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Florida vs. Oklahoma, Takeaways: Pictures at a bloody exhibition

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Florida’s final game of the 2020 season was unsightly. But that’s okay.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Florida vs Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Trask, captain until the end

Kyle Trask went out on his shield against Alabama.

He went down with the ship against Oklahoma.

Trask’s three first-quarter interceptions — two on awful balls that could have been the result of miscommunications, one a tipped pick that he could have relied on Kyle Pitts or Kadarius Toney to haul in despite the throw’s mediocre quality — were most of why Wednesday night’s performance was the nadir of his Florida career.

Yet he completed 16 of his 25 other throws for 158 yards and recorded zero yards over two ill-fated keepers near the goal line and a sack while dutifully shuffling in and out of the game to permit both Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson to get burn.

Trask’s night was a bad performance in the literal sense, duh; it was also Trask trying and failing to make chicken salad out of the jerk turkey that Florida had in the fridge after its spate of offensive opt-outs and the untimely COVID-19 knockout of Jacob Copeland.

He’s always looked best when he throws in rhythm and Florida clicks off a drive — like, say, the one Oklahoma put together on its first possession — and he didn’t have the targets and mostly wouldn’t get the extended snaps necessary to find anything resembling rhythm. (Of his three picks, only the second — again, the tipped one — came with Trask alone making an extended drive: His first one came on the Gators’ second offensive snap, and his third on a drive that had enough Jones cameos that Trask was taking a third straight snap for the first time on the 10th and final snap of the drive.)

Was a game plan that mixed in Jones liberally before entrusting him entirely fair to Trask? Not particularly — but neither were Florida’s opt-outs, nor Florida’s defense leaving him with a 7-0 deficit immediately. And Trask bears responsibility for the game getting out of hand based on those picks: A touchdown to answer at any point in Oklahoma’s 17-0 run might have changed Dan Mullen’s calculus.

But to his credit, Mullen admitted the unfairness of it all while praising Trask in postgame comments, and Trask — the consummate teammate and leader that Florida fans have been waiting for at the quarterback position for years said all the right things out loud, no matter how much ending a career spent biding his time without teammates who didn’t take one last ride with him must have burned him internally.

Trask doesn’t play like Brett Favre or Don Meredith; he doesn’t play remotely like the last few quarterbacks from Texas to set college football on fire, either. But in his last meaningful game for Florida, against Alabama, he emptied the chamber. And in his last game as a Gator — and it so very much should be, as any decision he and his family come to that isn’t departing for the NFL would border on negligence — he went out in the other of the two ways a Texas gunslinger of yesteryear could go out: Stoically facing the lethal fire.

Remember him for that, for how he handled everything but the team he wasn’t equipped to defeat, and you’re going to remember him properly.

An unsightly scrimmage

If we conclude that Florida didn’t really go full bore at winning this game after falling behind 17-0 — and, if not from that point, certainly after kicking a field goal in the red zone down 17-0 — then what we have left is Florida scrimmaging while Oklahoma played a real game at full intensity, and the sort of disparity on the scoreboard and staggering numbers in the box score that you might expect from those facts.

Oklahoma rolled up 55 points, the second-most scored on Florida since World War II, and really rampaged on the ground, rolling up 435 rushing yards on 40 carries. The Sooners had six drives of 60 or more yards and two that ended in a punt; their 684 yards of total offense could pretty easily have been well over 700.

About the only thing the Sooners did wrong on offense was sputter in the second quarter, coughing up two fumbles around their first punt. That allowed Florida to (momentarily) survive Trask throwing a pick in the red zone for the first time all season and stage a 13-0 run that made the game look superficially competitive. But Oklahoma responded with two touchdown drives that bookended an Evan McPherson miss from an ambitious 58 yards away and put the game away again by halftime.

But Florida’s offense, despite scoring just 20 points and being outpaced by the crimson Ferrari it shared JerryWorld with, wasn’t actually bad at moving the ball, just scoring points. The Gators had 521 yards of total offense in their own right, with six players recording runs of 13 or more yards and eight recording catches of 13 or more yards.

The run game was arguably even impressive: Jones and Dameon Pierce had 60 yards on the ground, Nay’Quan Wright and Anthony Richardson averaged more than 10 yards a carry, Lorenzo Lingard finally saw the field for Florida, and had a 13-yarder of his own. And this came against an Oklahoma team that remains ranked in the top 10 nationally in rush defense; Florida’s 250 rushing yards were over 100 more than any other foe put up against the Sooners.

The offense’s struggles were mostly with efficiency: Trask and Jones were relatively inaccurate, but plagued by what felt like 10 or more drops, and Florida got a puny six points out of five drives that reached the Oklahoma 32, 10, 3, 14, and 3. Going four-for-13 on third down and just one-for-two on fourth down isn’t great, either.

If Florida had been able to deploy the sure-handed Kyle Pitts and the electric Kadarius Toney, its two mismatch generators, it would probably have produced more than 20 points.

Instead, Rick Wells led the Gators in catches.

And with all due respect to Wells: I think every Florida fan knows how bad a sign him leading any group of Gators in catches for any game actually is.

Defense remains indefensible

If anything seems like a fair assessment to make in the wake of the carnage in this Cotton Bowl, it’s this: Florida’s defense did not magically improve with the rotation of new players, showed all of its familiar flaws, and once more left Dan Mullen with a choice that seemingly has a hard and correct answer or an easy and wrong one.

Todd Grantham’s scheme, such as I understand it, relies a lot on alignment and pressure — on being sound early on and then taking away good throws and forcing bad ones via blitzes. And for all its much-maligned futility this year, this Florida defense did actually create a lot of pressure up front, often flushing quarterbacks and generating admirable sack and tackle for loss totals.

