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Florida vs. Kentucky, Sunday Rundown: Gators defense stands tall in victory

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Florida's offense went quiet against Kentucky, but its defense roared.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

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 14-9 win over Kentucky, I was watching on Internet streams of varying legality, all of which were a minute or more behind real time.

How Florida Won

Standing on 14

In blackjack, standing on 14 when the dealer is showing a 3 is the right call. It's the right call when seeing a 6, too, assuming the dealer has to hit on 16. When there's a 9 on the board, though, you really need to hit.

Good blackjack players — I'm not including myself — know well that any advantage in the game is derived from aggressively chasing big wins to make up for a larger number of small losses, and that going for it while holding 14 with a big card on the board and busting out a few times won't matter if it also helps win hands against some 19s. And, at worst, busting with a king on a 14 at least provides some valuable infomation about the rest of the shoe.

Football is not blackjack, though — in football, it's even more important to hit on 14.

In football, standing on 14 points while the other team has nine is betting big on your defense's ability to not give up a touchdown — and there's no long term to think about, no "valuable information" to be gained from a bust, no ceiling to the number of points you can safely accrue. More points is better than fewer points. Hitting is better than standing.

The Gators stood on Saturday night, playing conservatively in a second half that begged for more Florida points as Kentucky whittled the Gators' lead to a single possession. And it worked out, eventually, with Florida's fearsome defensive line and fleet secondary combining to hold off a Wildcats offense that hit and hit and hit and got small cards until it busted.

"Give us 21" was the rallying cry from Jonathan Bullard in 2013, and one that applied to the whole of Will Muschamp's tenure quite neatly. In 2015, Bullard was one of the reasons that Florida could let 14 ride for Jim McElwain's first win over Kentucky.

Outstanding

The return of Florida's pass rush

With the caveat that I did not watch Florida's bowl win over East Carolina in real time, Saturday night was the first time in a few years that I thought, for the duration of a game, that Florida's pass rush was truly fantastic.

Sure, the Gators pinned back Justin Worley's ears last year in Knoxville for six sacks, and had four against LSU in 2014, but Florida had only one game with five or more sacks in each of Muschamp's four seasons on as Florida's head coach, as his defenses angled for pressure forcing bad throws before takedowns. On Saturday, Florida had six sacks — and it was by design.

Bullard had two sacks because he's a mismatch in a one-on-one, too quick for most tackles and too strong for most guards. Alex McCalister showed his own impressive speed, dipping around Kentucky's right tackle for a pair of takedowns. Keanu Neal steamed in on a safety blitz and lit up Patrick Towles. And Caleb Brantley and Cece Jefferson combined to close the pocket for a coverage sack.

Florida still harassed Towles into more than a few bad throws: He went 8-for-24, after all, with two picks, and Gators defenses have now held at least one opponent to single-digit completions in five of the last seven years.

But this was a pass rush that aimed to physically impact the quarterback, not just affect him. By doing the former, it did the latter.

Winning in the "red area"

One of the things I have had to adjust to with McElwain is his use of "red area" to mean what is colloquially called the "red zone." I think that's a Nick Saban phrase, but I don't recall Muschamp using it often, if at all, at Florida, and no matter where it came from, it's stupid. Everyone calls it the red zone. The lexicographic war has long been lost.

But Florida won its battles in the red zone on Saturday night.

The Florida offense went 2-for-3 on three red zone trips, running in two touchdowns and making the wise decision to go for it on fourth and goal from the Kentucky 1 look even smarter than it was. Kentucky's offense, on the other hand, went 3-for-3 on its red zone trips, but came away with just three field goals.

That's a reason why red zone touchdown percentage (Florida is No. 7 nationally, having given up just two on seven trips) means more than red zone scoring percentage (Florida is No. 26 nationally, giving up points on five of seven trips), and why a red zone efficiency stat (say, points per red zone trip allowed; Florida gave up 3.0 points per trip but scored 4.8 on Saturday night) would maybe be even better than both.

And it's also much of why Florida won this game, simply. Had Kentucky turned any of those field goals into touchdowns, the Wildcats could have driven for a field goal against a tired Florida defense in the final minutes, and might well have had enough gas in the tank to do that; instead, the Wildcats swung for the fences and struck out.

Encouraging

Florida's real secondary has arrived

Those eight completions by Towles got the Wildcats 126 yards, and all but two of them covered more than 10 yards. That's not exactly a spotless record of success when passes were on target, especially given that Towles's first pass of the game was a gimme touchdown that Dorian Baker simply dropped.

