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Florida vs. FAU, Second Read: 25 thoughts from rewatching the Gators’ season opener

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Florida’s first game was Anthony Richardson’s star turn. But on a second viewing, Emory Jones making suspect decisions was equally notable.

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Having finally had a chance to sit and watch Florida’s first two games for a second time and while taking notes, I wanted to share those notes. I’m going to try to get these posts out on Mondays or Tuesdays going forward.

You can skip the first minute or so of this if you need to get to the game itself ASAP — but don’t let the message the estimable uploader of the video wants to send be lost on you.

1. Emory Jones’s first drive featured a bunch of different levels of accuracy: A heater behind Trent Whittemore, a tall throw on an in that Jacob Copeland had to really get up for, an overthrow on a sideline streak, a zinger to Rick Wells, and a couple of really nice throws on screens.

2. Ja’Markis Weston caught two passes on that drive; on the first, he could’ve had a big play if he’d spun around to cut to the sideline, where he had blockers, and on the second, he might have scored if he’d turned over his right shoulder and cut inside instead of turning over his left shoulder. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I guess.

3. Trent Whittemore mauls a defensive back to the ground on the first touchdown run of the game. That’ll get you snaps even if you aren’t catching the ball often.

4. Avery Helm’s first drive as a starter included soft coverage that allowed a catch, a bad angle that got him blocked out of a play in run support, and getting beaten on an overthrown ball. As non-disaster starts go, it wasn’t great.

5. FAU allocated several snaps to a WR-at-QB package that featured Javion Posey, who was very effective in the Owls’ last two games of 2020. His four carries on the night lost a combined five yards. That wasn’t great, either.

6. Two offensive drives in, Florida led 14-0 with just under two minutes to go in the first quarter, and while FAU had crossed midfield, it had only barely done so, subsequently stalling out and punting. That’s a good start against any team; it’s what came after Florida grasped the game that would end up bugging those that it bugged.

7. Jason Marshall very clearly committed pass interference on Florida’s second defensive drive. But the ball was uncatchable. Football would be a better game if every single defensive pass interference penalty — not holding or hands to the face penalties, but true DPI — required QBs to make genuinely catchable throws to receivers. And if umpires or side judges throw flags for DPI that they see, refs should pick up the majority of those flags if the ball was not reasonably catchable. Making offenses do more than rely on defensive miscues to move the ball would be nice.

8. I thought Florida did an average job against the run against FAU, but the tape says it was closer to poor, at least early. Gap control on defense was not good, and there were more than a few missed tackles, though they came largely at the line and between the hashes, making them less prominent than missed tackles on the perimeter — which happened, but not nearly as frequently.

9. Anthony Richardson’s first cameo in this game began with what appeared to be three straight read options; it’s possible they were designed handoffs, but it looks on tape like Richardson has the choice to pull the ball and keep it on all three, and it also looks like they’re all veer options, which can change the read slightly from a typical zone read. To my eye, he makes the right read on the first two by giving to Demarkcus Bowman — who tries to cut back to a gap he can’t quite get to because of a pulling lineman in his way on the first one and follows his blocker for a nice gain on the second one.

But the third play seems to me more like a run-pass option, and like one he should have kept or thrown, as Bowman goes left toward an edge that isn’t sealed and is eventually strung out for a short loss, while Richardson would’ve had a one-on-one with a defensive end or thrown to a receiver with blocking set up nicely had he pulled and thrown. I do not think Richardson getting these three plays as his first three snaps was an accident — duh — and I reckon that Florida was hoping to get the right read on all three.

Two out of three ain’t bad, but with only one of these plays being successful and Richardson’s explosiveness not yet evident, I think Dan Mullen would have much preferred a perfect three-for-three on the decisions.

10. The very next play is Richardson seemingly blowing a protection check that leaves a blitzer unblocked and definitely missing what would’ve been the hot read on the blitz, only for the QB to step forward in the pocket and completely juke said blitzer and then run for almost 20 yards.

More bad process, sure — but Richardson’s incredible athleticism made up for it. He also lowered his shoulder for what would’ve been a truck-like impact on the safety who tackles him, only for the safety to go low and still appear to get the worst of the collision ... followed by a this-was-just-what-I-do-and-nothing-special shoulder-shrug from Richardson that made clear that he knew what he did on the play.

11. I said this in real time, but Richardson’s helmet was clearly torn off by a defender after the play was blown dead on the third down of this drive, and no flag was thrown. The lack of flag was bad, but the rule that backs it up is dumber: No offensive player endangered by a defender’s actions but uninjured enough to continue playing should have to exit the game because of an interaction in which he was a victim.

This usually doesn’t matter much — it would for Florida on the delay of game and subsequent interception, but that’s rare — but it’s terrible officiating to miss a defender ripping off an offensive player’s helmet, and equally terrible process to punish the offense for defensive misdeeds.

(And, yes, there’s a ref who appears to be looking right at where the helmet removal happens. How this call was blown is beyond me.)

12. I genuinely don’t know where Jones even intended to throw the pass that gets picked off on that third down, though some of that is attributable to bad camera work on the main broadcast angle. It looks like he both misses the receiver he was potentially throwing to and fails to see the defender sitting underneath.

There’s little doubt in my mind that the sudden QB switch hurt here — the previous two plays were both Richardson runs, and had he not had his lid snatched, he would’ve been on the field for third and two, prime territory for another run — but Jones making that throw at all cost Florida at least three points.

