As always, the Sunday Rundown is intentionally written with first-take thoughts on a Florida game, without a second look at tape. For Florida's 21-3 win over Missouri, I had the game on my TV through WatchESPN, which means everything was about two plays behind the live broadcast.
How Florida Won
It's a mean grind
Mike Gillislee coined one of the truly great phrases in recent Florida history in 2012, when he responded to a question from a reporter about wristbands Florida players were wearing that were emblazoned with the word "GRIND."
What does that mean?, someone inquired.
"It mean grind," Gillislee said.
And that incoherent mantra actually worked for the 2012 Gators, for whom grinding opponents to the gristle was a sadistic pleasure. That Florida team didn't have diversity on offense or a quarterback it trusted to develop said diversity, so it leaned on an adequate running game, a dominant, turnover-seeking defense, and excellent special teams to win 11 games.
The 2015 Gators have a trusted quarterback and a more explosive offense, and have to be a bit more aggressive because of disastrous special teams. But with a defense almost as dominant as that one from 2012, they can still grind.
And grind they did on Saturday, building a lead and holding Missouri without a drive longer than 50 yards after the Tigers' opening series landed a few haymakers. Kelvin Taylor ran almost as many times as Will Grier threw, and more times than Grier completed passes; if not for Grier's pointless completion at the end of the first half, he would've had half as many yards as his QB did.
Missouri never really threatened after that first drive, never even entered the red zone again. A missed field goal by the Tigers helped the gap between the teams yawn as wide as it did, but Florida missed one of its own and faked a field goal from the Missouri 23 rather than attempt another.
This was a thoroughly impressive, thoroughly boring win. Those wins are obtained, almost always, by grinding. And neither you nor I is obligated to like the process, but I can't argue with the result.
Bearing down now
Florida's defense just doesn't like allowing anything.
That's the true standout element of this defense, I think: An unquenchable thirst to stop the other team. The Gators can be schemed around, can be fooled (by Missouri's zone-read fake-out on the Tigers' first offensive snap, by some clever combo blocking in the run game), and can, on occasion, be beaten individually. But it's so, so hard to chain enough of those little victories together to even get into position to score on this team. And Florida's only allowed one touchdown in the last two weeks despite three drives that got into goal-to-go situations.
The defensive backs are great. Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis are about as good as two overworked run-stuffing linebackers who still have to turn, run, and pray in coverage can be. The defensive line is deep and excellent. The unifying trait, though, is the pride that these Gators take in not allowing the other team to do anything.
"We feel like if our offense puts up at least 14 points, it's going to be hard to beat us," Jalen Tabor said after the game, in which he got Florida seven points on his second pick-six this year.
For the last two games, and four of the Gators' six wins on the season, Tabor's been exactly right: 14 points would have gotten them a win. And in the two other games this year, Florida was missing either Tabor or Vernon Hargreaves III.
So, yeah, this is a great defense. But it's great in large part because it wants to be.
Kelvin Taylor is hitting his stride
The funniest subplot of Saturday's game was unquestionably Brent Musburger being weirdly interested in Taylor getting 100 yards on the ground. He reacted to Taylor cresting the plateau with the sort of excitement typically reserved for, I dunno, maybe winning in Vegas, and was quite possibly more excited for that than for Tabor's pick-six.
Taylor then proceeded to step back off the plateau by running for losses on Florida's final legitimate drive, thanks partly to play-calling intended to kill clock rather than gain yardage, but, hey, he was over 100 yards at one point.
And regardless of that, he also had one of his best games as a Gator.
Taylor is Florida's best running back — despite being outplayed in Florida's bowl game, despite offseason proclamations that he would be supplanted by freshmen Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite, and despite strong starts to the year from both freshmen — primarily because he is Florida's safest running back, and Cronkrite fumbling again on Saturday is a reaffirmation that that distinction for Taylor, who hasn't fumbled in quite a while. But he is also Florida's most polished running back, its steadiest, maybe its shiftiest, and probably its most determined.
He ran hard against Missouri, slipping past tacklers and getting upfield when holes existed and running forward for yards when they didn't. And he ran smartly, too, taking yards when he could and not trying too hard to find ones that weren't available.
Taylor being at least that good is a huge help for an offense that is still very much figuring things out: He gives McElwain and Doug Nussmeier a crutch to lean on, and even if he's not going to take over entire series by himself and lacks true breakaway speed, he could keep Florida on schedule or break a field-flipping run at any time. That has more value than we usually grant.
Where do you throw on Florida?
One thing I can't quite figure out this year: How, exactly, are you meant to attack Florida's secondary?
All of the Gators' exterior corners are sound tacklers, and react well to screens. They all play coverage well, and have excellent ball skills. The safeties are much improved — Marcus Maye was brilliant on Saturday — and the starters haven't really been beaten deep yet. I guess you could throw jump balls and hope that your man out-jumps Florida's cornerback, but that's really only going to work if you get lucky: Vernon Hargreaves III is the Gators' shortest cover man, and he has absurd ups; Tabor and Quincy Wilson are both bigger, and only slightly less athletic.
