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Florida vs. South Carolina, Tuesday Afternoon Post: The Gators shine in the rain

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Florida is back to being able to survive and advance. The next step comes in the next game.

Florida v South Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

On a rainy day on the road, the Florida Gators came back from multiple deficits — including one in the fourth quarter — to win a divisional game.

And that it wasn’t a big deal is kind of a big deal.

Here are our Sunday morning Tuesday afternoon takeaways from this game, which come without having given it or its highlights a second viewing.

Florida’s moved up from where it was for much of the decade

Dan Mullen is 17-4 as Florida’s head coach. This alone is not that much of a thrill: Jim McElwain was 16-5 through 21 games, Will Muschamp was 14-7 (but would get to 18-7 through 25), and even Ron Zook was a decent-ish 13-8. But it bears noting that Urban Meyer (17-4) and Steve Spurrier (18-3) are the only coaches to pilot the Gators as well or better through 21 games as Mullen has — just as it bears noting that Florida appears to have made a shift from “team that struggles to win games it should” to “team that struggles but wins games it should.”

We’ll get to the officiating shortly, but there’s only a little dispute that the right side won on Saturday in Columbia based on box score and stats. Florida was better on a per-play basis than South Carolina, and even on turnovers; the Gators also dominated field position late, and scored efficiently thanks to that. (Neither Connelly nor SP+ saw what my eyes did regarding South Carolina’s fourth-quarter success rate, namely that it was mostly compiled against a Florida defense that ceded plays because of relaxed coverage.)

And there really wasn’t the same anxiety for me about this game and its result — even though this was a weird weather game and a weirder ref game, even though South Carolina had just beaten Georgia at Georgia.

I think that’s because I just trust Mullen and this program as currently constructed to generally beat the teams it should beat, and not do the self-destruction or offensive brownout acts that we’ve seen so often this decade. We’re now five games into the Kyle Trask as starter era: Florida’s scored at least 24 points in all five games, and probably would have had more against Auburn if not for some painful turnovers. 21 games into the Mullen era, Florida has been held to under 20 points just four times — and though it is 1-3 in those games, it hasn’t had one of those games in its last 10 contests.

Every single year of the 2010s prior to 2018 had featured Florida being held under 20 points at least four times. And now Florida would have to be held under that mark three times in its final four games to match its worst mark of the decade — which came last year.

Increasingly, it feels to me like there are always points somewhere in the Mullen offense, even if we haven’t seen them materialize on the board until they do. 21 more fourth-quarter points against South Carolina brought Florida’s final frame total to 85 on the year — its most in any quarter, and a full 30 points clear of the 55 the Gators have given up in the second half this season.

So, no, I wasn’t surprised when Florida persevered and came back in this game. It wasn’t predestined — nothing is — but it sure seemed probable to me.

Bad referees ruin games, and college football needs to do more to improve officiating — ASAP

Off the top of any full-game viewer’s head, there were at least four big missed calls in Florida-South Carolina:

  • Florida tight end Kyle Pitts got yanked to the ground by South Carolina’s Israel Mukuamu on an incompletion near midfield on Florida’s third drive
  • Tyrie Cleveland pretty clearly grabbed Mukuamu’s jersey for long stretches of his block on Dameon Pierce’s touchdown run
  • Jean Delance false-started on that same touchdown run
  • Josh Hammond did not sell a route well enough to escape what should have been an offensive pass interference call late in the game

Those were all blown, I think fans of both sides can agree, and they did favor Florida significantly: Bringing back a 75-yard touchdown run would have hurt a lot, even if I think Florida was probably going to score six points on the drive where it got a touchdown on first and goal.

But this game featured a lot of other borderline calls and no-calls that left both sides enraged. Offensive holding — which looked pretty apparent on both sides at a few points — was not called in the game at all. Carolina’s Jaycee Horn would be flagged for multiple pass interference calls that don’t always get called late in the game. Florida’s Luke Ancrum was called for offsides twice in one set of downs. Mullen took a timeout in the first half essentially to chew out the refs. Muschamp would take them to task late and in his post-game comments.

