Florida beat Toledo, 24-6, on Saturday. You can relive the glory through our Game Thread. We'll look back at the game in at multiple parts: The Rapid Recap is our first look before a second viewing, and will run a few hours after the conclusion of each Florida game.
It was hot. It was a win. And now it's over. On to Miami, with a goose egg in the loss column and next to nothing on tape for the Hurricanes to learn from.
How Florida Won
The Gators soaked the Rockets' fuses early
After allowing a 12-yard pass on the first play from scrimmage, Florida's defense forced a four-and-out. The Gators got the ball at their own 14 and proceeded to drive down the field on an 84-yard touchdown drive that established the Gators' offensive line as the bullies of the day and showed that Mack Brown can serve as an above-average runner if his line opens up holes more often than not. The extra point Austin Hardin kicked after the touchdown Brown punched in would prove to be the game-winning point. Toledo was out of this one early.
Florida knows its identity
Did you want Florida to suddenly have a potent passing game that could bring back memories of Steve Spurrier's heyday? So did I. But I'm not at all disappointed with the Gators I saw on the field today: They know they can beat teams into submission if they play their game, and they did.
Florida got scarcely more than nothing out of that passing game today, but needed even less than it got, because its running game put Toledo in an inescapable hole early and its defense stymied the Rockets repeatedly. Toledo's biggest play of the day went for 28 yards and came on a swing screen that may have featured an illegal block; it was followed by three straight plays of no gain, and only got the Rockets a field goal. Toledo's second field goal came on a drive kick-started by a pass interference flag that was thrown on what appeared to be an uncatchable ball to many in the stands.
The Rockets got no other points, but stalled repeatedly, getting denied on 12 of 13 third downs and their only fourth down try. Florida happily allowed Toledo to take what little it could get on screens and short passes, and shut down every other option. This was a strangulation (Florida held the ball for nearly 40 minutes) of a team with a lot of offensive weapons, and despite Toledo's marginal national profile, I suspect this win will look far better later in the year. It will take a lot for another team to hold the Rockets to six points, even if other teams will score more than 24 on them.
The running game returns to form
Florida got away from its running game in the Sugar Bowl against Louisville both because of an early deficit and what seemed like a conscious effort to open up the playbook. Today, that wasn't necessary or intended, and so Florida threshed Toledo on the ground, getting 262 yards from eight different runners. Brown was the day's star on offense, and picked his way through holes well with good vision, but his 112 yards on 25 carries are a better testament to those holes than what he did after hitting them; he looks like he can be a solid backup to Matt Jones when he returns, but Jones should have no problem winning back the starting spot in practice this week, if he's close to fully healthy.
Behind Jones, Mark Herndon and Kelvin Taylor each looked very game behind the second-team line on the game's final drive, with Herndon breaking two long runs and getting 32 rushing yards on just four carries, and the precocious Taylor flashing a glimpse of the greatness he sustained for five years as a high school bellcow, dashing for a 27-yard run and picking up 43 yards on five carries. Valdez Showers seems like a viable option as a change-of-pace back with the versatility to get out in the flats and make catches, and his speed allowed him to get 29 yards on the day's longest play, a pitch off a fullback fake. Solomon Patton got 17 yards on a beautifully-sprung reverse, Hunter Joyer got seven tough yards on his only carry, and Jeff Driskel looked fine when he managed to get to the open field. The only runner who did not impress was Trey Burton, whose wildcat plays were hampered by their employment of Driskel as an ill-fitting blocker at wideout and their lack of creativity.
This defense looks about as fierce as ever
Florida's aim on defense is to limit big plays and allow teams to try to string together drives by nibbling. But with the penetration Dominique Easley and Leon Orr were able to get up front and the pressure Dante Fowler, Jr. and Jonathan Bullard brought, and the generally superb coverage from Florida's linebackers and secondary, there wasn't much nibbling to be done. Toledo quarterback Terrance Owens completed just 17 of 38 throws, and threw more than a few poor passes that were uncatchable because of pressure. When he did complete passes, they were mostly to receivers at or near the line of scrimmage, or to tightly covered players; there was very little room to run.
And despite some success with misdirection plays that allowed Toledo to attack the still-green middle of Florida's defense, Toledo's running game was next to nonexistent. The Rockets had 16 carries for 50 yards on the day, and all but abandoned their ground game after the first drive of the second half.
Florida also looks very deep on defense, despite not showing much of that depth in this game. Florida played with just five players up front until garbage time, and its only substantive change in the secondary was subbing in Vernon Hargreaves III after a bad pair of plays from Jaylen Watkins, who was otherwise impressive. Hargreaves was even better, though, blanketing his receiver and fighting for an interception that set up the breathe-easy touchdown late in the third quarter. I still think Hargreaves may be the most talented freshman in the country, and he looked quite good on this Saturday, but it's hard to argue he's better than Florida's fourth-best corner.
