiles have had a better chance of stopping human beings than Nixon did on some plays, and he routinely either picked the wrong approach to dealing with Auburn's rush or was merely outplayed by a quicker player. Nixon missed parts of the last two games with what could well be an injury, and didn't look 100% last night, but it's stunning that he's gone from being a good freshman and potential bookend tackle to a liability. (Losing 55 pounds to an apparent illness during the spring probably didn't help his development, either.)
Trey Burton drives me absolutely nuts for a variety of reasons (many related to how he comports himself, rather than how he plays football), but I try extremely hard to assess his play on the field without a jaundiced eye because of it. And Burton's best plays on Saturday night were option pitches, one technically a pass, that represented good decision-making; he immediately followed it by keeping the ball on an option, gaining two yards on first down, and killing Florida's momentum. Burton made three third down catches for a total of 10 yards; he caught two passes on separate third and eights with room to run and failed to even stay on his feet for those plays. Burton's utility is valuable when Florida needs a Swiss Army knife, but if he's going to bray like the Tim Tebow successor he so badly wants to be, he needs to play like Tebow. Right now, he doesn't.
Florida's offensive gameplan was maddening in the way that horror movies are maddening: Florida fans knew full well that relying on Rainey's legs and Driskel's arms hadn't worked, but Rainey carries and Driskel throws accounted for more than half of Florida's offensive snaps on Saturday night, and Driskel didn't play until the second half. Gillislee demands more than a cameo, given his production; Reed deserves fewer targets, given his lack of production; ineffective running to the outside in bulk has yet to produce a break in that particular defensive dam. Weis is smart, and he's been coaching without his full playbook since Brantley's injury, because he went from a fringe NFL back-up prospect in both mind and body to two players who really ought to be sitting. But that doesn't mean he's safe from critique.
I've never caught a punt in my life, so I don't know how hard it is; the only comparable thing I did was play keeper (mostly without gloves, because I'm brilliant like that) in rec soccer leagues for five years. But I know that it's actually really easy to run away from the ball, or, better still, put no players back for punt returns to avoid muffing the punt. Rainey and Robert Clark attempted to return four punts on Saturday night, and muffed all four of them, turning two over to Auburn and gaining a total of negative four yards on punt returns. Florida did many things badly against Auburn, but its punt return mistakes were fatal.