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Florida vs. Kentucky, Three Takeaways: Gators find an identity — and QB questions

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Florida may indeed have a formula for wins. But who will it have mixing up the potion?

NCAA Football: Florida at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, in this space, I was writing about how the Florida Gators “probably should have beaten the Tennessee Volunteers soundly enough to not need a miracle on Saturday.”

They probably shouldn’t have beaten the Kentucky Wildcats last night.

But they did, in fact, beat the Wildcats — for the 31st consecutive year, and the 31st consecutive meeting — and I’m really, really not upset about that.

Also, here’s what I learned from the game.

Florida has the framework of an offensive identity

You can say what you will about Florida taking advantage of brain-dead pre-snap alignments twice for touchdown passes being lucky, and about Florida running the ball down Kentucky’s throat on short, grinding carries by Malik Davis being not to your aesthetic taste, and I will hear your arguments.

But I will also note that that friggin’ worked.

Florida has spent almost seven whole years wandering the wilderness when it comes to its offense, struggling to do anything right with any regularity. Since 2010, when Florida has had success on offense, it has been fleeting — remember the first month of the 2011 season, Good Jeff Driskel in 2012, pre-injury Tyler Murphy, that game where Kelvin Taylor was basically a wildcat quarterback, Driskel and Demarcus Robinson play-acting Joe Montana and Jerry Rice for a night, playing-against-Vandy Treon Harris, Will Grier’s six quarters of brilliance over the end of the Tennessee and whole of the Ole Miss game, and the good moments of Austin Appleby’s time as a Gator? — and/or the product of churning running (LSU and Florida State in 2012, Georgia in 2014, last night) that is not to many, many Gators fans’ Steve Spurrier-nurtured tastes, whatever lip service they may pay to wins like Saturday night’s.

On truth serum, I fully believe that almost every Florida fan polled about a favorite win of this decade would pick that rout of Ole Miss in 2015, because it a) was a rout that was in hand the entire time and b) featured what appeared to be a competent and sustainable passing offense. That game — orchestrated by the same head coach and same offensive coordinator Florida has had since — was as close to the Platonic ideal of Florida football as the Florida football of reality has come since Tim Tebow left Gainesville.

But Florida lost the player most responsible for that to his own stupidity for that season, and then lost him for good based on an unwillingness to redeem and reward that player after that mistake, and really hasn’t quite come close to that moment again.

What Florida also hadn’t really come close to since then, until this Saturday night, was an offensive strategy that stood up to the defense doing its damnedest to stop it. Florida’s coaches — Jim McElwain and The Embattled Doug Nussmeier and probably Ja’Juan Seider, given that he’s likely at least partially in charge of the running back rotation — found one of those with a deficit on the board in Lexington, adjusting in the second half by scrapping a plan to have Feleipe Franks throw Florida to a win and instead allowing Davis and the Gators’ offensive line to bully their way to it.

And, really, that was the plan. They supplemented that plan by getting a huge play off a wide receiver pass by Kadarius Toney, effectively using Brandon Powell as a running back for essentially the first time in his Florida career, consistently going for it on fourth down — something you may remember Florida doing to great effect earlier in the McElwain era — and inserting Luke Del Rio to distribute most of the short throws effectively. But the plan, from about the point that Del Rio tried to take a deep shot and threw an Icarus pick — (n.) an interception that is the result of a quarterback trying too hard to make an impossible play — onward, was running Davis left, right, and middle.

After that pick, Davis carried the ball 15 times — and never gained fewer than two yards on any of those carries. His 93 yards on 21 carries will not go down as historic numbers, not even for a Florida true freshman, but he alone gained more yardage on this Kentucky team on the ground than any previous team had, and he put up half of the yards that Florida gained on the ground on this night.

That effective running gave Florida opportunities to stay on schedule and manage third and fourth downs instead of taking shots. And though the Gators biffed one of those fourth downs by having Del Rio throw to Powell on a slant, Florida’s final two touchdown drives featured five conversions on third or fourth down — none coming with more than six yards to gain.

Add in the few big plays Florida hit — Toney’s run, Franks’s alert pass to Cleveland (which featured a sensational tightrope job from the receiver), and Toney’s pass — and that was enough to get four offensive touchdowns, double the Gators’ previous total this season, on four drives that each covered a minimum of 58 yards.

There are questions to answer for Florida’s offense, certainly — we’ll get to the most important one raised by Saturday night below — but the most important question any offense faces is “How do we effectively move the ball and produce points?”

Florida answered that one competently and comprehensively on Saturday. Full marks, at least for now, are awarded.

Florida’s margin for error is so, so small

I have ranted and raved often about the Florida fan’s proclivity for saying Florida “sucks” or is “bad” during the course of my six-plus falls spent covering this team at this ol’ blog. More than ever, I am convinced that those words are used to mean “is not good enough at football to win in my preferred salt-the-earth style.”

And on that point, I can do nothing but concede: This Florida team is not good enough to win games 45-7 or 38-0 or 63-5. That, I think, is obvious, based on the offense’s struggles to pop more than a few explosive plays per contest and the defense’s many deficiencies. (Did you know that robbing a defense of its leading returning tackler and two of its best tacklers makes a defense worse at tackling?)

