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Florida vs. Vanderbilt, Monday Rundown: Gators overcome adversity of their own making

Florida escaped Vanderbilt. And there's plenty of good and bad to say about that.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As always, the Sunday Monday Rundown is intentionally written with first-take thoughts on a Florida game, and without a second look at tape. For Florida's 9-7 win over Vanderbilt, I watched the game in the student section, quite high up, next to some seats that were never occupied.

How Florida Won

The final kick

It's crazy that Austin Hardin now has two game-winning field goals on his record.

I mean, he's Austin Hardin! He's been shorthand for Florida field goal woes for seemingly forever despite only kicking them since 2013. He's 15-for-30 on field goals for his career. He improved to 4-for-8 (which is hilarious) in 2015 with his 43-yarder to put Florida ahead for good on Saturday.

He hit this one against Vanderbilt after missing four of his previous five (one blocked) in 2015. He hit a much harder one — a 49-yarder on the road in front of a raucous Neyland Stadium crowd — to beat Tennessee in 2014, and did so after missing his only other kick of the year prior to that point, and his final five field goals of 2013.

Hardin has now ended woeful 0-for-6 and 1-for-5 stretches of field goaling with game-winning kicks in two separate seasons. I don't think that has a parallel in Florida history, and I'm not sure it has one in college football history.

But I don't say that all to make fun of him: I say it to provide the context for him coming through when Florida needed him to make a field goal most. For me, Florida losing to this Vanderbilt team on this day would've been almost as jaw-dropping and disheartening as losing to Georgia Southern two years ago, and I mean that sincerely, even if I know it's a minority opinion.

Hardin prevented that. And I thank him for it.


Florida's defense is filled with firemen

The most stirring thing I saw this weekend was legendary boxing trainer Teddy Atlas taking the occupation of fireman and blending its job duties into one of the greatest analogies for heroic courage that I've ever heard.

Sorry, I just punched my chair. TAKE THAT, CHAIR.

Anyway: Florida's defense has been playing fireman for a few years now, with Will Muschamp explicitly calling the 2012 and 2013 defenses firemen. I used the analogy at length to explain one of Florida's wins on the hardwood in 2014.

And I think it's a good one: Firefighters are called to calm situations that are verging on being totally out of control, and they generally don't make things worse. The Gators were battling two fires on Saturday: The sun blazed like it almost certainly never before has for a November game in The Swamp, while Vanderbilt's own defense played like a house afire to match Florida all afternoon, with its own firemen putting out any and all attempts by Treon Harris and Co. to make what was projected as a blowout into one.

And they won. Ralph Webb's 75-yard touchdown run was a flare-up, but nothing ever flashed over; that was the only Vandy drive to cover more than 40 yards, and one of just two to cross the 50. On six possessions in the second half, Vanderbilt gained zero, 13, 17, one, 21, and 32 yards, for a total of 74 yards on 35 plays, and Florida penalties accounted for 46 of those yards. The Commodores' final play was a 22-yard reception that didn't get a first down; by itself, it gained more yardage than any of the five previous Vandy drives after halftime, and more than nine non-kneeldown Vandy drives in the game.

About the only things Florida did wrong on defense in this game were minor mistakes: Misalignments early as Vandy shifted in ways that clearly weren't prepped for, Vernon Hargreaves failing to pick off a pass that he broke up (essentially because he broke on where the ball should've been, but a bad throw put it elsewhere), a linebacker shading too far to one side on Webb's touchdown run, penalties that came from silly errors.

Vandy's 175 yards of total offense on 62 plays were the fewest by a Florida opponent this year, and the fewest by a Power Five opponent that ran more than 50 plays against the Gators — in 2013, Kentucky got 173 yards on just 47 plays thanks largely to Florida's offensive game plan; in 2014, Missouri had 119 on 49 plays thanks partly to short fields — since Florida held Florida State to 95 yards on 59 plays in 2011.

With apologies to Eugene O'Neill and the English language: The firemen cameth.

And Florida wonneth.


Demarcus Robinson tried so hard

It's hilarious that Demarcus Robinson's first significant fumble would come on a play on which a defender merely put a helmet on the ball as Robinson had it more or less tucked away. He's carried the ball in one hand like he's trying to mash a loaf of bread for going on three years now, while also trying to set some record by making every man miss twice on virtually every play, and somehow he didn't fumble at all until a Vandy player forced the ball skyward as he struggled for extra yardage on Saturday.

But I don't want to let that fumble be the only thing I remember about his day, or that play — Robinson, after all, struggled for extra yardage more than a few times against Vandy, something fans have been begging for him to do since he first saw the field.

He'll never be the sort of player to lower his shoulder and run a tackler over, but Robinson has drawn a lot of criticism, some of it very much deserved, for shying away from contact. That wasn't what happened on Saturday: He cut upfield and back into the field of play, and strained to get more yards out of plays in his own inimitable way, trying to open space by making defenders miss on their way out of bounds.

And because Robinson has massive strides and a fluid athleticism that lets him do things like cut upfield unnaturally quickly when he realized he was uncovered on one long play, creating open space by making people miss is really his best move more often than not. He can use space by outfoxing tacklers; he can't claim it by bulling them.

