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Florida vs. Missouri, Takeaways: Do the Gators have a defense now?

Florida suddenly showing some spine was just one takeaway from Saturday’s primetime return.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Florida Gainesville Sun-USA TODAY Sports

Was that ... a defense?

Everyone who followed or watched the Gators this season has justifiably ridiculed the defensive performance at one point or another. Against Texas A&M, the defense was so bad that just two non-scoring drives from the offense cost Florida the game; against Ole Miss, Florida appeared unfamiliar with the idea of defending a deep ball. For almost all of those first three games, it looked and felt like the offense needed to be literally perfect if the Gators wanted to win at all this year.

But things looked completely different against Missouri.

It started at front, where the defensive line put on by far their best performance of the year. Brenton Cox, Tedarrell Slaton, and the others up front wreaked consistent havoc, making life a nightmare for Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak. The ability to consistently generate pressure and get a push up front plagued Todd Grantham’s defense in its first three games, but a small adjustment to streamlining pressures ultimately made an enormous difference against the Tigers.

Even better, the defense was generating pressure without relying on the blitz, limiting the holes on the back end. That front-four pressure also helped generate a crucial turnover that completely changed the game in the second quarter.

Despite missing three starters, the secondary played exponentially better against Mizzou, too. The return of Brad Stewart Jr. (who didn’t play against Ole Miss or South Carolina) has helped some, and Kaiir Elam has sneakily been playing well all season, but Missouri simply didn’t seem to have as many receivers running free in time for Bazelak to find them. Florida held Bazelak and Co. to just over 200 yards in the air, a sea change from their performances against Ole Miss (443 yards, three touchdowns) or Texas A&M (338 yards, three TDs).

It’s fair to say that Missouri may be the worst offense Florida has played this season, but even taking that into account, it was night and day for this unit. All three levels looked sharper than they have all season — and, especially given that Missouri’s offense didn’t get a touchdown in the second half, it was a heartening display.

There are many more daunting challenges ahead, including a very physical Georgia team, but the potential of this team is brighter than it’s been in weeks — and all it took was some semblance of a defense showing up all of a sudden. — Chris Adams

Kyle Trask: Best QB in the SEC?

For Kyle Trask, being out of sight meant being out of mind.

After two weeks spent sidelined by Florida’s COVID-19 troubles, the hype surrounding Trask had quieted to something near silence. Pro Football Focus’s weekly Heisman watch featured Alabama’s Mac Jones, BYU’s Zach Wilson, and even Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler — a QB with lesser stats and more losses — ahead of Trask, despite his torrid start to the season not changing at all while he sat.

Against Missouri, Trask re-introduced himself to the country as a force. He looked excellent all night, distributing the ball on time with several passes showcasing near-perfect accuracy. The Texas native finished with 345 passing yards and a fourth straight game with four or more passing touchdowns, and spreading the love probably produced a boost to his awards chances, with nine different receivers catching passes.

And Trask also showed his legs can provide pleasant surprises. At the start of the third quarter, a pair of Trask runs sparked a touchdown drive, including a big 15-yard gain on a fourth and 1. While he’s not exactly Tim Tebow with the ball in his hands, he showed he’s perfectly capable of picking up yards with his legs.

We all know that Trask is the best Florida quarterback in a decade, but he’s also showing he’s one of the elite players in the country — and that, so long as he stays in sight, he will be in serious consideration for hardware at season’s end. — Chris

Florida showed some killer instinct — or resilience

It was lost in the narrative shift from not being able to finish off Texas A&M despite an 11-point lead to not being able to prevent COVID-19 from infecting about a quarter of Florida’s team despite the best efforts of everyone involved, but Florida’s search for a “killer instinct” in its first few games was followed by its discovery in a fourth game.

Florida started this game with two field goals and had, at best, a tenuous grip on it. The pick-six that gave Missouri the lead would, in theory, have been the perfect momentum shift for the Tigers to take the game away from a mentally weak Gators outfit.

Not so much.

Florida treaded water and traded two quick and unsuccessful drives with the Tigers immediately after that interception. But then the Gators put together, in order: A two-minute touchdown drive, a forced turnover, a one-play touchdown drive, a forced three-and-out, an attempt to put more pressure on Missouri and more points on the board before halftime that was at least strategically sound even if it got Trask drilled, a touchdown drive out of halftime, a forced three-and-out, their first three-and-out since early in the second quarter, another three-and-out, and a 10-play, 50-yard, five-minute march to go up by four possessions and truly foreclose any chances of a Mizzou comeback.