That's what depth will do.
This defense is also incredibly fun
During one stoppage in the fourth quarter, Easley came up with a dance that involved him moving his hips in time with the band, and Michael Taylor and Neiron Ball attempted a half-hearted version of the Kid 'N Play foot-touch dance. Easley was dancing all day, and often joined by Fowler in the effort, and Easley was quick to celebrate after big plays, including one celebration in an incredibly low crouch for a man of his stature.
The defense also beseeched the crowd for noise throughout the game, and to great effect: This was by far the loudest season opener I have been to, even late in the second half, an incredible distinction for a day that started hot and got much hotter as the game wore slowly on. A great defense and a great crowd feed each other mutually: Big plays pump up a crowd, and that crowd is happy to roar for more of them. This defense looks like it knows well how to both shut down the other side and make sure its crowd is never shut up, and may well do all that while dancing.
If you can't enjoy that, try a different sport.
Jeff Driskel, cool and collected
Okay, yes, Driskel's two fumbles on plays where a lineman beat his man and pressured Driskel as he wound up to throw were bad, and more than a little bit on the Gators' junior quarterback. But those were his only major mistakes of the day, and he looked like someone very much content to dice up a defense by reading the field and working through his progressions — which is just what Florida needs.
Driskel isn't going to be Superman in every contest this year, nor should he be: If he can get the Gators into the lead with occasional caped crusades and keep them there as Clark Kent, all will be well. But he missed twice on throws on this Saturday, throwing a potential touchdown pass a little too high for Quinton Dunbar and throwing just beyond Trey Burton's grasp on a shorter pass. Another incompletion came on a potential big play that was scuttled by Solomon Patton looking upfield before securing the ball, and the final two came on balls batted down near the line.
In an ideal world, Driskel cleans up the misses and avoids the dangerous tips at the line, but the rest of his performance more than made up for that on this day. The touchdown pass Driskel threw to Gideon Ajagbe, a converted linebacker, was right where it needed to be. Driskel threw with confidence and drive to receivers over the middle when they came open. And he made generally good decisions to check down. If this offense opens up, and allows Driskel more freedom, I think he'll use that freedom well.
Where are the weak links on defense?
I don't know where, exactly, I would attack this Florida defense. None of the defenders I watched on Saturday had a bad day, though Watkins could have had a better one, and Orr's stellar play as a tackle is the answer to a lot of questions about whether the Gators will be able to stop the run. Michael Taylor should probably be targeted in coverage, but Florida's going to be able to hide him more often than not, and he's good-to-very good as a run stopper, as he showed on one play when he obliterated the edge and burst into the backfield for a tackle for loss. Fowler, similarly, could be targeted in coverage if he stands up, but he's so good, both fast and strong, that he ought to be on the field for 80 percent of Florida's defensive snaps — and he covered a much smaller receiver quite well on the only snap I saw him man up with one.
Toledo didn't really test Florida on deep balls over the middle, so the grades on safeties Marcus Maye and Cody Riggs are incomplete at this point, but Riggs was excellent in run support and Maye seemed very comfortable on the field as a redshirt freshman. It's a scary thought, but Florida may have already positioned its defense as a unit that reloads instead of rebuilding, just three years into Will Muschamp's tenure. A much bigger test comes next week at Miami.
Kelvin Taylor seemed to be Kelvin Taylor
Few high school players have ever been as well-known as Taylor, either in terms of their profile or their skills. Taylor was a quick, savvy runner with good power five years ago, as an eighth grader, and his profile's changed very little since then, though the yardage has piled up. In his Saturday cameo, he looked like that guy once again, picking his way through holes to get into the open field and accelerating well once he got there.
This wasn't Matt Jones looking tentative early last season, or Mack Brown looking like a player without burst for much of his career as a reserve; Taylor looked like a workhorse-to-be, albeit in limited action against a rubbed-raw defense, and that's a very good thing to be saying about a team's presumptive third- or fourth-string running back.
Both Good and Bad
Pass protection was more or less fine
On most of his dropbacks, Driskel had time to scan the field and find a man. On two of them, a badly missed block led to a fumble. That ratio's a lot better than it was last year, even though this Toledo defense doesn't have an exceptional pass rusher ... but the majority of Florida's future opponents will, and D.J. Humphries was at fault on at least one of the fumbles, and left the game early with an apparent injury. Florida's not out of the wilderness of shoddy pass-blocking just yet, even if it can see the clearing.