But Vernon Hargreaves III intercepted the next Kentucky pass and returned it to Kentucky territory to set up the only easy touchdown drive of Florida's night, and Quincy Wilson snagged the last pass of the night, and there were three credited pass breakups in between, and the only "burnt" player of the night was Brian Poole, who couldn't keep up with speedster Jeff Badet on a 45-yard wheel route; Hargreaves guessed wrong on ball placement on a late completion, but had fine coverage on the play despite getting screened by Neal thanks to a rub route.

And while Kentucky lacks the elite targets that most of the rest of Florida's opponents will boast, the Wildcats want to and have the capacity to throw now in a way that they haven't since Andre' Woodson wore blue and white; 2014's edition of this game did feature Towles throwing for 369 yards and three touchdowns, lest we forget.

This year, that didn't happen.

Antonio Callaway is a playmaker

Florida's offense got the ball to Antonio Callaway twice, on an end-around that went for nine yards and a spectacular one-handed catch that he made in stride, allowing him to pick up maybe 10 of the 34 yards on that play.

Florida averaged 21.5 yards on those two plays. On the other 57 offensive snaps of the night, Florida averaged 3.5 yards per play, and had zero plays of more than 20 yards. Oh, and Callaway's 37-yard punt return was the Gators' biggest gain of all-purpose yardage on the night.

Maybe he should get the ball more?

Jarrad Davis continues his rise

Davis wasn't quite as destructive in this game as he was at times against East Carolina, and I spotted a couple of clear overpursuits by him that helped Kentucky's running backs have the best night against Florida's run defense of the young season. He still led Florida with 10 tackles and had 1.5 tackles for loss.

He's very good, and even though I think Florida would be better off with Alex Anzalone around, if only to have a linebacker rotation that is more than just Davis and Antonio Morrison, the dropoff in quality from Anzalone's play to Davis's is not large at all, if it even exists.

Both Good and Bad

Clearly, Will Grier is Florida's No. 1 quarterback

He was under pressure all night. He threw a bad pick. He fumbled once and played with fire on other runs. He got hit hard enough to be visibly favoring his ribs.

And Will Grier still took every single snap for Florida on Saturday night.

The quarterback competition that was reportedly Grier's to lose in the fall, and which looked like Grier's to lose in Florida's first two games, is pretty clearly over; there was no rotation to bring in Treon Harris and disrupt Grier's rhythm on Saturday night, and no benching of Grier for Harris when his play could very well have merited it in a shaky second half. The Florida fans whose patience with Jim McElwain's vetting of both quarterbacks ebbed this week got their wish, as Grier went the distance.

The problem is that he wasn't much more than a talented but inconsistent young quarterback against Kentucky.

Grier had a couple of stellar throws, most notably his laser to set up that Callaway catch-and-run, but he struggled to make time for himself to throw in the pocket, often taking off rather than even trying to go through a progression. He was great on the hoof, with 61 yards on 12 carries (and his rushing total would have been a very nice 69 yards on 10 carries with sacks stripped out), and it's hard to call him scrambling effectively a bad thing, especially on a night when he outgained all of Florida's running backs combined.

He also still holds the ball too low when he runs, and fumbled once; he recovered that fumble so immediately and imperceptibly that it's not even listed in the box score, but that's an issue that comes with every Grier dash up the middle as the pocket collapses, and now there are also legitimate injury concerns for him, too.

I think Grier as Florida's starter probably gives the Gators their highest possible ceiling in 2015, but their floor with Grier as the full-time quarterback may not be higher than their floor with Harris starting — and thinking that Harris couldn't have done what Grier did on the ground against Kentucky, and maybe more, is delusional. Grier is Florida's QB because he can be better than Harris when the Florida line gives him time, rare though that may be, and because the delta between him as a scrambler and Harris as a scrambler isn't massive.

That's not the rosiest assessment of a player once thought of as a potential savior for the Gators. Truth, though, doesn't have to be positive.

Florida's run defense can be boom or bust

Stanley "Boom" Williams led Kentucky with 80 rushing yards, and they came at a clip of five per carry over his 16 rushes; he had one run of 23 yards, one run of 17 yards, one run of 14 yards, and a total of 26 yards over his other 13 carries. JoJo Kemp, he of the guarantee that Kentucky would beat Florida in 2014, had an 11-yard carry and 11 yards over his other seven attempts. Mikel Horton had a five-yard run and 16 yards over his other eight attempts.

Basically, Florida was either getting gashed or winning on run plays, with no in-between — and that's without considering Towles scampering for 33 yards despite a rather blatant missed hold on Hargreaves. Florida can get away with that when the other team's best running back is Boom Williams.