13. The narrative of Jones through two games is that he hasn’t rebounded from mistakes all that well, and there are elements of truth to that. But while the drive after his pick began with him throwing a dirtball on a screen pass, he also made a perfect leading throw on a swing pass on his next attempt, and he atones for the low ball to Justin Shorter near the goal line with a nice wriggling run on second and goal. The fourth down failure also comes after third down gets blown up by a defender knifing through the line, which set up a play situation that was harder than it needed to be even if Jones turning it into a sneak made it impossible.

Jones wasn’t as consistently terrible as the narrative might lead you to believe, and his being off on a number of throws probably helped take the scrutiny off other offensive failures. His big problems are the big mistakes.

14. I have no idea how N’Kosi Perry survived DaQuan Newkirk running into him, much less escaped to make a throw. Newkirk appeared to have him squared up and looked like he was coming off his block rather than getting pushed out of it, but Perry turned just the right way to absorb the contact and stay on his feet, and nearly got a big play out of it. He wasn’t great on the night, but there were a few plays akin to that to remind the viewer why he was considered a Miami-caliber talent as a recruit.

15. The next series of downs features Perry throwing a ball to no one 25 yards beyond the closest player — a Gator — and getting flagged for an illegal forward pass that was probably just intentional grounding, then launching another uncatchable deep ball to the opposite sideline. So you get why he transferred to FAU, too.

16. Trey Dean made one of the best defensive plays of the night by crowding a receiver and not letting him come down in bounds on a third down pass that would’ve moved the sticks. It’s also the best play a Florida safety has made in pass coverage thus far this season, I think — which speaks partly to how little they’ve had to do. That, I hope, is a good sign.

17. Florida’s first offensive play of the second half was the first designed rollout for Jones. It should run more of these; he appears very comfortable throwing on the run when he is not pressured.

18. The implication from Mullen over the last two weeks was that Jones makes more sound plays within the offense than Richardson, which is probably true to an extent. But Jones misses reads, too: He had a chance to keep the ball and run behind Kemore Gamble, lead blocker with a head of steam, on a zone read on Florida’s first second-half drive, and handed it off despite the defensive end taking steps toward the mesh point, getting close enough that he makes first contact as Malik Davis crosses the line of scrimmage. (Davis carries that defender for almost 10 yards anyway.)

The very next play: Same look, same debatable decision, shorter gain — albeit one that gets a first down.

The next play after that is Jones throwing what could’ve been a pick-six — but what also could’ve been a huge gainer, had he simply put more touch on a wheel route to Davis.

Three plays later, Jones finally keeps on the same zone read look — and gets an explosive run with his legs for his trouble.

But on Pierce’s second touchdown run, Jones gives it on a more traditional zone read look without a pulling tight end with the end crashing hard, essentially choosing Pierce’s chances of getting around end over his own chances in a one-on-one with a linebacker (who also bites hard on the handoff).

Results were still good, or at least not bad, on most of these decisions. Process? It’s less clear to me that Jones was doing the right things.

19. The best juke move anyone on the field made on the night was one that an FAU receiver put on Tre’Vez Johnson on the Owls’ second possession of the second half. It gets him only a few yards, but it completely shook Johnson, who probably got some ribbing in film review for it.

20. A really good flying tackle attempt that shifted his momentum toward the sideline was all that prevented Xzavier Henderson from either reaching the red zone or scoring on his long punt return, I think. Who made the attempt? FAU’s Aussie punter. Crikey.

21. Remember Helm’s first drive? Well, the rest of his game was quieter, but he still ends up getting beaten downfield by a turn-and-run from a receiver in the second half. While the rest of Florida’s secondary in the vicinity on that play appears to be cheating up to address the threat of Perry running, Helm’s responsibility is probably the receiver he loses; fortunately, an uncatchable throw bails him out.

22. One of Perry’s best runs of the night comes two plays later, as an notably botched pass rush — two Gators stumble while trying get around linemen, with Brenton Cox doing so for a second straight play — lets him squirt out of the pocket right up the middle. So what: Two Gators spying him converge to take him down well short of the line to gain. That didn’t always happen a year ago, and doesn’t always happen against mobile QBs more generally.

23. The second Jones pick is a defensible decision — throwing into one-on-one coverage on a crossing route isn’t a cardinal sin — that becomes a bad play because the ball is terribly underthrown, allowing a defender trailing the receiver to capitalize by hauling in the pick. Had Jones led his intended receiver upfield, the play is probably either a long reception or an incompletion.

Pairing suboptimal thinking with terrible execution is probably not much better than the reverse, but the argument for the reverse is that doing just enough to have the chance to make a terrible throw or ill-advised juke is probably more likely to result in an atrocious mistake than a play that has no shot immediately.

24. FAU had a chance to cut Florida’s lead to 21-7 in the fourth quarter after a couple of explosive pass plays. It promptly tried to make something happen with Posey, who fumbled an exchange and ended the drive. On this night, Posey was poison.

25. Yeah, yeah, yeah: Either Richardson’s touchdown run to cap the Gators’ scoring was THE highlight of the night or it was the surreal hurdle he had to end a stupendous scramble on the game’s last big play. But the stiff-arm he threw at the end of the run to begin the drive right after that second FAU fumble was DEEPLY disrespectful, sending an FAU player tumbling several yards to fall on his ass as Richardson scooted out of bounds.