There will be other recaps of Florida’s 40-14 win over Missouri, I promise — and this time, there’s no hurricane on the horizon to help break my promise for me.
Florida’s defense is hell on quarterbacks
Here is an insane, absurd, and unfair truth about the 2016 Florida defense: Six quarterbacks have started against Gators, and of them, only one has completed 10 passes or more than 50 percent of his passes.
And those distinctions don’t even belong to the same guy.
Missouri’s Drew Lock didn’t join UMass QB Ross Comis — whose 9-for-17 night is, by one completion, the only night of better than 50 percent passing by a starting QB against these Gators — or Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs — who completed 16 passes for 319 yards and four touchdowns against Florida, but needed 32 attempts to do so — in that rarefied air on Saturday. He was far closer to Kentucky’s Drew Barker (2-for-10, three interceptions) and Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmer (7-for-22, just 85 yards), with his woeful 4-for-18, two-pick performance that netted just 39 yards through the air.
And given that Teez Tabor got 39 yards on his pick-six, and Quincy Wilson exactly twice that many on his pick-six, it’s arguable that Lock actually had the worst night any starting QB has had against the Gators yet. At least Barker’s picks didn’t turn immediately into points, right?
The problem for foes has generally been a deficit of talent: Florida just has too many good defensive backs in its secondary for anything other than a very good quarterback (Dobbs) with a slew of talented targets (Tennessee receivers Jauan Jennings and Josh Malone, and Swiss Army back Alvin Kamara) to stress it all that much. (Even then, it helps to have players slip and miss plays with injury.) And the QB standing back against Florida’s rush — which went sackless for the first time this year against Missouri, surprisingly, though one play that could have been a sack was instead a fumble recovery — probably needs to move around like Dobbs can to have consistent success against the Gators.
The quality of opponent is about to go way, way up for Florida, and there’s only one game at home left on the schedule. But it’s also entirely possible that Dobbs is the best quarterback Florida will see this year, and possible — perhaps even likely — that he’s the only thrower with enough mobility to defeat the Gators’ rush routinely.
Given how everyone else has fared, that’s promising for Florida’s chances of being hell on quarterbacks all year long.
Luke Del Rio was no panacea
The optimism about Del Rio’s return was anywhere from guarded to giddy in the last fortnight. But if we’re being honest, it was probably as much about Austin Appleby — and a weary Florida fan base’s penchant for pining for the next guy at quarterback for the entirety of the 2010s — as it was Del Rio.
Appleby wasn’t good for six of his eight quarters as Florida’s starter, and wasn’t good in the 1.5 quarters of relief of Del Rio before that. Del Rio had been good for slightly longer, and he was the starter, and he was ... well, he wasn’t Appleby, right? Surely, he would return and be an improvement?
After seeing him play on Saturday, I’m not so sure he was.
Del Rio completed just 18 of 38 throws, and his 236 passing yards were substantially inflated by two big plays — a 46-yard bomb to Tyrie Cleveland that could’ve been a touchdown with a better throw, and a 31-yard catch-and-run for Lamical Perine — that he didn’t do that much to produce. His one touchdown was an easy throw to Cleveland engineered by savvy play design and play-calling. His three picks were probably fewer than he deserved to throw, given the multiple deep passes that were jump balls.
Del Rio looked shook, too, for lack of better words: He shifted around in a pocket that he couldn’t or wouldn’t trust, airmailing passes both because of those happy feet and without their influence, and tried to make plays with his arm when he had room to run, perhaps because he’s still not fully healed from the sprained MCL that sidelined him in the first place.
Del Rio has more time to heal up after this game, too — but we just saw him after two weeks’ rest, and he wasn’t good. And Georgia’s defense, while much-maligned, is certainly significantly better than Missouri’s.
Del Rio is Florida’s unquestioned starter — Appleby not even sniffing the field on a three-pick night makes that clear — and he’s a trusted hand, given how many deep balls Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier include in their game plans when Del Rio is under center.
Those are good things.
Are they good enough, and can Del Rio improve enough, to make Florida’s passing attack more than serviceable? We don’t know. But we’re about to find out.
Florida’s got a winning, bitter formula
Florida has allowed more than 14 points once this season, and it did so to its hardiest foe, and only after building a 21-0 lead. In the other five games Florida has played, all wins, the Gators have built leads of varying sizes by playing vicious defense for long enough to permit points to appear in the ledger, then run downhill after getting that lead.
This worked better against UMass and Kentucky and North Texas and Missouri than it did against Vanderbilt, admittedly — but Vanderbilt has the best defense of those five teams by far, by my sights. And the formula arguably failed to alchemize a win against Tennessee, the only team so far with the firepower to bombard the Gators’ secondary.
That formula, though, is what works for these Gators, the most logical and rational approach to the task of winning football games available, given personnel and scheme and everything else.
It is also what some have famously disparaged as Big, Dumb Will Muschamp Football. It may very well not be sustainable: The formula failing when injuries withered the Gators in 2013 and when systems melted down in 2014 is why McElwain, now 15-5 as Florida’s head coach, is Florida’s head coach at all. But the guy before him did go 14-6 over his first 20 games, and 18-8 over his first two years, by winning and losing in very similar fashion — it was everything after that that did him in.
McElwain still has time to hybridize that strategy, the one that works best for the team he has, with his own, the one that works best for the team he wants. You can see the strands mixing when Del Rio takes a deep shot to Cleveland, or when quality running back depth allows fans to whine about one player or another being rotated out, rather than a total lack of alternatives to plodders who can’t get going. More than a few Florida fans have retreated slightly from “This offense is awful” to “This offense is awful to watch,” and the subtle difference between the two — one a complaint about adequacy, the other about aesthetics — is instructive: There is progress being made.
Whether fans will be patient enough to wait out the process designed to produce that progress remains to be seen, though. And I’m not so optimistic about that.
See, those same fans have been fed a formula that doesn’t go down easy for years now. And formula that doesn’t go down comes back up — as bile.