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Florida 70, Samford 52: Gators get Pyrrhic victory in defense-optional affair

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Emory Jones might want to do some reading on Pyrrhus. Dan Mullen, too.

Syndication: Gainesville Sun Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun / USA TODAY NETWORK

On Saturday, Emory Jones set a new Florida Gators record for total offense in a game, throwing for 464 yards and six touchdowns and rushing for another 86 yards and a score. His 550 yards of total offense surpassed the 533 accrued by Tim Tebow in his brilliant final collegiate game.

Tebow earned those in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, a 51-24 stomping of Cincinnati, because he — and Florida — could do anything he wanted on the field that evening.

Jones earned his today, in a 70-52 win against Samford, because he — and Florida — needed him to get them to stave off an all-time embarrassment.

Arguably, the Gators’ moribund defense supplied that anyway. Florida’s 52 points allowed were its most ever to an FCS opponent, not far from the all-time record for an FBS team against an FCS opponent, and its second-most points ever allowed in Gainesville. The 42 points the Bulldogs scored before halftime — 35 on offense, and seven more via a kick return touchdown — were the most Florida has ever allowed in a half, with no qualifiers.

And it wasn’t like Liam Welch and the Samford offense got them all by fluke. Welch threw for 400 yards and three scores to mostly open receivers, some of whom admittedly made excellent catches, and the wily quarterback also scrambled for 65 yards and caught a pass for 16. While his third-quarter interception — on a tipped pass hauled in by Mordecai McDaniel — helped swing the game to Florida’s favor for good, he also had his team up 42-28 on the mighty Gators in The Swamp before halftime.

The fatal flaw for Samford was that Florida’s offense was an even bigger mismatch for its defense than its offense was for Florida’s defense. The Gators tallied 717 yards of total offense on 69 plays, eclipsing 10 yards per snap, and got 253 yards on the ground to go with Jones’s total through the air. Dameon Pierce had 78 rushing yards — on just seven carries — and two touchdowns on the ground, and added another 48 and a score through the air, while tight end Kemore Gamble had a career day with six catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns.

But Florida’s fatal flaw again appears to be a defense that was not magically fixed — and may genuinely have been made worse — by the firing of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham last Sunday.

That defense, now coordinated by linebackers coach Christian Robinson, looked uncoordinated for much of the first half, struggling to keep pace with a pedal-through-the-metal tempo from Samford and getting little to no pressure on Welch.

While the defense did eventually adjust and start to both tee off on Welch and stop the flood of screen and swing passes that powered the Bulldogs’ offense, Florida also gave up 10 straight points after scoring 28 straight after halftime, with Samford scoring on a jaw-dropping diving catch by Montell Washington (10 catches, 124 yards, that touchdown, 19 rushing yards, and 179 kick return yards including the 98-yard score), recovering an onside kick, and then settling for a field goal on its next drive thanks to a holding penalty that brought back a potential game-tying touchdown.

Florida has given up a stunning 175 points in its last four games — and Samford, unlike previous foes LSU, Georgia, and South Carolina, is neither an SEC outfit nor one that physically dominated the Gators by simply running counters and other power runs. What, precisely, Florida’s defense does well — other than allow yardage and points — is unclear.

And that’s perhaps the fatal flaw for Dan Mullen’s tenure, as he has now designed a second straight season for Florida in which an abysmal defense serves as an anchor dragging a good-to-great offense toward the briny depths.

Mullen has already executed half of his best option for making the defense better by firing Grantham, to his credit. But this game, and this execrable performance, made crystal clear that there is much more to fix — and it’s damn hard from where I sit to see Mullen being the candidate best suited to succeed in doing the necessary fixing.