This was a boring game
The best thing about being 1-0 is a chance to go 2-0, as Will Muschamp said after this game, but this was one of the more perfunctory season-opening wins in Florida's recent history. Florida was content to show very little to its future foes on offense — the reverse to Patton was as exotic as it got, and Florida ran that play more than once in open practice — or defense, where it flashed the stunts and twists sure to come from Brad Lawing's defensive line infrequently, and only put the "rabbits" package up front (pass-rushing specialists Bullard, Easley, Fowler, and Powell as a four-man front) once that I noticed. A holding penalty near the goal line ended a serious touchdown threat, and a missed field goal from Austin Hardin ended that drive; Florida could easily have scored again at the end of the game, but didn't. This could've been a 34-6 game with little more effort, but, instead, it made me look up this fact: The last time Florida scored fewer than the 24 points it put up this Saturday in a season opener was 1997, when the Gators topped Southern Mississippi 21-6.
Of course, the week after that, Florida set its program record for points in an 82-6 shellacking of Central Michigan. If Jeff Driskel suddenly becomes Doug Johnson and those Broncos sneak into Miami's uniforms for next Saturday, history might repeat itself!
Florida will not score just to score
Florida led 24-6 with seconds to go, a timeout in hand, and a chance to get a touchdown for Kelvin Taylor that would have sent every fan home happy. That touchdown would also have covered the 23.5-point spread on the game.
Instead of calling the timeout, Muschamp just waited, and the offense failed to get off a play in time, and the score remained 24-6. And that's a good thing, because it shows Muschamp doesn't give a damn about style points, and a bad thing, because Florida fans most certainly do.
Penalties are once again a worry
10 penalties for 70 yards is neither totally out of character for Florida nor fatal when Florida is as good as these Gators seem to be and as much better than their foes as these Gators were. It's still cause for concern, even if a few of those penalties looked iffy at best: If teams want to play with their snap counts and try to draw an aggresive defensive line (read: Easley) off the ball, this may become a legitimate, if deeply cynical, strategy.
Bernard Reedy's powers of prognostication
I didn't see Florida wearing down in the fourth quarter. I might've missed it, though!
DO NOT START CHEERS ON OFFENSE
Toledo's hurry-up offense had the Florida band and cheerleaders out of sorts for most of the day, but the Gators cheerleaders started an honest-to-Tebow "ORANGE ... BLUE" chant as Florida was beginning a drive. That is not how you do it, folks.
- Keanu Neal had the second-hardest hit of the day on a kickoff return. If there's one freshman who I would bet takes Loucheiz Purifoy's path from special teams star to major contributor, it's Neal.
- The hardest hit of the day came from, of all people, Marcus Roberson, who lit up a receiver at the moment he pulled in a catch.
- Ajagbe looks very comfortable as a blocker and as a receiver from the fullback position, and even if he's not quite the one-man wrecking crew Hunter Joyer is, more depth at fullback can't hurt.
- Demarcus Robinson had a quiet day, and was only targeted once (he might have been targeted on one of the two plays that produced fumbles), but he blocked two defenders on one screen in the first half. That'll help keep his name near the top of the depth chart.
- I've praised Trey Burton as Florida's best route-runner before, and today confirmed that praise, but he was also surprisingly good at getting open over the middle and sure-handed when he got there, hauling in two leaping catches. Whether that lasts against fleeter defenses remains to be seen; it was impressive today.
- Tebow jerseys are still the most popular jerseys for Florida fans, though I do wonder how many of the people wearing them were aware he was cut just before kickoff.
- Errict Rhett was really into the Two Bits chant he led as Florida's honorary Mr. Two Bits. Here's hoping every subsequent honorary Mr. Two Bits can match or better him. (Tebow is now free!)
- Florida's cheerleaders have the healthiest tans you'll ever see. Whether they're natural or chemical, that's an impressive commitment to image.
- After Florida's fourth-down stop in the first half, D.J. Durkin and Easley shared a shoulder-to-chest bump. Durkin took it in his chest. He's a braver man than I am.
- Brown seemingly whiffed on a block on the fumble that Toledo recovered; he sold the play-action by running outside of the rusher coming at Driskel, when he could have slowed him up by running a rub or actually blocked him. About the only bad thing Brown did all day, but I thought it was worth noting.
- The remix of Lana Del Ray's "Summertime Sadness" that is inexplicably on the radio more than a year after the original single debuted to no reception whatsoever drives me nuts. So I hope it gets cut off after 20 seconds every time it gets played at The Swamp, like it did at the beginning of the second half as the return-from-halftime video montage played.
- The young woman behind me (I was in the student section) complained at halftime about the Gator Band's musical selection, saying "Give me an amazing band I can recognize." The Gator Band was playing selections from Earth, Wind, and Fire as she said this.
That's what I saw. What'd you see? I'll be in the comments all day.