Blackmon: Losing to Tennessee is never OK, but there are clear silver linings to Billy Napier's foundation
No. 11 Tennessee defeated No. 20 Florida in a terrific quarterback duel at a soldout Neyland Stadium.
Credit Tennessee, but don’t discount the Gators’ effort in general and their foundation in particular.
One way to look at Saturday? It involved two programs that almost flipped positions from a season ago.
Tennessee didn’t wallop the Gators, but the Vols did everything they needed to do to win. Or mostly, Hendon Hooker did. Number 5 in pumpkin orange was sensational, accounting for 461 yards on 41 official touches (349 passing, 112 rushing). And every time Florida made a big play or steadied itself to take control of the football game, Hooker seized momentum right back. That’s what great players do, and no moment for Hooker was bigger than his perfect execution on Tennessee’s 99-yard touchdown drive to take a lead into halftime, when he delivered this perfect “only my guy can go get it” deep ball to Ramel Keyton to set the Vols up in Florida territory with a minute to play in the first half.
When Florida did bottle up Tennessee’s receivers, Hooker won battles with his legs, as when he turned this almost sack into a 44-yard gain and another touchdown drive in the 3rd quarter.
One of the biggest plays of the game. Florida had Hendon Hooker sacked and instead of 2nd and 16, Hooker turned this into a 44 yard gain and got the Vols in the red zone pic.twitter.com/88EPtCXAXA
— zach ragan (@zachTNT) September 25, 2022
Whatever Florida’s flaws defensively — and there are a lot of them, as Will Miles writes about at the site Read and Reaction, the Gators got beat by a great quarterback Saturday afternoon. Sometimes, the complicated game of football is reduced to something that simple.
Nothing that happened Saturday, however, should diminish confidence or faith in the foundation Billy Napier is building at Florida.
Does Napier need to coach better?
Yes — or at least his defensive staff does. Napier and the offensive staff? They piled up 594 yards, 31 first downs and 33 points against Tennessee, keeping the Vols off balance with a beautiful mixture of intermediate passing and a series of lovely off-tackle concepts for young Anthony Richardson, who made his first career road start.
Richardson, it must be said, was almost as good as Hooker. But for a play where he bizarrely cut inside, ran into a Tennessee linebacker and fumbled, Richardson was masterful, throwing for 453 yards and rushing for 62 more while accounting for 4 of Florida’s 5 touchdowns. If Florida gets this version of Richardson moving forward, the Gators are going to be in every football game they play. Will they? That’s less likely — as I wrote last week, it’s more likely the Gators get an up and down Richardson this year, similar to early Texas Vince Young, than the brilliant first-year starter run Florida fans saw from Tim Tebow. But what Richardson showed Saturday is that when a team like Tennessee stuffs 7 or 8 in the box consistently to stop the run, he can make the throws necessary to exploit the numerical advantages his receivers have. Balance, as ever, remains vital in a sport that has become “pass first” instead of “run first.” The Gators finally had it Saturday afternoon.
As for foundations, the Gators competed Saturday. They didn’t fold when they fell behind by 17 points in the fourth quarter. And while Napier’s decision to go for 2 down 11 was bizarre, as were a few of his 4th-down choices, especially an early game choice not to kick a field goal, Florida fans who spent a summer saying “Scared money don’t make money” don’t get to lament what happens when brave money loses money on occasion.
Napier didn’t think his defense could stop the Vols — and considering Tennessee never punted — why would he think that? As a result, he kept trying to score.
Wouldn’t you rather have that from your head coach than a surrender cobra and a presser lecture about how Florida gained more yards than the Volunteers? Don’t you play to win the game?
The Gators, who are recruiting well and have finally made the type of administrative commitment to winning football seen at Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M, and yes, Tennessee, are in a better place now than they were leaving the Tennessee game a season ago.
Does that sound bizarre considering the Gators are 0-2 in SEC play for the first time since 1986? It might.
But it’s the reality of things after Florida wrapped the nation’s most difficult September slate on Saturday afternoon.
A breather against Eastern Washington and a likely first SEC win against lowly MIssouri awaits Florida over the next 2 weeks, which should see Florida to 4-2 before a difficult October stretch that includes a home date with LSU, the Cocktail Party with No. 1 Georgia, and Florida’s second trip in just 3 seasons to play nemesis Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M in College Station the following week.
If Florida leaves that stretch 4-5, the hot takes will be that Florida bottled the hire. The hot takes, Saturday Down South thinks, are wrong.
Foundations are tough to lay, but if done properly, the results can take a year or 2 or even 3. Look at Tennessee, who in Year 2 under Heupel has turned the losing lumps of 2021 (Pitt, Florida) into marquee wins. Look at Georgia, which lost to Vanderbilt at home between the hedges in Year 1 under Kirby Smart and now, 6 years later, is the premier program in the sport.
There’s little room for patience in the cutthroat world of college football, and at a place like Florida, zero time for moral victories. A loss to Tennessee is still a loss to Tennessee. Still, sometimes, patience remains a virtue, and Gainesville is a place that should exercise some right now. The foundation Napier is laying? It’s one that won’t see many losses in the years to come.