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Florida vs. North Texas, Sunday Rundown: Flawed victory

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A painful loss overshadowed a historic win.

NCAA Football: North Texas at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As always, the Sunday Rundown is intentionally written with extensive first-take thoughts on a Florida game, and without a second look at tape. For Florida's 32-0 win over North Texas, I watched from home, on television, as things crumbled around me.

How Florida Won

It only took two

Florida eventually went for two points after a touchdown in this game, doing so for the second time in three games this season, and, once more, against an overmatched foe in a non-conference game. It was a good call, as the Gators were up 25-0: Florida was already three (entirely theoretical) full eight-point touchdowns ahead, and being up 27-0 forces the trailing team to score three of those eight-pointers and kick a field goal to tie, or accrue four seven-point touchdowns to win.

But North Texas wasn’t going to score on this night. And so Florida’s defense won this game on its first possession, and its second play, as Joey Ivie and Caleb Brantley collapsed the pocket and crunched poor Mason Fine in the end zone, recording just the 33rd defensive safety in Florida football history since records of non-offensive scoring plays were first kept in 1946.

I have no idea if any of the previous 32 came in scoreless games that turned out to be Florida shutouts, and, frankly, going through 32 box scores dating back to 1955 to determine whether one was seems like a great, thankless endeavor for someone who is not me.

Without that research, though, we can’t say for sure that this was the first game-winning safety in Florida history. We can only think it might be.

Awesome

#BDN

Best Defense in the Nation, hashtagged to #BDN, has been defensive coordinator Geoff Collins’s goal over his two years in Gainesville. With a spectacular roster of defenders largely cobbled together by Will Muschamp and refined by a slew of talented defensive assistants, Collins might just have that defense this year.

North Texas had 53 yards on 50 plays against Florida on Saturday, the lowest output against a Gators defense in 110 seasons and 1,146 games of Florida football. Almost half of those game on the first play of the second half, a 25-yard completion on which Teez Tabor got burned. Tabor would be flagged for pass interference two plays later, and then a run got the Mean Green to the Florida 30.

That was almost as close as North Texas got to the red zone all night. And that drive eventually ended with a punt, as a ferocious pass rush pushed the Mean Green all the way back to a fourth and 21 from the Florida 47.

North Texas got all the way down to the Florida 26 on another drive that began at the 33 thanks to Luke Del Rio’s interception, but that drive didn’t net a first down, and ended on a fourth-down throw to no one.

Two North Texas drives gained more than 14 yards. Only one — the one with Tabor’s two miscues — crossed midfield. Four lost yardage. Apart from staying relatively clean in regards to turnovers — Fine airmailed a pass to unintended receiver Marcell Harris, but North Texas recovered its only fumble — the Mean Green could do nothing right on offense without Florida doing something wrong on defense.

Add in Florida’s 47 defensive penalty yards, and North Texas had a total of 100 yards of forward progress when it had the ball ... over 50 plays.

I’m not that good at math, but I think that divides out to holy shit.

Outstanding

The Four Horsemen

I’m trying not to use animal metaphors to describe football players this fall, because there’s already too much othering of human beings in public discourse. It sure is tempting to call Florida’s four running backs workhorses or a stable or a bellcow by committee, though.

All four of them — Jordan Cronkrite, Lamical Perine, Jordan Scarlett, and Mark Thompson — had at least nine carries, at least 46 yards, and a touchdown on Saturday. All four members of the LaMark Scarrite Consortium averaged at least five yards per carry. (I would have to guess that four ball-carriers getting at least nine carries and averaging five yards a pop is vanishingly rare in Florida history, if not unique.) Together, their line is absurd: 42 carries, 251 yards, four touchdowns; five catches, 51 yards.

Only Emmitt Smith’s 316-yard threshing of New Mexico in 1989 would beat that LSMR — it’s like ASMR, except the soothing noises are of broken tackles — line, and it would have set a record for carries by a single back, topping Errict Rhett’s 41 in 1993.

But these backs are best because they are balanced, and different. None of them had more than 11 carries; all of them played different roles.

Thompson had two of the three longest runs, on a 36-yard dash (on third and 18!) and a 20-yard touchdown capped by a picture-perfect hurdle. Perine had the night’s biggest play out of the backfield as a receiver, on a 29-yard catch-and-run that looked terrifying in its effortlessness. Scarlett was the only back of the four to record a loss — a one-yard loss, alack! — and notably sold out on a couple of pass blocks. Cronkrite had two runs that went for fewer than six yards on his nine carries.

