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Florida vs. FSU, The Sunday Rundown: Amid the frustration, flashes of the future

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There was a lot to like about how Florida played against FSU, even if the same old troubles sunk the Gators.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

How Florida Lost

Tevin Westbrook dropped the baton

Had Florida scored on its fourth possession in Florida State territory in the first quarter, even by merely kicking its fourth field goal of the day, the Gators would have been in great, great shape on Saturday.

But Tevin Westbrook, a converted defensive end with 11 career catches to his name, couldn't handle a hard throw from Treon Harris that was slightly behind him, despite the ball appearing to hit both of his hands. And Terrance Smith caught that ball off the deflection, and raced to paydirt.

Suddenly, instead of a 9-0 lead, or a 12-0 lead, or a 16-0 lead, Florida was up just 9-7. And that familiar feeling in our stomachs had returned.

Florida State would score the game's next 14 points as a rejuvenated Seminoles defense stopped Florida's offense and Jameis Winston got untracked for the only extended portion of the game that he would play well, and though Florida answered with an offensive touchdown at the end of the first half, handing control of the game and a little confidence over to the 'Noles on one big swing was something the Gators just couldn't overcome.

And while I'm hesitant to lay the blame for any 60-minute game on one play or one player: Westbrook's mistake changed this entire game.

Awesome

Florida shut down Jameis Winston

We won't see Winston play as poorly as he did in the first quarter against Florida until he's an NFL quarterback. Winston threw three picks in the first quarter, on progressively worse throws, and finished the quarter with more interceptions than completions. Florida's defenders — Jabari Gorman, Quincy Wilson, and Brian Poole — all made fantastic plays on the ball, too, with Gorman snagging a bullet that ricocheted off his chest, Wilson making a brilliant tumbling haul, and Poole skying to snag his pick.

Florida's defense played about as good a quarter of football as is possible against FSU on Saturday, and Florida's offense made sure that quarter ended with just a two-point Gators lead. Because of course it did.

Outstanding

Florida's pass defense was pretty good all day

Winston finished 12-for-24, for 125 yards, two touchdowns, and four picks, good for a passer rating of 87.92. (For perspective: Jeff Driskel's passer rating against LSU was 114.69.) He had never completed under 52.1 percent of his throws, thrown for fewer than 148 yards, or thrown four picks before, and his previous low passer rating was 123.50. And FSU had never before scored fewer than 20 offensive points with Winston at the helm.

And Poole's second pick, a juggling beauty that maybe should've been a pick-six, was the sort of play he's made when good all year, and a testament to how he's improved under Will Muschamp (and Travaris Robinson), just like practically every other defensive back both men have coached at Florida.

Yes, Florida's secondary got barbecued by Alabama earlier this year, but it has been fairly close to fantastic since that day, and that's with only a very good pass rush, one that gets more pressures than sacks, and a well of players that includes just one senior, Gorman, who hasn't even been the best player at his position.

And yes, that secondary, as is its custom, still allowed some big plays — Nick O'Leary's two touchdown catches, and a Rashad Greene catch of 29 yards that was basically Greene outfoxing Vernon Hargreaves III. But the holistic view of that performance is of a great unit winning a matchup with another great unit ... and Florida State won't have the best players from that unit (Winston, Greene, O'Leary) back in 2015.

All of Florida's secondary players, except for Gorman and perhaps Poole, should he decide to explore the NFL Draft process and get great feedback, will return in 2015.

Encouraging

There are other pieces to work with, too

Florida's best offensive players on this day were a true sophomore (Demarcus Robinson) and two true freshmen (Treon Harris and Brandon Powell). Powell made a great catch on a deep ball in the first quarter, and Robinson made a ridiculous toe-tap catch in the third, and though neither of those catches came on drives that ended with touchdowns, because of course they didn't, they're evidence that Florida has talented receivers who will be around in 2015. (And, hell, Latroy Pittman made a great catch, too.)