Really, the best thing to do is probably find ways to force Brian Poole and Florida's linebackers to turn and run with tight ends or running backs ... but you need to get those players behind Florida's defenders, because they're physical enough to separate balls from receivers on impact, and strong tacklers who limit yards after catch.
Oh, and you have to do all of this before Florida's pass rush gets home.
Both Good and Bad
Will Grier: Still a freshman
Will Grier played one of the best games a Florida quarterback has ever played against Mississippi. He played probably his worst game against Missouri. Such is life with a freshman quarterback.
Grier has looked shaky on the road twice now, breaking the pocket far too often at Kentucky before struggling to decide between staying home and escaping against Missouri. The Tigers had four sacks of Grier on Saturday, and I think two or three of those are actually on him, rather than the line; he extended plays that should have ended with a ball being thrown out of bounds, ran to little avail — except on a run that he inexplicably decided to finish by trying to hurdle a defender as he was headed out of bounds — and pressured himself almost as often as he was pressured organically.
He also made a few really good throws and moved Florida well early on, before Missouri had a chance to adjust its underrated and salty defense. He's still got the best arm of any Florida QB since at least Tim Tebow. And he's definitely the player Florida's coaches believe is the future at the position: Treon Harris being glued to the bench except for situational duty even in games in which Grier struggles makes it quite clear that McElwain and Nussmeier are riding their chosen horse through good and bad.
Grier "has" to get better — "has" is used by fans to mean "I think/want" and eliminate the possibility that a player could, in fact, not improve — at a few things. What freshman quarterback couldn't improve, though? And what evidence do we have to suggest that Grier can't? He already cleaned up his play in one game (Tennessee) and played almost flawlessly for another (Mississippi).
As a fan, I think my best course of reaction to nights like the one Grier had at Missouri is simply to shrug about them, and take some confidence from his "bad" games really not being all that bad.
An average line
Some of those sacks, of course, were on the offensive line, which still isn't consistent enough to qualify as good, but also isn't anywhere near the disaster so many anticipated. I've harped on this a lot, of course, but Florida could have had an abysmal offensive line this year — it does not.
What the line struggles with most, actually, is not protecting Grier: It's consistently getting push in the running game. Mike Summers and the McElmeier brain trust have covered for that all year with well-designed go-to plays, but there's a decent chance that Florida's getting whipped somewhere along the line in run blocking if it's just asking players to block one-on-one.
If that is what I'm complaining about, though, after four years of mostly iffy pass-blocking that got four quarterbacks hurt and limited the growth of the most promising among them — well, I'm complaining with a smile.
Balance and sequencing
The one legitimate complaint I have about Florida's offense has to do with how the Gators sequenced some of their play calls after taking their 14-0 lead. On two separate drives, Florida turned second-and-long into third-and-short with runs, giving itself one play to gain a few yards and move the sticks; it converted on only one of those third downs. On another drive, Florida tried a complicated play-action pass that got Grier sacked on first down, and then Taylor ran for seven yards on second down.
Why not, I dunno, use some of those good plays on first down, to allow even a couple of short gains to move the chains over the next two plays? That seems prudent to me. Maybe. I dunno. I'm not a coach.
"Special" teams forever
Jorge Powell missed a field goal pretty badly in this game, and Chris Thompson got flagged for kick catch interference on an even more dubious call than the one against him last week. Florida failed to do anything on kick returns, either, and just sort of didn't screw up on punt returns.
The saving grace for Florida's special teams? Johnny Townsend rules.
A tiny little thing that you probably didn't catch: Florida had the ball at Missouri's 42 on fourth and eight, in an obvious punting situation, and tried to take a delay of game penalty to move back and allow a little more room for Townsend to bury the Tigers. But Missouri declined the penalty, forcing Florida to punt from where it was.
And Townsend buried the Tigers on their own 11 anyway.
He's really good. The rest of Florida's special teams — with the possible exception of Thompson, should he ever get his timing down just right — are not.
I would appreciate improvement.
Still: Please never use that fake again
Also: Florida's special teams futility also translated to the absolute worst play of the game. In an obvious field goal situation on Missouri's 23 in the fourth quarter, Florida decided a fake involving a pre-snap shift and Townsend ... well, doing something, anyway, was both a better option than the field goal and any other fourth down play.
It was not. Townsend was sacked for a loss of three yards, Florida's long snapper got roughed for no logical reason, and everyone involved was left befuddled.
Here is a simple equation for deciding whether to use a fake: If executional value of fake + value of surprise > executional value of other play, then use it. There was so little value in either of the first two senses on that play that the Gators should have unquestionably gone with a standard play on that fourth down, or just kicked the field goal.
Take the page out of the playbook and burn it.
Nothing was embarrassing this week. I mean, if you fell asleep or went to bed during the game because you were bored, that would be embarrassing, but that's on you.