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Florida vs. East Carolina, Sunday Rundown: Sloppy victory leaves room to improve

Florida made more than a few mistakes in its win over East Carolina.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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 31-24 win over East Carolina, I was watching on TV.

How Florida Won

The old Muschamp way

Florida got a vintage Will Muschamp win on Saturday — it just happened to come under Jim McElwain.

East Carolina couldn't do anything on the ground, so it took to the air and pecked away at the Gators underneath, preying on coverages designed to limit big plays. And the Pirates did that well, hitting a couple "big" plays along the way and taking advantage of a slew of missed tackles, to stay in position to tie the game late — partly because Florida's offense wasn't doing enough to put its foe away, and didn't get aggressive when it could have late in the game.

The Gators held on defense when they had to, though, and East Carolina made the night's final mistake, and that was that. It was, for many — McElwain included — the sort of win that brings more relief than satisfaction.


DeAndre Goolsby and the specter of the past

I know I am not alone in thinking this: DeAndre Goolsby reminds me very strongly of Aaron Hernandez on the field.

Like Hernandez, Goolsby is big, but seems quick before he seems large, and moves very well in the open field; like Hernandez, he has exceptional balance, and enough strength to absorb and spin away from contact to gain extra yardage. He even resembles Hernandez enough physically for his teammates to have dubbed him "Chico," the nickname Hernandez carried at Florida.

Now, of course, all of that, said after a three-catch, 94-yard, one-touchdown performance in which Goolsby gained more yards a receiver than Hernandez did in all but two games as a Gator — both coming during his All-American junior year in 2009 — is based on a very small sample size: Goolsby has six catches in two games in which he featured as more than a mere decoy.

And, even more obviously, one would hope that Goolsby favoring Hernandez on the field, and comparisons to Hernandez as a player, are taken as they are intended, and not as likening a current player to a convicted murderer.

But Aaron Hernandez is the obvious comparison for DeAndre Goolsby. If Goolsby continues his hot start, it's just going to get more obvious. And Goolsby could do a whole lot worse for comparisons than one of one of Florida's best tight ends ever.

Jarrad Davis, Mr. Everywhere

It is utterly ridiculous that Jarrad Davis has made just two starts in his Florida career. And yet, it's true: The linebacker who starred as a freshman as everyone around him on Florida's defense ended up hurt and tallied at least one tackle in every game in 2014 until he got hurt against South Carolina has been in the Gators' starting lineup just twice in three years.

His finest game came last night, with 10 tackles, seven of them solo, and three for losses; no other Gator had more than seven tackles, or more than five solo takedowns. He also had an 11th tackle, maybe his smartest, and his explanation of pulling down Alex McCalister was cogent without being defensive.

We're somewhat likely to see more of Davis in the near future; Alex Anzalone leaving Saturday's game with a shoulder injury is what allowed him to play for much of the night, and any time Anzalone misses will give Davis more snaps, especially if Florida continues to run what amounts to 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 defenses with only two true linebackers. There's no question, at this point, that he, Antonio Morrison, and Anzalone comprise the Gators' best three players at the position.

If more time for Davis means more performances like Saturday's, I'm all for it.

Can't run on these colors

East Carolina ran the ball 22 times for a loss of 13 yards. Strip out three sacks of Blake Kemp (by Joey Ivie, of all people), and the 27 yards they cost the Pirates, and Florida held ECU to 14 rushing yards on 19 carries. Pirates running back Chris Hairston's longest carry covered eight yards, and his first four carries in the second quarter went for either losses or no gain; his only positive run of the quarter was literally the last play of the half, a run on third and 10 from ECU's own side of the 50.

I think that's okay, probably. And given that Florida is third nationally in rush defense and yards per carry allowed, and first among teams that haven't played an FCS school, the numbers agree with me.


Will Grier shines, but not too bright

Will Grier was not great on this Saturday night. He missed several throws, two of them consecutive ones that went right into and out of Pirates' hands. And he did "throw" an interception, despite exactly zero percent of Alvin Bailey's failure to secure a ball that popped up and out of his hands after he hit the ground or an East Carolina defender being positioned perfectly to snag it being within Grier's control.