There is not a bad back in that bunch, and while I’m not sure there’s a player who can reliably carry the ball 20 times a game, either, I don’t think it matters, not if Florida’s line — which you will see lamented all week for pass-blocking that “got Del Rio hurt” or something, despite the facts that a) Del Rio didn’t take a sack, and b) tight end DeAndre Goolsby was the player who let Joseph Wheeler bring Del Rio to bear — can set edges and open creases like it did on this night and against Kentucky.

Surely, fiercer defensive fronts will tax the Gators more. But if there are holes, I think Florida’s quartet of quarterho ... really good running backs will charge through them.

Jim McElwain, surrogate father

Just over a year ago, I was disappointed in Jim McElwain’s treatment of one of his players. McElwain lighting into Kelvin Taylor was, I wrote, sound and fury, and I was “skeptical about the value of publicly showing up a college student for whom enduring an adult telling him to ‘be a fuckin' man’ is part of a gig that doesn't pay actual money.”

Today? I’m proud of him both directing his ire at a more deserving target, and being circumspect about the consequences of his anger.

When Del Rio went down in the third quarter, and stayed down, McElwain got fired up, marching out almost to midfield to yell at the North Texas sideline — almost certainly over Wheeler’s hit, which got him a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer.

It happened during a commercial break, so ESPN didn’t have a good replay of it — or of North Texas coach Seth Littrell jawing back at McElwain, which the broadcast alleged also happened. But an Associated Press photographer captured the moment in a picture that might be the defining image of Florida’s 2016 season.

That’s David Sharpe and Goolsby, nearly 550 pounds of humanity, holding back a clearly livid McElwain. And while the picture may play up McElwain’s anger slightly, the message of the moment and the image is clear: Jim McElwain is going to stand up for and defend his players against dangerous play.

McElwain simmered a bit by game’s end, exchanging a long but uneventful handshake with Littrell at midfield and then mostly demurring about the play, saying Wheeler “was trying to make a play” while also subtly mentioning that he’d seen that North Texas had been flagged for similar play on film.

McElwain had more ammo than that. Wheeler has now seriously injured two quarterbacks with hits to the legs in three weeks, having previously sacked SMU quarterback Matt Davis, who sustained a torn ACL on the play.

I find it hard to believe McElwain didn’t know that. And though two such hits don’t make Wheeler a dangerous or dirty player — correlation still isn’t causation — there was certainly room for McElwain to make a much bigger fuss about Del Rio’s injury.

Maybe he didn’t because he saw one of the ramifications of him losing his cool almost immediately on the field, as Martez Ivey grabbed a North Texas player by the facemask at the end of the very next play, earning a penalty and an ejection — which won’t carry over to Florida’s game against Tennessee, thankfully — that backed Florida up.

McElwain said after the game that Ivey’s penalty “probably was mine,” which supports that theory, and — to my mind — reveals an uncommon level of circumspection for a college football coach who could vaguely wave at a “lack of discipline” in that situation.

But maybe he also didn’t because of his mother, whom he cited last year when talking about not being proud of losing his temper with Taylor. Maybe Mac’s “Do what’s right” philosophy, now so integral to Florida’s program that it’s being envisioned in enormous font as part of ritzy new facilities, is his mantra for both his players and himself. Maybe part of being a surrogate parent, something McElwain said that he considers himself for his players, is understanding that the other dad’s kids deserve a little mercy, too.

Regardless: For whatever reason, Jim McElwain said just what he needed to say, and did just what he needed to do, in the wake of a devastating injury.

Maybe that’s why Del Rio, and the rest of the Gators, seem to love and play so hard for him.

Secondary importance

Florida allowed Mason Fine — I kinda can’t believe that’s a real name? — to complete six of 22 passes. That is bad! For North Texas, anyway.

On the season, Florida is allowing opponents to complete 34 percent of their passes for a 60.39 passer rating, and is one of two teams — Del Rio alma mater Oregon State is the other — yet to allow a passing touchdown. That is really good!

And this was with Tabor having an iffy game, Quincy Wilson getting flagged for a phantom pass interference, and Marcus Maye making his plays in run support. Harris picking a pass is legitimately the best thing he has done in coverage in his Florida career, and Nick Washington isn’t a great cover safety, either, but those top three defenders and Duke Dawson make for an utterly fantastic secondary...

