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Florida 35, FAU 14: Gators ground Owls as Anthony Richardson electrifies

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Florida had the game in hand even with its QB1 drawing to busts. But what QB2 did will be the talk of the town.

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

Florida’s win over FAU on Saturday night — 35-14, in a game that never saw the Owls closer than 14 points after the third quarter or closer than 21 after Florida reached that mark after halftime — would’ve been the perfunctory early-season triumph over an overmatched team with plenty of struggles to fret about if not for the fourth quarter.

What Anthony Richardson did in that frame made this contest the sort of game that leaves fans wondering if they just saw a star being born.

Richardson ran for 160 yards while backing up a largely underwhelming Emory Jones, dispatching multiple defenders with stiff-arms, dashing 74 yards down the sideline for a thrilling late touchdown, and then punctuating his night with an exclamation point of a leap over a defender for a first down in the game’s waning seconds — one that Jones told the SEC Network’s Cole Cubelic his backup had called prior to the drive on the sideline.

And while Richardson threw for just 40 yards and completed just three of eight passes, he will assuredly be the talk of the town — and of Gator Nation — this week, as his first significant stint on the field, even in an understudy role, fully overshadowed what Jones was able to accomplish in his first start.

That’s not to say Jones didn’t have moments, as he did show flashes of his own while making his debut as a Florida starter after three years spent mostly waiting and watching behind Feleipe Franks and then Kyle Trask. But in those moments, he looked like the Jones that Florida fans have seen, a dynamic runner in his own right who was deployed well but sparingly over those last two campaigns. Jones accrued 74 yards on the ground against the Owls, including a couple of strong scrambles.

What Jones did as a passer, however, showed little evidence that he’s improved from the limited thrower who was largely protected in prior cameos, as his 17 completions on 27 attempts gained just 113 yards. His one touchdown — to sixth-year senior Rick Wells, getting the Jacksonville native his first score as a Gator — came on a screen pass, while two horrific interceptions cost Florida a chance to build on its 14-0 lead and gave an anemic Owls offense its best field position of the day.

Jones was consistently late to make throws and inaccurate on more than a few, and failed to record a completion of more than 18 yards.

Richardson, on the other hand, made the best throw of the night on a deep ball to a wide open Ja’Markis Weston — and it’s probably that one, and not his multiple overthrows on deep balls afterward, that will be brought up most frequently in the many arguments for him to start that are sure to follow this game.

Those debates will also take all of the oxygen away from what were surprising and impressive nights from running back Malik Davis and Florida’s defense.

Davis ran for 104 yards and a touchdown — keying a Gators ground game that rushed for 400 yards, records for both a season opener in program history and any game in the Dan Mullen era — and looked very much like Florida’s most explosive back, ripping off a few explosive runs in his first 100-yard effort since September 2017.

And the Gators defense generally appeared to be a much more disciplined unit than the mistake-prone defense that was repeatedly strafed in 2020. It would bend and yield yardage on occasion, but also spent much of the night creating sacks and pressure even without blitzing and collecting a pair of fumbles to snuff out drives.

While FAU did score twice in the final seven minutes of play, and one of its two touchdown drives featured multiple big plays reminiscent of last year’s debacles, there was only one notable misalignment by the Gators — despite the Owls playing at a speedy tempo — and Owls QB N’Kosi Perry had to work hard for the 261 yards he got through the air.

A sharper Florida team could have won this game by 30 or 40 points, though. The Jones pick that ended the third offensive drive of the night came on a brutal decision to throw to a covered man on third down in the red zone that was made worse by a bad throw easily snagged by an underneath defender, and Florida’s next drive down to the goal line ended with Jones trying what appeared to be a quarterback sneak ... from the FAU 4.

Both of those erroneous ends got Jones some TV time in conversation with Dan Mullen, as did his second pick, an underthrow to a covered receiver on a shot play that rather clearly should have prompted a throwaway or a scramble. And that plus Richardson’s sensational outing prompted SEC Network sideline reporter Cole Cubelic to ask Mullen about a timeline for choosing a starting quarterback in an on-field postgame interview.

“Emory’s our starting quarterback,” said Mullen, who appeared dumbfounded by the question itself — to the point that his next sentence was “Why would you ... okay!” and delivered along with something akin to a Bugs Bunny shake of the head.

Few who are familiar with him should expect Mullen, who has now spent more than three years grooming Jones, to discard him immediately after one unspectacular start. That’s neither Mullen’s style nor a move that seems fully supported by the information available to him, given that Richardson had never previously attempted a pass for Florida — not even in a spring game, as what would have been his chances to air it out in those exhibitions were cancelled as a consequence of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

That won’t stop many, many Gators fans from taking what they saw on this night and projecting Richardson as a program-changing player — one whose promise already eclipses Jones’s, and who should thus be given the keys to the kingdom.

It might be an overreaction. And it might be wrong.

But, as the argument will go for the seven long days before Florida takes the field against USF next Saturday, it might also be right.