But Grier's final line — 10-for-17, 151 yards, two touchdowns, and one pick — was fine, especially for a player who was shuttled into and out of the game. And his good throws were good throws, ones we didn't see on Treon Harris's mere eight tosses.

Of course, there's still not enough separation between the performances of Grier and Harris to be absolutely, totally sure about the best route forward for Florida at the position. And while I think Grier is closer to taking the starter's role for good than he ever has been before, I think it's also very much possible that McElwain will rotate both players in some form next week at Kentucky.

What we have seen from Grier in two games, though, is a capacity for higher highs than the ones Harris can provide. And I wouldn't blame Florida fans for itching to see more of those.

Demarcus Robinson responds

A week that ended with much talk of Florida's discipline began with Demarcus Robinson being disciplined by being dropped on the Gators' depth chart. It didn't exactly impact his role in the Gators' offense: Robinson led all Gators in catches for the second straight week, with five snags for 55 yards, and he was especially important on the drive in the third quarter that gave Florida the lead for good, with four catches for 44 yards on the possession. The first three receptions all moved the chains; the fourth was the drive-capping touchdown pass.

That's evidence that McElwain knows Robinson is one of his reliable "get it to" players, a safety valve to be relied on when nothing else is working. That's what Robinson was last year, too, for an offense that was even more bereft of options. And that may be what he'll have to be for the rest of the year.

Here's hoping a depth chart demotion was all it took for him to finally realize the importance (to McElwain, at least) of taking his collegiate career seriously.

Jordan Cronkrite makes himself known

I watched last night's game with a friend who mentioned, after one of Cronkrite's runs, that he hadn't heard much about him. And it's true, Cronkrite has been the second man in Florida's freshman running back tandem behind Jordan Scarlett, and third in the mental rotation at the position behind Kelvin Taylor and Scarlett.

But he's been good enough through two games — he's first among those three runners in yards per carry, and the only one over 5.0 YPC — to make the Gators' running back position the property of a three-headed ... well, monster seems a little too brash, so we'll go with creature. And all three players do just enough well and differently (Taylor's best at cutting, Scarlett most interested in contact, and Cronkrite seemingly best at making tacklers miss) for rotation to persist.

Cronkrite, though, had the best night against the Pirates. And while I can see Taylor getting the majority of Florida's carries again against Kentucky, I wouldn't mind seeing the difference between his workload and Cronkrite's shrink a bit.

Both Good and Bad

The orange uniforms

They didn't look as great as some who have bayed for them for years and years predicted. They didn't look as hideous as some who have lamented even the possibility of their use projected. They were just, well, really orange.

And they had nothing to do — nothing — with Florida's luck or discipline in this game. They were just laundry. So the people who are crying out for the jerseys to be burnt won't get their wish.

Can we go another 25 years without a furor over the colors Florida decides to play in? I hope so.

A spotty secondary

It is really, really tempting to say that much of why Florida allowed 346 yards through the air on Saturday night boils down to Vernon Hargreaves III and Keanu Neal being unavailable, a relative lack of pass rush, and a defensive design that's all about limiting big plays. After all, Quincy Wilson was really only burned on that first Florida drive, and the only other ECU TDs came on a sudden-change score — with, to be fair, safeties Marcell Harris and Duke Dawson getting torched on the same play — and a drive on which Florida allowed seven completed passes, one of which gained more than nine yards.

It's not easy to go deep on Florida right now — despite an absurd 87 pass attempts against them in two games, the Gators have given up just six receptions of more than 20 yards, which ties Oregon for the fewest among teams that have been thrown on at least 87 times, and the Gators have allowed 15 pass plays of 10 or more yards to the Ducks' staggering 26. (Vaunted Michigan State has allowed the most pass plays of 10 or more yards in this young season, with 33.)

But it's been relatively easy to peck away at the Gators, who have allowed an "Eh, that's decent" 116.88 passer rating. And while Jalen Tabor joined Hargreaves with a seismic pick in Saturday's game, it was easier to spot a few picks that could have been if Neal or VH3 had played than it was to see great plays on the ball.

