Last week, in this feature, I wrote about the Florida Gators having the makings of an offensive identity, a small margin of error, and questions at quarterback.
I’d say I went 3-for-3 on those gleanings bearing out for at least a week — if I give myself credit for Luke Del Rio inviting questions on Saturday until which point he was forced from the game by injury, anyway.
So here’s what I learned from this Saturday’s game.
Florida can lean on its running game
You will remember that Florida salted this game away by running it late, by giving the ball to Malik Davis on fourth down and watching him wriggle away from defenders for a 39-yard touchdown run. I will, too.
But I’ll also remember that Florida started the drive in question with a five-yard loss. And kept running it. And had a long run called back for holding. And ran it. And then got that Davis touchdown.
No Vandy player could possibly have thought that Florida was throwing it on that drive, and yet Florida ran it, and ran through Vandy, in the sort of show of dominance that is so brutally beautiful when done correctly that it makes me wonder why anyone bothers with the forward pass.
Florida did throw it a bit on the day, with Del Rio and Feleipe Franks each doing good-to-very good things through the air. Florida has the tools to cobble together an effective and occasionally explosive passing game — even if it never does get Antonio Callaway back in uniform, even if Tyrie Cleveland’s injuries hamper him or rule him out for future games. Florida isn’t going to run the ball every time, because that isn’t the modus operandi of either Jim McElwain or Doug Nussmeier, graduates of the Nick Saban masters program of balanced offense — and those guys, former quarterbacks both, have a little too much gunslinger in them to not take a few shots.
But the proof is in the eating of the pudding — and the Gators have been eating on the ground this season since failing to do anything of the sort against Michigan. And I don’t think McElwain and Nussmeier are blind to that fact.
Florida’s defense says the quiet part loud
Florida’s defense makes plays — for the other offense, too.
The boom-or-bust Gators let Kyle Shurmur carve them up when he had time on this Saturday, leaving enough pass-catchers open enough often enough for Shurmur to throw for 264 yards and three touchdowns. Those touchdown passes were, in order, the product of a great throw and a better catch; a terrible blown coverage; and a theoretically not tired defense still giving in at the end of a long drive. The passes that hit on the day were generally of the explosive variety: Six Commodores had catches of 10 or more yards, and five had receptions of 20 or more yards. And with three Vandy runners getting runs of 10 or more yards — two of them on their only carries of the day — the pattern was clear: Either Vandy got a lot, or it got next to nothing.
Florida can survive with that, especially if the Gators can turn some of those wins on defense into forced fumbles or interceptions. They didn’t, this Saturday, but the 22 incompletions that Shurmur threw included at least a few that could have been plucked by the guys in orange. And Florida has too many good pass-rushers and big hitters on defense to not pry some fumbles loose eventually.
But Florida’s going to give up big plays. This is not a defense that keeps everything in front of it, or one that plays technically sound football for 50 snaps, or one that has answers for every question offenses ask.
And that’s okay — it has been enough to win three games, after all — so long as Florida compensates for that flammability.
Florida doesn’t panic
Long-time Florida fans may recall the 2012 season — it was so long ago, I know — and the three-letter mantra that Florida liked to pretend stood only for “Florida Never Breaks.” That season was one in which a resilient Florida team responded to challenges time and again, and stacked up wins as a result.
This year feels a little like that one — with a dollop more luck on the field, and much more adversity off of it so far — to me, with a twist: This Florida team doesn’t just not break, it barely even sweats.
Florida got well and truly wrecked by Michigan in Dallas — and, with the exception of trying out Malik Zaire instead of letting Franks stay the course, remained calm for much of that game, and focused on the task of winning it until triple zeroes mercifully appeared. Against Tennessee, Florida blew a 10-point lead twice, and seemingly aimed for overtime — and yet it executed a Hail Mary so fluid and perfect that we spent days arguing about whether it was actually a Hail Mary. All Florida did at Kentucky was come back from a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter with the backup quarterback serving as calming influence.
And all the Gators did on Saturday was weather a first half that seemed ready to ignite a shootout and control the game from halftime onward.
The uncanny calm I have sensed about Florida this fall, as it remains on the road its coaches have paved, suggests confidence, discipline, and trust, qualities instilled by time and pressure much like heat and pressure forge diamonds. And it may just be that McElwain’s talk of “making the uncomfortable comfortable” — a rallying cry echoed by his players — has been backed up by Florida actually doing that in practice.
The heat and pressure ramp up over the next two months of this season. It will be up to Florida to determine whether that busts pipes or makes diamonds. But so far, I’m cautiously optimistic about the prospect that it’s the latter.