Put another way: Missouri took the lead, then managed to get two first downs over its next six offensive drives; Florida went down, but its next six offensive drives yielded four touchdowns, even after its first two sputtered.

I’m still not entirely convinced that Florida’s a very good team, much less a great one. But I’ve seen more than enough bad football teams that flinch at adversity in my life to think that Florida would have handled what it was handed by Trask’s tipped pass a lot differently if it were truly bad. I think these Gators can, in fact, finish off their on-field prey. — Andy Hutchins

Kadarius Toney has arrived

What words can we use to describe Kadarius Toney’s Saturday night? The senior wide receiver has seemingly fully unlocked his potential as a Percy Harvin-esque human highlight reel. His touchdown on a screen pass from Trask in the second quarter was a masterclass in shake — and he had two others that showcased his extraordinary ability to avoid defenders.

With Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle out for the season, I would go as far as to say that Toney is the most dynamic player in the SEC — and he’s finally consistently showing up for the Gators. He’d shown flashes throughout the past few years but this year is different: He’s already scored seven scrimmage touchdowns, over twice as many as his first three seasons combined, and he’s at 30 touches in four games — a total higher than he recorded as a freshman or a senior, and one that’s already two-thirds of the way to his 46 touches (over 12 games) as a sophomore.

Toney is suddenly a threat to score anytime he touches the ball over and above being a defense’s worst nightmare in the open field — and Florida’s making sure he touches the ball far more often than he has in the past. A playmaker this explosive makes this Gator offense that much more lethal. — Chris

The rest of Florida’s arsenal is plenty potent, too

While Toney’s three touchdowns showed his explosiveness, his 83 yards of total offense were just his third-most on the year — and just a yard more than he had on his worst day. (Toney did have 18 punt return yards, but that only got him to 101 all-purpose yards — a figure tied for his fewest on the year.) Florida’s offense totaled 514 yards on the night, meaning that 429 came through the efforts of other players.

Kyle Pitts? He “only” had 81 receiving yards, and didn’t have a touchdown. But Jacob Copeland had 67 yards on just two catches. Dameon Pierce had 84 yards on 11 touches, his best one a 34-yard catch-and-run on which he very much earned about 25 of the yards on his own. Malik Davis had his own 30-yard catch-and-run early on; it might have gone for six if not for an unfortunate trip.

Trevon Grimes and Kemore Gamble each had 18-yard catches. Nay’Quan Wright and Iverson Clement added big runs to the expected one by Toney and the outliers from Trask. Anthony Richardson appeared to fill the Emory Jones role just fine, despite a fumble that Florida recovered, and Jones himself had a seven-yard carry, too.

Oh, and Justin Shorter caught a touchdown pass. And Xzavier Henderson and Trent Whittemore continue to be parts of the offensive game plan. And ... you get it, right?

Florida currently has two five-star running backs essentially sitting out — one due to NCAA rules, albeit — and a pair of 6’3” wideouts who have been talked up by Dan Mullen not seeing the field, and no one is complaining about the distribution of touches or the depth of talent for the Gators’ offense. That’s a testament to the potency and depth that Mullen and his trusted offensive lieutenants have assembled, and while Florida’s offense still has a glaring weakness on the right side of the line, all of its copious strengths seem to more than cover for that deficiency for now. — Andy

Dan Mullen is Florida’s man

This isn’t exactly a hot take, but I believe without a doubt that Dan Mullen is the perfect coach for this program. His passion for his team and for his players is almost unparalleled in college football. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a coach instigate a fight to protect one of his players. (To be fair: I don’t think Mullen actually did that. — Andy) You can have your own opinion on Mullen’s actions, including hyping up the crowd before heading to the locker room, but I personally loved it. I want my coach to stick up for his players and have passion like that.

This has been a very challenging time for Mullen — and he has failed to meet some of the challenges before him, and deservedly received a lot of criticism for that. The call to pack The Swamp followed by a huge COVID breakout put Mullen under a microscope; his comments on the NCAA clearing Election Day for players got lensed as such, as did his actions during the fight that unfolded last Saturday.

But what has all that really cost him? $25,000, and a little esteem in the eyes of those paying attention. I have to think that’s a small price to pay for what he got — benefits far better and longer-lasting than me thinking he is the perfect coach for this team. — Chris