And though Harris wasn't great, struggling as a thrower despite a couple of nice deep balls, he showed enough in his flashes to be sure that he can be a part of Florida's offense going forward. The darting runs, like this one...

...would happen with Harris at a position other than quarterback, right?

Florida's going to be a work in progress on offense in 2015, with Harris and Will Grier (and maybe Sheriron Jones?) competing for a starting spot at quarterback, Kelvin Taylor likely assuming the starting role at running back after Matt Jones departs for the NFL, a thin offensive line likely to take a step back from this 2014 unit, and a wide receiver corps that remains largely unproven outside of Robinson.

But there are pieces to work with, and a savvy offensive coordinator who can take more risks in Year 1 of a new regime than Kurt Roper could take in Year 4 of an outgoing regime is going to be able to make some pyrotechnics happen, I think. That will be a welcome change.

Austin Hardin is good now?

Hardin made a career-long 52-yarder, and three other field goals, before (barely) missing two go-ahead field goals in the second half. He made as many field goals in this game as he made in 2013. He looks like a pretty competent placekicker now. And though that would've been more helpful in 2013, it's better than having nothing to build on at the position.

Both Good and Bad

Florida could have (and should have) won this game

I know, I know: Saying a team that didn't lead after the first quarter should've won sounds like sour grapes and/or a willful denial of reality and/or an attempt to discredit what the winning team did.

But:

  • Florida could've cashed in at least one of those first-quarter drives for a touchdown (Harris overthrowing a wide open Robinson, who shook Jalen Ramsey badly, for a walk-in touchdown was the big miss).
  • Florida could've turned another red zone drive into a touchdown, instead of a field goal, in the third quarter.
  • Florida could've gotten points on a drive that featured a first and 10 at FSU's 44 and ended on a punt from Florida's 47 in the third quarter.
  • Florida could've had six points from a Poole pick-six.
  • Florida could've gotten points on a drive that Pittman submarined with two penalties on one play (more on that later).
  • Florida could've gotten another field goal or two from Hardin.
  • And Florida could've continued its final drive with a catch from Robinson or a better throw from Harris

That's a ton of couldas, and, taken together, I have to think that they amount to a shoulda. And that's a good thing, because a 6-5 Florida team that had been thoroughly outclassed by the SEC East and SEC West champions hanging tough (and blowing opportunities to win) against a College Football Playoff-caliber and undefeated FSU team in Tallahassee is a pretty clear indication that the gap between Florida and Florida State on the field isn't nearly as big as 'Noles would like it to be. (And the idea that Florida had more to do with losing this game than FSU did with winning it is salient.)

But it's obviously bad, too. Florida still friggin' lost, and in a new excruciating fashion: This was Zeus's torture of Prometheus, a big, bad bird picking at the body of an Übermensch bound, more than any other loss of Muschamp's career with the Gators, and it was painful at every peck, and unbearable as a whole.

Discovering fire is great. Doing something with it is better.

They gave it their all

This was a full-intensity Florida team, for better and worse, and it came very close to doing enough to upset FSU and ruin the Seminoles' season. These Gators played almost exactly the sort of game they needed to play to win this one. And I liked that.

But I can't figure how this team is going to respond to playing a bowl game against a far lesser team.

Muschamp's never had a problem, to my mind, with getting his teams up to play; it's always been execution, especially on offense, that has done his Gators in, not effort. But he won't be around for bowl practices, and though I like D.J. Durkin, and think he commands a fair bit of respect from the guys he's coached for as long (or longer!) than Muschamp, I just don't think winning a bowl game for an interim coach can mean as much as winning a rivalry game for a beloved outgoing coach.

Florida kinda laid an egg (I'm being kind) when Charlie Strong took over for Ron Zook in 2004, and though Florida might not see a team as good as the Miami squad that waxed it then in a bowl this year, the same letdown potential exists.

