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Florida vs. Kentucky, Sunday Morning Post: Gators show resilience, and will need more

Florida did well to dig deep after digging a hole against Kentucky. The Gators will need to be even better without Feleipe Franks.

Florida v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Florida Gators could have lost their Week 3 matchup with Kentucky in so many ways. They were blown off the ball for the better part of three quarters, then lost their starting quarterback right as the odds looked their longest.

Instead of folding, though, the Gators played their cards nearly perfectly in a fantastic fourth quarter, and ended up not just topping the Wildcats but making a run at covering in a 29-21 win far closer than the score suggested.

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

Florida dug a hole — and then dug deep

Strip away the names: One team trailed by 11 and was without its starting quarterback entering the fourth quarter last night, then ran off 19 unanswered points to shock a conference foe — on the road.

If it weren’t Florida that did that to Kentucky — if it were just a team that won 10 games the previous year against a team that won 10 games the previous year — it would be hard not to call this one of the most impressive wins of the young year.

After all, it was for the third straight year that Florida didn’t really dominate a game against Kentucky in the run of play, with the Wildcats yet again controlling the line of scrimmage. That late Josh Hammond touchdown run gave Florida more yards per carry on the night, but that’s an illusive stat, and Kentucky quarterback Sawyer Smith didn’t need to be especially elusive to get away from a Florida pass rush that only intermittently affected the game and certainly didn’t help much on third down.

Until its missed field goal, Kentucky dominated on special teams, too — hey there, Max Duffy — and Florida’s missed field goal was arguably easier both in terms of placement and game state.

Yet Florida won.

This wasn’t as cheap a win as the one Florida scored two years ago, either, as Kentucky’s biggest blunders were not nearly as big as forgetting to line men up over Florida receivers on two touchdown passes. Kyle Trask had to lead two significant touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, and Florida’s defense had to hold after bending all night, and Dan Mullen had to call the perfect play to get Hammond that last score.

If this rivalry were viewed as something other than hammer-and-nail, and if Kentucky were properly seen as an SEC program on the rise instead of, uh, Kentucky, this win would be less escape for Florida and more impressive passed road test. The slew of ESPN pundits who picked Kentucky to win suggests that there was some national respect for the Wildcats before the game, too.

But hey, maybe Florida playing poorly for three quarters and still managing to beat that team on the road only means Florida is sloppy, or something. I dunno.

Florida’s ceiling is different without Feleipe Franks

For as much criticism as Mullen received for his play-calling last night, you might have thought that Florida failed to move the ball at all. Obviously, that’s not true — and Florida’s rally with Trask at the helm was a pretty strong showing for Mullen’s ability to adapt.

Florida threw the ball far more than it ran (15 passes, five runs) on its first three drives with Trask in ... but called an option play and a quarterback draw to score its two touchdowns prior to the Hammond scamper. And with Kentucky sitting in zone coverages that gave Trask and Florida’s wideouts plenty of ground underneath, Florida simply took what was given, getting help from some timely penalties on one drive, to take the lead.

But you are fooling yourself if you think what Trask did on this night is substantially better than what Franks can do at his peak.

We saw Trask throw some accurate passes, but we also saw some floaters, and some of the same locking on to receivers that Franks has done to derision for years. We did not see any of the gorgeous deep balls that Franks has uncorked from time to time — including tonight, on a strike that was forgotten swiftly because of a strip-sack that wasn’t primarily Franks’s fault on the very next play — from Trask, though there’s still a chance that we will. And what we saw from Trask the runner, even given the brilliance of that option pitch, does not mark him as Franks’s superior on the hoof.

At best, if you’re trying to argue that Trask was better last night that Franks has ever been, you’re using a small sample size of him making good throws to open receivers who subsequently made plays — recall Kyle Pitts’s superb catch-and-run, for example — and not making any bad mistakes, though he could’ve thrown a pick-two on a two-point conversion.