Will this last? I don't know. But Florida getting a big game from Robinson (nine catches, 106 yards) made up for Vandy shutting down Antonio Callaway on offense (one catch, 11 yards), and if Florida can get both players involved in a game, it will have two dynamite playmakers to target.

Callaway adds to special season

For a long, long time on Saturday, I thought that the game was destined to end on an Antonio Callaway punt return.

He had seven punt returns for 110 yards, more yards per return than Robinson had per catch, and he broke six separate returns of at least 11 yards. (He would've had seven punt returns for 117 yards, but a penalty wiped out an 18-yard return that he promptly followed with an 11-yard return.) He looked like a threat to score on almost all of those, too, but his day was only marginally less great because he didn't.

We don't talk about what yardage comes from punt returns very often in discussing football, because it's "hidden" yardage. But think of it this way: Callaway touching the ball on a punt on Saturday essentially gave Florida an extra first down and a half to begin every drive. Or think of it this way: An average Callaway punt return against Vandy gained just a little less yardage than four Florida offensive plays did.

That's valuable yardage, and while Florida didn't do much with it, it's a very nice thing to have. Even a fear of Callaway is valuable: Tommy Openshaw shanking his final punt for just 12 yards produced the same result as a 33-yard return on a 45-yard punt would have.

Fear is valid at this point. Callaway had just five fewer yards on those punt returns than Andre Debose did against LSU in 2014, a performance that had me singing Debose's praises, and was only 45 yards off the record held by Jacquez Green. The day boosted him to fifth nationally in punt return yardage (and sixth in yards per return), too, and only two other players in the top 10 have had bigger single-game totals this year, both of them boosted by at least one touchdown return.

Callaway's pretty definitely not catching Brandon James for single-season punt return yardage (James had 510 punt return yards in 2008, which is astounding), but he could pretty easily slide into second place on that list: He has 288 punt return yards through nine games, which puts him on pace for 448 over the 14 games Florida is now guaranteed. That would eclipse Jacquez Green's 1997 total of 392 yards by a healthy margin.

Really, this section deserves to be in Outstanding, but it feels like an afterthought given how the game went, so I can't really justify bumping it. Regardless: Don't sleep on how special Antonio Callaway is.

Both Good and Bad

Florida overcame its own adversity

I thought Vandy played scared in this game, and probably hurt its chances of winning by being too conservative. Had Florida played like that and lost, we would have dismissed it as a failing strategy and Muschampesque.

But Florida didn't really play scared — and it still almost lost, thanks to the fruits of its aggressiveness being more rotten than not.

While a questionable reversal of a call contributed, Florida ultimately didn't score points on its first drive because it went for a touchdown and failed. Florida didn't get points on another drive because of a fumble that came as a result of getting so aggressive with a fake field goal that CeCe Jefferson ended up running the ball. Florida didn't score on two other drives that entered the red zone because of fumbles committed while players were trying to get extra yardage.

The most painful error from Florida's game that wasn't about aggressiveness was the interception thrown by Treon Harris — and that was actually a smart play, and Harris doing what Jim McElwain confirmed he is coached to do on a fourth down, by throwing the ball down the field and hoping something happens. It netted Florida an extra 17 yards of field position, too, because the Vandy player who intercepted it did so at the Vandy 26; the ball was snapped from the Vandy 43, so Harris basically threw a 17-yard punt. That isn't a terrible result on a fourth-down failure.

And those sins of commission on aggressive plays in the first half, when Florida committed three of its four turnovers and had another drive end on downs, might yet prompt sins of omission in future games.

McElwain shouldn't change his approach to aggression, one that I've largely agreed with from a process standpoint, because of a few anomalous bad results; it's arguable that Muschamp's Gators tenure failed partly because his last couple of seasons at Texas Florida's 2011 season, full of turnovers on offense, led him to aim for balanced, conservative play from players ill-suited to produce it.

But McElwain could change that approach, because that's not a totally irrational response to bad results, especially for a team living on the margins like Florida does.

Let's hope the lesson of this game, the first Florida has won with a -4 turnover margin since some dubious refereeing allowed the Gators to escape with a win over Arkansas in 2009, is "Bad things can happen and the Gators can still win." We've tried "Bad things can happen and we need to prevent them" with a lot less success.

Good Vandy defense or bad Florida offense?

I don't think many folks around these parts honestly thought that Florida's offense was suddenly a juggernaut again after running over Georgia. And I don't think many folks around these parts were grossly underestimating Vanderbilt's defense: While I was surprised by how good it really was in person, my guess of a 31-6 final score was based more on Florida setting itself up with or scoring on defense and special teams than some idea that the Gators would drive the length of the field repeatedly on the 'Dores.

But while Vandy's defense was better than I anticipated, Florida's offense was also worse than I anticipated, especially aesthetically, and I don't really know how to disentangle those effects on one watch. Was Harris worse because he left the pocket too often, or because Vandy flushed him out? Did Florida's offensive line just suffer because it's not as good without a healthy David Sharpe, or was Vanderbilt have a bad running game scouted far better than Georgia did?