Needs Improvement

Florida's offense has to get a lot better (duh)

This was probably Kurt Roper's worst game as Florida offensive coordinator, and his tenure is going to be remembered for missed opportunities.

Florida threw 32 times and had 33 runs, and though the Gators only got 3.4 yards per carry, the balance felt skewed. Florida ran Harris sparingly, despite his running being the most consistent part of this offense. Florida threw way downfield when things were open underneath for much of the day, bombing when strafing would've been fine. And Roper's one brilliant playcall, a wheel route to Clay Burton (!?!?!?!?), was the sort of thing of beauty we got tantalized by in glimpses this year.

If Roper does a better job of calling plays in the first quarter, Florida might have won. If Roper merely calls a run on the play that ends with the ball in Smith's hands, Florida might have won. If Roper mixes the run and the pass on a full-field drive that began with more than three minutes on the clock and three timeouts, I think the Gators get a legitimate shot at the end zone by game's end.

I think Roper's a bright football mind, and I think a situation with talent commensurate to the competition (like his old offensive coordinator's role at Duke, or the head coaching job he'll eventually get somewhere else) is likely to reveal that. But Florida's offense wasn't ready for primetime too often in 2014, despite marked improvements in some facets (Florida's likely finishing in the 90s, instead of in triple digits, in total offense!), and that's on Roper, not just Muschamp.

Embarrassing

Gerald Willis needs to grow up

Yes, Winston's arm appears to be up, and Willis is probably going to take a collision on this play. But Willis 1) cocks back a shove to Winston's face before Winston arrives, and 2) does it in full view of everyone. How could this possibly have been a good idea?

To Florida's credit, it sent Willis to the locker room, not refs (note how "ejected" appears in this permalink), and Muschamp said after the game that he would kick Willis off the team if it was still his team to coach. I have no doubt that Muschamp's telling the truth.

But Durkin is this team's coach now, and Willis is a very talented player with a churlish streak who Durkin will have to either manage and hand over to the next coach or banish to play his brand of football elsewhere. For Florida's sake, I hope it can get Willis to calm down and grow up, but for Willis's sake, I hope he does, wherever it is.

(P.S.: I don't really care about Andre Debose kicking out his foot while lying on the ground. Yeah, it's dirty, but he's Andre Debose. He's not gonna hurt you.)

The refs were horrible

I believe ACC refs handled this game, as this rivalry has returned to using home-conference refs in home games since 2003's infamous Swindle in The Swamp. Regardless of where their provenance, they were horrible.

Florida State got its first drive extended by a roughing the kicker call on which FSU punter Cason Beatty was never touched by the man apparently flagged for the penalty. There was one flag for pass interference in a game that featured more than one player essentially getting tackled while running a route ... and it was a phantom call on a play that seemed to have no pass interference.

The refs split up the six holding calls, three to each team, but called Pittman for a hold on a garden-variety block that ended up costing Florida 25 yards because Pittman had the temerity to question the ref's call with his hands up (I believe him when he "never ... said nor did anything out of line"), and didn't call a hilariously obvious hold on Bryan Cox, Jr. that helped FSU spring a 30-yard Dalvin Cook catch-and-run, the longest play of the day for the 'Noles ... which had a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct tacked on that would've been negated by the correct call on the hold. Those two plays alone cost Florida an incredible 70 yards, basically because refs called one penalty in error and missed another in error.

Some of the other mistakes were more understandable, like Jalen Ramsey's near-interception being called a pick and Robinson's deep catch being called incomplete on the field, and the refs did manage to get those reversals right on replay. But these refs also inexplicably measured an obvious first down (Winston ran out of bounds literally in front of the marker) for FSU late in the game, and threw flags for personal fouls only on Florida, and missed calls against Florida, and generally did a terrible job of keeping the chippiness in check.

This wasn't The Swindle in The Swamp, and nothing's touching that for incompetence and/or bias costing one team a game in this rivalry. This was just dumbness at Doak, and while it may not have cost Florida the game, it definitely didn't help.