That didn’t happen against Oklahoma — and all the other stuff did. Florida was routinely gouged on runs to the edge on which linebackers and safeties got washed out or missed tackles, left a fair few long balls open via poor safety play, got burned underneath by slot corners and linebackers getting lost in space, and just didn’t make big plays apart from its forced fumbles.

This was another total system failure at the end of a year with a lot of partial or total meltdowns, and the blame for it has fallen squarely on Grantham, who has not been in position to miss any tackles or give up any slants. That’s at once obviously fair — Grantham has also made millions at Florida, while his players have earned tens of thousands largely in room, board, and tuition — and yet feels incorrect to me.

While I’m never going to be particularly harsh on college athletes who are doing the best they can to perform as professionals while constrained by the rules of amateurism, coaches don’t block, tackle, or throw passes. It’s really hard to look at a player like Donovan Stiner still struggling with the rudiments of safety play in his final game and think that coaches haven’t exhausted their efforts to teach in some cases; it’s equally hard to see young players struggling to grasp a complex system and not grant them and coaches the benefit of the doubt that it takes time to develop as a football player.

And while everyone’s sick and tired of hearing about the unprecedented pandemic that has utterly upended not just college football but American society, it’s completely fair to note that Florida (and the rest of college football!) basically didn’t have spring practice, had an abbreviated offseason conditioning program, couldn’t fine-tune its fall practice schedule to roll into games, and had its season repeatedly interrupted by an illness that may well have hampered players who suffered from it. Most of us, I’d wager, had less physically demanding jobs with fewer environmental risks than college football players did over these last nine months, and those blue-collar workers who did do physically demanding manual labor to survive were not on TV every Saturday this fall, performing for an audience.

We may be sick and tired of hearing about COVID-19; the people who make college football are sick and tired of it, or because they’ve had it.

And that, there, is the pretense for keeping Todd Grantham that I might understand even if I don’t accept it. This could have been a perfect storm for poor defense in college football — limited prep time favoring offenses considerably in what was already an offense-friendly climate — that also specifically exacerbated the weaknesses of young players trying to make Grantham’s scheme work. If those players and better ones get an entire offseason with some semblance of normalcy to learn and practice together, it does stand to reason that the Florida defense could improve — maybe significantly, especially given where it sits — in a year.

But betting on this year being a fluke just doesn’t seem like good process to me, and looking to the program that has come the closest to perfecting process in college football — the one that beat Florida at nearly full strength in Atlanta — for solutions seems instructive.

When Alabama has run up against roadblocks and obstacles in Nick Saban’s relentless chase of championships, it has removed them: It synthesized the the Saban-favored style of single-back offense with modern spread concepts and has reaped the rewards of becoming a wide receiver mill; it shoved Lane Kiffin, too cute by half, out the door, and replaced him with quarterback developers and more reliably simpatico play-callers.

Saban, who hasn’t missed a College Football Playoff and runs the only SEC program that hasn’t lost a game to a Mullen-coached squad, is certainly more qualified to be stubborn and sentimental than Mullen is, yet he has yielded to common sense when necessary, being as capable of sticking a thumb in the air to read the win as he is ruling with iron fist.

Mullen needs to prove he can learn the same lessons Saban’s had to, and apply them in the same ways. Firing Grantham and forging a new path for a defense that needs to be better to significantly aid Florida’s Playoff pushes would seem to be the way to do that.

When Florida lost to Alabama two weeks ago, it was by six points, so Grantham got to echo Mullen by quipping that Florida was only behind the Tide by that much a year after Mullen made a similarly snide retort to a question on the distance between Florida and Georgia — something that he was vindicated for saying by Florida’s offensive explosion against the Dawgs this year.

Mullen has to realize that when the six points between Florida and Alabama are the distance from 46 to 52, the best way of closing the gap is by endeavoring to shrink the 52, not expand the 46.

The glimmers of hope

The previous 2,000 words of this post are mostly a bummer even though I’m not personally bummed by this result — rather, they reflect what I think we mostly knew going in. So let’s leaven the mood with a quick rundown of the bright sides of last night:

  • Jones remains very good at wiggling through holes for yardage as a runner. If he ends up with 200-plus carries in 2020, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t top 1,000 rushing yards.
  • Anthony Richardson has even more of the tools necessary to be an excellent Dan Mullen quarterback than Jones does. And he looks great on the run in the open field.
  • Florida’s running backs continued to look better than average when their offensive line creates room — and there are better backs on the way and a line that might be more inclined to run blocking next year.
  • Florida’s wide receivers have a whole offseason to practice catching!
  • While Spencer Rattler was probably Florida’s biggest concern coming in, he was rendered good rather than devastating by Florida’s defense getting enough pressure to chase him out of pockets. For all of Oklahoma’s rep as a wide-open offense, the best Sooners pass plays were catch-and-run sorts more than bombs.
  • Florida’s younger linebackers got a bit of burn. It wasn’t enough, but it’s something.
  • Florida’s corners seemed genuinely good against the deep ball: Jaydon Hill and Jahari Rogers, especially, acquitted themselves nicely on some tough tracking jobs.
  • This was probably the last time Stiner appears over No. 13 on a jersey worn by a Florida football player in a real game!
  • We learned that Justin Shorter should not return kicks!
  • Evan McPherson has surely internalized the frustration of missing kicks in three of his last four games and will likely return to Florida for a senior season as an even better version of himself.
  • When Florida last got smithereened by a school from the old Big Eight in a prominent bowl, it won the national championship a year later.

We can hope, anyway.