Before October is done, Florida will see Jalen Hurd, Leonard Fournette, and Nick Chubb, and Dalvin Cook lurks at the end of the season. That quartet has three of the nation's top four backs in yards per game at this very second, and Hurd, a load-bearing runner who will be looking to make up for a disappointing 2014 showing against the Gators. Florida won't be getting away with it all year.

Needs Improvement

Florida's offensive line is here until further notice

Martez Ivey played on Saturday night. Yay! He was not a panacea for all that ailed Florida's offensive line. Boo!

Florida struggled to consistently protect Grier in this game, leaving him skittish enough to bolt from even good protection on hair-trigger decisions, and it struggled mightily to create a consistent push for the Gators' running backs (who were, on their own, not great, but not worth a full section). It allowed Grier, a fumble-prone quarterback, to get sacked deep in its own end, and again when a sack might have been the difference between a field goal attempt and a punt. And individual players have started to show specific flaws: David Sharpe isn't fast enough to pick up every edge rusher, Trip Thurman looks lost on screens, Cameron Dillard lacks the bulk to block bigger interior linemen, and Antonio Riles and Fred Johnson are still pretty painfully green.

Still, what we've seen in the aggregate is maybe slightly better performance than most expected from Florida's line. But I wonder if the (excellent) scrambling by Grier (and Harris) to date is covering up for flaws that will prove fatal eventually. I strongly suspect the growing pains that haven't cost Florida a game yet will do so before long.

Un-special teams

Apart from Callaway's return, Florida's special teams were essentially a mess on Saturday night. Brandon Powell returned three kicks and got exactly zero of them beyond the 25-yard line teams start at after a touchback; one of those kicks was brought out of the end zone, and returned to the 15, which was followed by a block in the back that forced Florida to start a drive from its own 5. A week after McCalister ran into a punter for no good reason in his first game back from suspension, Latroy Pittman did the same damn thing. Johnny Townsend twice punted beautifully on attempts to pin Kentucky deep, but also twice booted punts of under 40 yards from Florida's own end, setting up the Wildcats with great field position. And Austin Hardin had his only field goal try blocked.

Florida is giving away points and yards on special teams in ways that are either mostly preventable (field goal misses and blocks) or fully preventable (don't take kickoffs out of the end zone after hesitating in it, Brandon, and don't block people in the back on kick returns, everyone else). If that continues, it will cost the Gators wins.

Flags flew again

Florida was penalized 10 times for 61 yards, and though the refereeing in this game was questionable at its best, and one of those penalties was an intentional delay of game, that's still more than McElwain wants from his team.

Plus, the flags were generally really painful. In addition to that block in the back, the Gators were twice flagged for procedural penalties (an illegal substitution and a false start) prior to offensive third downs, picked up two penalties on the same red zone trip that culminated in Hardin's blocked kick, and tacked on 15 yards to the Towles scamper on a personal foul by Marcus Maye. A cleaner game by Florida probably generates a more lopsided win.

Embarrassing

Scattershot refereeing is bad for football

It is hard to pick the refereeing crew's biggest mistake from this game.

Was it calling a penalty on a defensive lineman hitting Grier after Grier tried to block a player on a run play? Was it missing Hargreaves being tackled by an offensive player on the Towles scamper despite that happening right in front of a ref? Was it inexplicably picking up a flag after a Kentucky defender hit Grier — to my eyes, with a helmet-to-helmet hit — more than a step after he released a pass? Was it losing enough track of the time prior to the end of the third quarter that Florida's defense walked to the wrong end of the field, only to walk right back after the clock ran? Was it not assessing a single pass interference despite Florida's handsy coverage, or throwing just two holding flags despite both offensive lines resorting to it often?

I have sympathy for field officials, almost all of whom are part-timers in what should unequivocally be a full-time job, but referees' chief responsibilities, as I see them, are to a) control the game on the field and b) make the vast majority of the calls correctly. I think last night's officials failed on both counts, and while I don't think that materially affected the outcome of the game — the closest a call came to changing the outcome was the missed hold on Hargreaves, but Kentucky merely kicked a field goal at the end of that drive — I do think the game was significantly less enjoyable for fans of both teams because of refereeing miscues.

And that should really never be the case. Referees are meant to be as invisible and ancillary to a game as possible, and helping them do so should be among sports leagues' most sacred duties. If that means paying refs and making them full-time employees, or figuring out a way to take control of games in a more seamless manner, or even making more plays reviewable (while also streamlining a replay system that has made every review a hunt for the line between "clear" and "incontrovertible" evidence) to provide a safety net for obviously missed calls, I'm all for it.