It's a trip how we trip off of colors

Yesterday, Jimbo Fisher, whom I regard as a pretty smart guy, answered a question about that was loosely about close games, style points, and the College Football Playoff selection committee by using figure skating as a punchline. I sent this tweet in response.

I'm sympathetic to Fisher's point. Florida's 2012 season was full of the sorts of ugly wins that FSU has racked up this year, and yet that Florida team might have struggled for a spot in the College Football Playoff because of stylistic deficiencies. Florida State has won every game it has played this season, and the 'Noles will absolutely deserve a spot in the Playoff if they win out — but they're unlikely to take the top spot, and will almost be seeded behind one-loss teams who have been more impressive in the eyes of a subjective committee.

But I think Fisher could've made that point by saying "The object of the game is to win. And we've done that." I think "It's unfortunate that that hasn't impressed the judges" makes the same point. I think "It's not boxing" makes the point just as well. "It's not figure skating," however, makes that point more colorfully — and does so by drawing a parallel between football, regarded as the toughest sport known to man, and figure skating, a sport largely regarded (even by figure skating writers!) as the province of women, and which draws a female-heavy audience no other sport does.

"It's not figure skating" is, to be fair, a mostly harmless crack, because football fans get to laugh at figure skating's judged components and pretend a sport in which referees' judgment calls are perfect is objective, and because the bro-y among us get to keep dismissing silly little figure skating. But Fisher's the head coach at a school where his players' treatment of women, regardless of the legality, has come into question, and he's a prominent figure, so I think his words matter enough to get called out.

And I get that, as a Florida fan, can't make a remark — especially one that begins with a sardonic "Haha, suck it" — about Florida State's head coach without getting blowback for it, regardless of the merits. Since my tweet, I've been called a "mysogonist," "one of those uber lefty jounro guys that has to white knight every chance he gets for any female attention," "butthurt," a "loser," and a "joke," and that's just in the replies to that tweet. I got "so gay," and "you're hilarious," and the sort of snide remarks I'd expect from some of the people I lamented being part of FSU's big tent yesterday.

I think I'm right, and I think Fisher could have made his point about the ridiculousness of subjectivity — which I'll absolutely grant was his intent — without using coded language that also functions as a slam of a sport usually associated with women. I welcome reasonable disagreement on that point, and I had a couple of longish discussions with two FSU fans (you can see a lot of those discussions at this thread) that I thought were reasonable disagreements.

But that's not the majority of the feedback I got from FSU fans, and that's a problem — especially because I'm pretty sure I would've had almost the same reaction to Muschamp saying "It's not figure skating."

Likewise, it's a problem that Florida fans, in defeat, went beyond the typically haughty "We're glad we're not you" stuff about FSU — which, to be fair, colored that Game Thread I wrote yesterday, even if I thought I did a fairly good job of writing about "too many ... jackasses" who have poisoned FSU's fan base, not the entire big tent — to rape jokes with Winston as part of the punchline and, in one horrific instance, a joke about the shooting that happened in FSU's Stozier Library last week.

Words matter, and humanity should never come secondary to sports. But rivalry, bitterness, and the enmity that Florida fans currently feel for FSU have made those truths unfortunately difficult to remember for us, just like the jealousy and paranoia that have infected the FSU fan base have made those truths difficult to remember for FSU fans.

Could I have made my point about Fisher coming off (to me) as dismissive of women with that comment more effectively? Absolutely. Could I have had more constructive arguments since? Probably, but that would require more people trying to have discussions, rather than firing away with "white knight," "butthurt," and "so gay." Could we all do a better job of aspiring to be Lisa Simpson instead of Nelson Muntz? I certainly hope so.

But for now, FSU has bragging rights over Florida, and the theoretical upper hand in arguments that goes with them. I'm not really optimistic about the likelihood that things change in the near future: Winners, after all, get to dictate terms of engagement.