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Florida vs. Vanderbilt, Three Takeaways: Diagnosing Gators’ issues on offense

Florida has changes to make at quarterback (hopefully) and running back (logically).

Florida v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

There will be other recaps of Florida’s 13-6 win over Vanderbilt, I promise.

Austin Appleby is Florida’s backup quarterback

Luke Del Rio’s injury inserted Austin Appleby into action unexpectedly, and for a while, it appeared that it wasn’t that unfortunate for the Gators that Del Rio sustained an MCL sprain. Appleby was forgettably decent against North Texas in limited action, then really good for one half and bad-to-middling in the other against Tennessee.

Against Vanderbilt, Appleby cut out the “-to-middling” part.

He threw for 144 yards on 28 attempts, and connected on just two pass plays of at least 20 yards. He threw deep balls poorly. He threw short passes poorly. He missed Antonio Callaway on a third down in the red zone and probably cost Florida a touchdown by doing so. He sacked himself at least once, and generally looked uncomfortable in the face of a Vandy pass rush that cut through Florida’s line time and again.

And no, the pressure isn’t Appleby’s fault. Florida’s offensive line appears to be stagnating or regressing from a level of play that wasn’t great to begin with, and there are no easy solutions for it, apart from hoping that Tyler Jordan returns quickly or that everyone grows up in a hurry. It’s pointless to harp on those inadequacies, I think, because Jim McElwain isn’t firing Mike Summers and finding a better replacement in October; that might yet happen at season’s end, but it can’t happen now.

I also can’t really fault Appleby too vociferously for checking down, as he did all day, even though the gains were small: Florida needed small gains on this day, often, and taking what it can get on days when things aren’t going well is better than getting nothing or going backwards.

But Florida has at least one more poised and polished quarterback than Appleby in Del Rio, whose command of Florida’s offense seemed significantly better than Appleby’s in his action this year. Certainly, the 2.5 games of work Del Rio has to his credit were stronger for him (and the Gators) than Appleby’s 2.5 games of work, and certainly, Del Rio seemed to handle pressure and manage quick throws more adroitly than Appleby.

Given Florida’s offensive personnel — in its flawed and fluid state — the quarterback has to cover for that bad line, come through more often than not on passing downs, and maybe hit shots down the field to keep safeties from cheating up to choke the running game. Appleby might have a better chance of doing the latter, but Del Rio is emphatically a better bet to do the first two things.

And so we should expect Florida to start Del Rio as soon as is medically possible. The hints have been strong that that may be next week against LSU.

When it does happen, it won’t come a moment too soon.

The Gators’ RB committee needs work

Florida fans on Twitter spent much of this game clamoring for Jordan Scarlett, whose 55 rushing yards led the Gators and whose touchdown was the only one of the game. And Scarlett was really good, getting that touchdown at the end of a drive on which he turned awful blocking into awesome results.

Scarlett’s 4.6 yards per carry was third among Florida running backs in that stat, though, marginally behind Lamical Perine’s 4.7 and well off the 6.5 yards per carry — on two carries — from Jordan Cronkrite.

The elephant in the room for the Gators’ backs is the man who finished fourth in that statistic, Mark Thompson. Thompson carried seven times for 11 yards, and never for more than four yards. One of those seven carries picked up a first down. Three came consecutively on a drive on which Florida could have killed the clock late — and got two, two, and negative one yards.

Thompson is now rushing for 4.2 yards per carry on the season, fourth behind Perine (5.2), Scarlett (5.0), and Cronkrite on this team, and that number is heavily weighted by his 85 yards on North Texas — he hasn’t managed four yards per carry against any other team. And while Thompson would seem to have the size for pass-blocking, Florida has consistently used Scarlett and Cronkrite in those roles this fall.

So I’m really unsure why Thompson should be used except in short-yardage situations — which, frankly, he’s not great in, either — and definitely in favor of shifting to allocating most of his carries to Scarlett, Perine, and Cronkrite.

Florida’s defense is hell on passing games

Look: Florida gave up pass plays to Vanderbilt on Saturday. A couple of those produced really frustrating conversions on third and long.

It also allowed Vandy QBs to complete 12 of 32 passes, snared two interceptions, and didn’t allow a pass play of more than 18 yards — even without a ferocious pass rush to make those QBs panic. Jarrad Davis, playing one of his best games as a Gator, had three pass breakups. Alex Anzalone, Duke Dawson, and Marcus Maye each had one. Teez Tabor and Nick Washington had the picks — Washington credited his to Davis and the defensive line on the Gators’ “Get The Ball” board — and Quincy Wilson had another quiet day, with one catch against him bringing the number of catches on him all season to ... uh, three?

Florida’s emaciated defensive line struggled with Vandy’s line all day, as players lacking the brains and brawn of Bryan Cox, Jr., Joey Ivie, and Jordan Sherit — and, briefly, Caleb Brantley — failed to set edges and hold the point, and the 110 yards Ralph Webb racked up and 4.0 yards per carry that Vandy posted are not great statistics. That line still did enough work against the running game to force Vandy to pass, though, and those situations heavily favored the Gators.

There is, sure, a distinct possibility that Florida’s pass defense has simply out-talented four bad teams and been exposed by a good one. But Tennessee’s stocked with more talent at quarterback and wide receiver than the Gators will probably see in conjunction until its season-ending clash with Florida State, and the Gators aren’t just stopping passing games — they’re strangulating them, allowing the nation’s second-lowest passer rating and lowest completion percentage even with that Tennessee game factored into the numbers.

In their other four games, the Gators haven’t given up 150 passing yards, and have only allowed better than a 37.5 percent completion percentage or more than 3.9 yards per attempt once.

Florida will get those linemen back, eventually, and will face lesser backs than Webb — even though Leonard Fournette, Derrick Guice, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Devwah Whaley, and Dalvin Cook still lurk on this schedule. But what the Gators can seemingly rely on is a pass defense that tears opponents’ substandard passing games to shreds.