Florida left the game with a win and having not been disadvantaged by the refereeing, but I’d bet that neither side’s coaching staff felt satisfied with the refs on the way out of the stadium, and any referee who defines success as leaving both sides angry has the wrong idea about what officials in sports should do.

And this is also one game of increasingly many in which refs have been found lacking by the viewing public. Florida fans have felt as jobbed as South Carolina fans did on Saturday, and worse; everything that goes around will probably come around.

But nothing should go around. The referees in charge of making calls should have a success rate better than they do — if it’s 80 percent now, it should be 90 percent; if 90 percent, it should be higher — because of just how integral to the entire franchise of sports the ideal of fairness is. If refs aren’t striving to be flawless in their work, and occasionally accomplishing that, conditions should be changed to better facilitate it.

I don’t know what it will cost. I don’t know what it will take. I have ideas, but only so many, and a voice, but only so loud. Maybe we’re just doomed to muddle through, with officiating getting worse and worse.

But I really, really hope that’s not the case.

Kyle Trask was unimpressive — until he wasn’t

This week’s stupid Twitter twaddle (of the first half) was over me taking exception to ESPN announcing calling what Trask did in the first half “struggling” while making no similar description of Ryan Hilinski. You could certainly argue that Trask, who appeared uncomfortable throwing the ball in the rain and wasn’t sharp early on, struggled, but singling him out felt wrong to me.

And when Trask threw a duck for a pick early in the second half, it was entirely fair to say he was struggling without any qualifiers or comparisons.

But after that duck, Trask was good to very good for the rest of the game. He calmed down after seeming to press early, and made good decisions while extending plays. The sequence in the early fourth quarter that featured Trask scrambling for a long time on fourth down before finding Pitts for a conversion and then him adjusting to throw a perfect pass to where Freddie Swain needed to be on the next play was superb, and his next two touchdown throws were also quite good.

Part of the reason I pushed back against the idea of Trask struggling in the rain was that I was not expecting him to drive the ball through the rain and wind effectively. Trask’s got a good arm and can rev it up on occasion, but his strengths as a thrower in accuracy, anticipation, and placement, not pure arm strength, and I was prepared for him to need to adjust to the elements.

He did need that time — but he also adjusted and adapted, something that speaks to his poise and understanding of football. And to their credit, Florida’s coaches also allowed him the slack and time to do that adjusting, rather than panicking and inserting Emory Jones in a way that could have thrown Florida even more into arrhythmia than the Gators seemed to be at times in the early going.

If we assume that Trask’s floor is somewhere above mediocre, his median is squarely in shouting distance of good, and his ceiling is very good — maybe even burgeoning on great — I think we won’t be particularly surprised by any Trask performance going forward.

And I think Florida can win out with that range of outcomes.

Florida’s defense needs to step up

That said: Florida’s defense has allowed 69 not-nice points in its last two games, misses Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga something fierce, and is either going to have to get better in a hurry or get picked up by the Gators offense to win in Jacksonville.

South Carolina ran for 217 yards in this game one week after LSU ran for 218, and the Gamecocks weren’t setting up the run for success with the pass like LSU was. Losing Rico Dowdle early hardly slowed the ‘Cocks, who engineered holes for Tavien Feaster all day long. And with respect to Dowdle, Feaster, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire, none is on the level of Georgia’s D’Andre Swift.

Florida’s patched-together pass rush did do a better job of pressuring Hilinski than it did Joe Burrow, but Hilinski was nearly immoblie and Todd Grantham needed to deploy several cat blitzes to do that much, as the front four created precious little penetration. CJ Henderson also got burned deep on a great throw and catch on a flea-flicker early on that should serve as a reminder that even Florida’s excellent corner play can still be susceptible to big plays.

If Greenard and Zuniga are back and near full strength for Georgia, it’s a whole new world for the Gators; even one of the two returning could help substantially.

If they’re not back or not healthy, though, it could be a long day for Florida’s defense.