And Mullen showing his hand postgame by saying that both Trask and Emory Jones will play going forward but that Trask played down the stretch on this night because effectively attacking Kentucky required a drop-back passer is a reminder that Trask is seen as limited by this coaching staff — and probably fairly so. Jones was considered the best athlete Florida has at QB even before Franks went down, and nothing has changed that assessment; if he can progress as a passer even just to parity with Trask, then it’s hard to argue that Trask, who simply won’t be progressing as an athlete in the same way, should be getting snaps ahead of a younger player with a higher ceiling.

And, of course, neither Trask nor Jones playing significant snaps (except in Jones’s specialized packages) while Franks was healthy is a pretty good indicator of who Florida’s coaches felt gave them the best chance to win.

That guy won’t be around for the rest of the year, and may — whether we want to consider this or not — have played his final snap in orange and blue. Now, Florida’s going to have to scramble to put together new plans on the fly, and the expectations for a season that had some bullish hopes pinned to it probably ought to be adjusted.

Or we can expect Trask and Jones to lead Florida to the promised land. That totally worked with Tyler Murphy and Austin Appleby, didn’t it?

Resilience is nice to rely on

In my recap, I compared this game to the 2017 Florida-Kentucky game, in which Florida overcame a large late deficit to win in stunning fashion.

In his postgame presser, Mullen compared it to the 2018 Florida-Kentucky game — which, like this one, featured Florida missing a field goal in the second half, scoring to make it 21-16, and failing on a two-point conversion.

The difference between this year’s game and that one is clear: Florida hewed more tightly to the 2017 script after that first touchdown, scoring two more and getting more stops. But why the Gators were able to do that is up for debate.

For my part, I suspect that Florida’s 2018 season post-Kentucky has a lot to do with Florida’s resilience in 2019. Those Gators came back from even bigger deficits against Vanderbilt and South Carolina than this group faced last night, and also won a slugfest at Mississippi State that required a steely spine to survive. Toughness is unquantifiable, and hard to describe when it comes to football without sounding like you’re doing a bad Vince Lombardi impression, but for me, it looks a lot like resilience when fortune and fate aren’t going your way, and belief when belief seems almost illogical.

I don’t think anyone can say this Florida team didn’t believe it was in last night’s game even when circumstances were at their most dire, and I certainly don’t think anyone will be faulting the Gators’ fight today.

Sure, this team has things to clean up, position groups to review, plays to scrap, approaches to overhaul. It’s not good enough to be ranked in the top 10 or 15 or 20 without earning some side-eyes.

But would you rather have the problems this team has and a 3-0 record or the problems any of dozens of other non-unbeatens have to go with their blemished marks? Would you rather these Gators have wilted in a loss than willed themselves to victory?

Thought so.

Again: Florida is a pass-first team

Last week in this space:

The reason Florida sputtered early? Trying too hard to establish the run, I think.

Florida’s first run went for 12 yards. The next five designed runs — which were, to be fair, arrayed around a Franks scramble for 22 yards — gained three, four, zero, zero, zero, and one yards.

After that point, Florida would sub in Dameon Pierce and get a little more creative with its running game while also opening up its passing game enough to unclog the box. But the Gators really, really did not have a lot of success running the ball early on ... and yet Franks still completed his first 15 passes and had no issue finding open receivers.

Franks also wasn’t Florida’s only effective QB on the night — Emory Jones and Kyle Trask were fine in their cameos, though Jones is still a significantly better runner than thrower. And Franks didn’t just have success throwing to one or two players: Nine Gators had multiple catches, and six had 20 or more receiving yards.

As it turns out, this Florida team that was thought to have an established quarterback and an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its receiving corps actually has those things, and also has a decent-to-good offensive line when it comes to pass blocking. (Florida has allowed two sacks in two games, and it’s not like Franks has been under a lot of duress.)

While that offensive line is figuring out how to run block, it makes sense for Florida to be a pass-first team when it needs to be. And Mullen is certainly smart enough to recognize that — even if he might also sense that the running game needs to be worked on before the meat of Florida’s schedule arrives.

So when this team needs to move the ball, expect it to happen mostly through the air.

This week, Florida threw for 300 yards on exactly 30 pass attempts and ran for 62 yards on its first 26 rushes.

I rest my case.