Florida is, however, good enough to have won games this year — two of them, in fact.

In the first, it nearly blew two 10-point leads; in the second, it erased a 13-point advantage over the fourth quarter. And, frankly, I don’t care if there’s more than a sprinkle of truth to Kentucky players’ salty postgame comments about being the better team and deserving to win — because those honest feelings, or feelings that Florida got away with one last week, can be true at the same time as the fact that Florida did win this game, and that last one, proving that Florida was the better team at the game of football and deserved to win based on the football game as played.

A team deserves to win the game if it wins it. It doesn’t, if it doesn’t.

A team is the better team in a given game if it wins. If it doesn’t, it isn’t.

This logic would seem simple, and yet — especially in college football, a sport that increasingly seems to be a proxy for arguments between cousins — this logic flies out the window often, as fans contort themselves into finding ways to make themselves feel better for rooting for this team or that team. (I’ve found that decoupling how I feel about the world from the quality of the teams I root for is a decent move for preserving my sanity and self-esteem; your mileage may vary.)

What the ways Florida has earned its two wins — and the way it earned its only loss — have revealed to me, more than anything, is how much must go right for Florida to win.

Florida got a pick-six and hit a Hail Mary that required multiple defensive breakdowns to beat Tennessee — and the Vols also missed three field goals in the game and botched three goal-to-go possessions in the second half. That win would have been a loss if Tennessee had been slightly better, or slightly more lucky.

Florida scored touchdowns on two plays where confusion led to an alert Gators quarterback throwing to an alert Gators wide receiver against Kentucky, and had its two biggest gambles in the flow of the game — the Toney run and the Toney pass — hit, but still needed Kentucky to scuttle a goal-to-go possession with a bad snap and miss two field goals, the latter coming after a historically poorly-timed decision by an offensive lineman to tackle a defensive lineman, to prevail with a one-point win. That win, too, would have been a loss if Kentucky had been slightly better, or more lucky.

Tennessee and Kentucky weren’t better or more lucky, though, so Florida won.

And the margin for error for this team will remain small until or unless the defense gets far better beyond its front four in a hurry, or the offense develops a passing game to match its burgeoning running game, so Florida will, in all probability, need to get a little lucky to win games this season.

And Florida getting a little lucky stresses the thousands and thousands of Florida fans who desperately want to root in perpetuity for 1990s Florida or Late 2000s Florida — teams that didn’t need to get lucky.

And so this is going to be a frustrating fall for both those fans and the fans who are simply trying to enjoy Florida playing and/or winning football games, unless things change on the field.

And I’m okay with that.

But I’m also resigned to the fact that many of you won’t be.

Florida finds a catch-22 at QB

I don’t know how many of you read Catch-22 back in high school and/or those heady years before the Internet’s panopticon of human emotion left us so transfixed that book-reading was no longer a useful expenditure of hours, but the basic premise is that there are certain problems rendered insoluble by their own solutions.

Florida’s quarterback quandary is one of those at the moment.

Feleipe Franks was fine, I guess, on Saturday. He was more or less what he was for most of the first three quarters of last week’s game against Tennessee: A young quarterback whose inexperience limits him and diminishes the value of his astonishing physical capabilities. He made one utterly perfect throw, a deep fade to Cleveland that was rendered uncatchable by Cleveland not even trying to look back for it, and made a good read and throw on his touchdown — though he could have spared Cleveland from having to dance down the sideline to avoid a tackler with a better throw. He also tried to rocket throws into shoeboxes, and — as has become a habit for him — failed to look to secondary reads on plays that seemed well-defended.

So he got benched, and in came Luke Del Rio.

Del Rio, too, was fine, I guess. He made one truly great throw — the strike up the sideline to Powell, wiped out by an illegal touching penalty — and managed the hell out of the game, getting his own good read and throw for a stunning touchdown on another Kentucky miscue. (And, yeah, he threw a ghastly pick — but Franks tried to throw a couple of those.) He is an experienced quarterback whose physical limits — an arm that he has to be perfectly set to maximize, and a lack of the height that Franks and other tall quarterbacks get to use to better see throwing lanes — diminish the value of his experience.

And Del Rio playing may well give this team, as constructed, its best chance of winning games this season ... but winning games this season probably won’t usher Florida to where most fans want Florida to be — the plateau from which contenders for national titles must embark on their national title campaigns — and there’s reason to believe Franks might be able to get the Gators there far more swiftly than any other option, even if they lose while he learns this year.

Florida’s caught in a catch-22: Should it play Del Rio, and scrap for wins now but stunt its prodigy’s development, or play Franks, and let him take his bumps as it takes losses? There are arguments for both sides — and arguments for a compromise, and/or the inclusion of Malik Zaire in the mix, and/or the inclusion of Kadarius Toney in the mix — and we will hear them ad nauseam for the next few months.

The takeaway, to be clear, is that Florida opened itself up to quarterback questions on Saturday night after quelling them, albeit briefly, by sticking with Franks — and that those questions won’t go away now that the lid to Pandora’s box has been lifted.