I'm going to do a lot of film review this week and hope to find answers. But there weren't many on Saturday.

Needs Improvement

Free Treon

Once more, I beg of you, McElwain and Nussmeier: Make things simpler for Harris.

On Sunday night, Thomas Goldkamp published a long piece arguing that Harris actually improved against Vanderbilt, especially from the pocket. I read it and mostly shrugged: If Harris did make all 12 of his completions from the pocket (and I trust Goldkamp's analysis, but I'd also like to verify with my own), that's cool, but it also doesn't mean that's where he should be.

Harris gained 47 yards on his runs and only lost 13 on sacks, leading Florida in yards per carry, which suggests to me that his legs really are valuable. He also struggles mightily with the short screen passes that Will Grier excelled at, reducing what he can do from the pocket to alleviate pressure when blitzes come, which suggests to me that some of the advantages Grier has in the pocket in this Florida offense that don't have to do with Harris struggling to see receivers are also not ones that can be easily translated to Harris.

And so, after three weeks of Harris as Florida's full-time QB, I really, really think Florida needs to at least start incorporating read option principles into what Harris does as the starter. We know Harris was running some of those concepts as Florida's backup; presumably, he has not totally forgotten how to use them. If McElwain and Nussmeier want to keep using Harris in the pocket with their route combinations, that's doable by building pass options into true read options, too.

But Harris needs a go-to play that works as well as Grier whipping the ball out to Robinson for five yards as an ersatz running game did. I really think it could be running the read option.

Mike Summers is only so good

Florida's offensive line was bad on this Saturday. It didn't know what to do with A-gap blitzes, and left Harris high and dry as a result, and it got so little push that I swear I said "There's nowhere to go" about 20 times. And Kelvin Taylor and Jordan Scarlett combined for 55 yards on 21 carries because of the line's struggles more than because of any of their failings, though Scarlett's improvisation that lost 15 yards — which I heard, but did not see, while returning to my seat from a Gatorade-and-ice-cups run — is a sign that he's not immune to trying to do too much.

Is that probably more related to Sharpe being out and then hobbled and Florida still trying its best with a unit that's stitched together with players who just aren't that good than any failing of its reputedly wizardly offensive line coach? Yeah, I think so. But Sharpe being banged up is apparently not just McElwain blowing smoke about an injury while keeping his left tackle rested: He really didn't look good when he tried to play.

And if Sharpe's genuinely hurt, it may be painful for the Gators until he's fully healthy.


The dumb penalties are back!

The next penalty for unnecessary roughness on the sideline that I am happy Florida draws will be the first. Yes, aggressiveness is part of what makes this defense so good, but it defies belief to think that no one on that defense (or the coaching staff responsible for it) has figured out that it doesn't pay in 2015 to finish plays that are going out of bounds. Pulling up, even if it costs a yard or two, is just a better idea, more often than not.

But that wasn't Florida's only problematic penalty.

Trip Thurman false started on a second and eight, and only a fine scramble from Harris (which did, yes, terminate in a fumble) rescued Florida from that Thurman miscue. Another running into the kicker penalty cost Florida 12 yards of field position. Sharpe helped Florida's offense accomplish the rare feat of crossing midfield backwards with another false start. And the Gators gave Vandy extra life with a holding penalty on their first fourth down of the game's final actual drive.

I've long thought that some of the anxiety about "discipline" related to Florida's penchant for penalties is really just Florida fans not knowing how to admit that some Gators teams are not good enough to absorb penalties and still win. I am not one of those fans: I think worries about Florida's historical penalty issues are generally overblown and used to shape narratives ... and I also think that this particular team isn't good enough to survive more than a handful of penalties per game.

Things worked out on this Saturday. Florida survived its flags.

I won't be surprised if they don't on some future one.

Targeting has become torturous and tedious

I firmly believe that football should have a targeting rule. I think the sport is too dangerous not to try to limit the most dangerous hits. (But, then, I wince when players slap each other's helmets, because I've read extensively on concussions, so my perception of danger may not be yours.)

But I'm at a loss to explain why what Jordan Sherit did on his sack of Johnny McCrary should be considered targeting. From what I saw at the game and on replay, he lowered his head to make a shoulder-first tackle of McCrary, and, because McCrary ducked his head while bracing himself, made helmet-to-helmet contact with him. There was no intent to target the head or lead with the helmet, and the contact was incidental.

And yet a flag got thrown and confirmed on replay.

It's possible I'll think differently about this when I see the broadcast angles of the play. And I don't want to minimize my very real concern that arguing against the targeting rule is arguing against player safety. Still, I don't think the application of the rule right now is right more often than not, and I see actual targeting go uncalled.

If we want to limit blows to the head in football to a safe level, we're going to need rules that don't just govern the most dangerous hits, but the subconcussive ones that linemen take on every play. We're going to need safer helmets.

We're going to need sweeping changes.

The targeting rule is a half measure. And it's failing. And it's frustrating.