Premium rush

...and it’s not as if opposing QBs have a lot of time to pick it apart, given that Florida is suddenly tallying sacks like it’s easy. Florida’s 16 sacks give the Gators the national lead in that category, too, and Jabari Zuniga’s four tie him for eighth in the country. (Zuniga now has more sacks through three games than NFL first-rounder Dante Fowler had over full seasons as either a freshman or a sophomore, which is okay!)

Florida didn’t send extra pressure all that often against the Mean Green, because it was pretty unnecessary — with or without extra blitzers, Fine had split seconds to make decisions, and made most of them poorly. As with every other quarterback I have watched handle Florida’s pass rush this year, I felt sorry for him.

Enjoy that, Joshua Dobbs.

Encouraging

Intentional grounding

Florida threw for 216 yards on 29 attempts on Saturday, a surprising tally given how arrhythmic everything in its passing game seemed. Del Rio only hit on one deep ball, a 53-yarder to Josh Hammond, and got just one other completion of more than 20 yards, on the Perine catch-and-run. The Gators are 38th nationally in passing offense, despite just one truly exceptional game through the air, and only two games with Antonio Callaway around to stand out from a receiving corps that remains quite green behind him and Brandon Powell.

Florida ran for 256 yards on 43 carries on Saturday, its second straight game of at least 240 rushing yards and fourth game of 220 or more rushing yards under McElwain.

Florida has won those games by at least 24 points each, and by an aggregate score of 165-23.

We Florida fans all love the pass. But we might want to consider that McElwain’s teams — really, basically all football teams ever — are best when they can effectively run the ball, and take heart in a team that seems to be able to do that consistently.

Both Good and Bad

The easy road ends

Florida has played two of the “worst” FBS teams of 2016 — certainly, UMass and North Texas were among the worst teams of 2015, but the jury’s still out on their 2016 editions — and Kentucky, which looks for all the world like the SEC’s worst team by a substantial margin. The Gators have decisively topped the Minutemen, thoroughly worked the Wildcats, and silenced the Mean Green — and the worst one can say about those three games is that they might not have been lopsided enough.

This is how a team with a talent advantage as large as the one Florida enjoys over its substandard competition in guarantee games and conference clashes with the dregs of the SEC East should win: Authoritatively. After struggling with East Carolina and Florida Atlantic in 2015, squeaking by Kentucky over the last two years, and, uh, everything that happened in 2013, this is order restored.

There are maybe three teams left on Florida’s schedule — Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and Presbyterian — that are situated somewhat close to the three the Gators have rolled. Things are going to get harder in a hurry.

Needs Improvement

Pass-blocking on purpose

I think Florida can get excellent pass blocking out of its offensive line, especially with deliberate and liberal use of play-action passes after establishing the run. Del Rio has had plenty of time to launch deep passes on play-action so far this year, and Appleby or whomever takes over for him should enjoy similarly precious time in the pocket.

It’s when Florida is forced to pass, or telegraphs its intentions, that it has struggled with protecting its passers. Del Rio took a bunch of licks last night even prior to the injury, and it felt to me like they came when North Texas was able to rush the passer without fear of being caught by a surprise draw or screen.

I imagine that McElwain and Doug Nussmeier, who I think might just know a lot more about offense than I do, have noticed this problem, too, and maybe other issues that have surfaced when teams bring exotic pressures or do a lot of stunting and twisting. I have faith that they at least know of logical counters — more play-action, running the ball more, some of those draws and screens — to an aggressive pass rush. Certainly, they have a defense that could simulate any amount of pressure desired in practice.

But Florida was one big hit to Del Rio away from starting Appleby, and is now one big hit to Appleby from thrusting a true freshman into action. Minimizing those big hits as best they can has to be a priority for the Gators.

Throw ya hands up

Florida’s wide receiving corps did not have a particularly good night on Saturday. Hammond had the big catch, yes, and Chris Thompson scorched a couple of backs to get open deep, but I’m not sure I saw a truly exceptional play by a wideout on this night.

Part of that was on Del Rio, who appeared to me to be hunting for big plays rather than taking some smaller chunks of green grass with easier throws. And Del Rio didn’t look quite the same after what seemed like an arm or shoulder injury that preceded his knee injury.

But he didn’t miss that many open receivers. And it wasn’t totally clear to me whether his pick was just his bad throw or a route miscommunication. And on a night without Antonio Callaway on which Florida’s other receivers had plenty of room to step up, no one did.

Embarrassing

Nothing, really

Feels good, man.