Adjusting for opponent, available personnel, and the intermittent pass rush, I think Florida's secondary has been above average to good so far this year; that's still a disappointment for a group with the personnel to be among the nation's best units, but it's far from a disaster. But things will change quickly as the Gators enter SEC play, and I wouldn't be surprised by either a positive or negative turn.

Needs Improvement

Florida's offensive line still needs to grow up

Grier took a big sack. Harris took two, and did some running he didn't plan on. The push that should open up holes for Florida's runners came and went. And a couple of penalties on freshman Fred Johnson could have taken points off the board; one almost certainly did, by making an Austin Hardin kick more likely.

But Martez Ivey might just be back for next week, and while the creeping sense is that the line just isn't very good right now, it has only allowed three sacks through two games. The 2012 line gave up eight to Texas A&M in its second game, the 2013 line had given up four over two games, and though the 2014 line had given up just two when it went to Alabama, one of those games did come against Eastern Michigan.

The disaster we all feared has not yet come to pass, and Ivey should help stabilize the line, one way or another. Slotting the line here in Needs Improvement doesn't discount the possibility for improvement.

Where is the pass rush?

Two years of hype for Alex McCalister have translated into very little. He was almost nonexistent coming off the edge on Saturday, and recorded just two tackles, only one a solo job, and 1.5 tackles for loss, failing to record a sack in his first game back from suspension. Jordan Sherit had more solo tackles, and he also cramped up and had to leave the game.

Four of Florida's six sacks on the year have come from defensive tackles (Ivie on Saturday, and Jonathan Bullard against New Mexico State), and it seems like a foregone conclusion that Caleb Brantley, who has impressed with his interior push, will get sacks of his own at some point. But there's been very, very little pressure off the edge from the Gators in these first two weeks, and thus quarterbacks have largely been able to set and throw against Florida's defense, with some significant success.

If that doesn't change, I forecast bad things.


Unsportsmanlike conduct penalties are fully preventable

Florida's 12 penalties break down like this, in chronological order: False start (C'yontai Lewis), offensive pass interference (Jake McGee), delay of game (intentional, prior to punt), false start (Johnson), roughing the kicker (McCalister), illegal shift (Goolsby), illegal block in the back (Josh Grady, on a punt return), defensive pass interference (Morrison), unsportsmanlike conduct (Ivie, after a touchdown), defensive holding (Marcell Harris), offensive holding (Johnson), unsportsmanlike conduct (Taylor, after his touchdown). That's a long list of misdeeds, yes, but one was intentional, McGee's was horseshit, only four of them are stupid plays rather than procedural miscues.

But the roughing the kicker (it's listed as that in the UF box score, but it was only a five-yard penalty) flag extended a drive, Taylor's penalty led to a touchdown drive, and Grady's block in the back came one play before Grier's interception, and effectively shortened the field for ECU after that fluky play. And both unsportsmanlike conduct penalties happened in the second half of a closer-than-it-should-have-been contest. It's no wonder that McElwain was livid, both with Taylor and his team, after the game.

I don't think any of the penalties, individually, is particularly embarrassing, but I do think McElwain's rage at them — about which I've said my piece, more or less — is intended partly to embarrass, and I think making those penalties embarrassing for players is just aversion therapy on a football field.

And, well, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties are as close to unacceptable as any penalties get. Players know the rules on how to celebrate, and know that refs will throw flags for even mild taunting. (Frankly, I'm a bit surprised Robinson didn't get one for standing over a defender after his TD.) McElwain has made trying to get players to celebrate as a team and not individually a point of emphasis, too, saying as much in the spring and summer.

That Florida can still get two such penalties suggests that a) celebrating individually means more to some players than the pain of a penalty and a loss of 15 yards does and/or b) that McElwain's teaching on this point hasn't sunk in to the point of prevention. I'm sympathetic to the players in regards to a), but I do get McElwain's frustration if b) is also true.