Do Dan Mullen and the Gators have the desire to be great? After 6 games, it's hard to tell
For half of the third quarter on a sun-splashed Saturday in The Swamp, the team Florida can be made a cameo.
Florida hit big pass plays for touchdowns, the special teams executed a well-designed fake punt perfectly, Emory Jones drove the team 72 yards in 2 plays for a TD, and Todd Grantham’s unit played ferocious, opportunistic defense to help an offense on a roll get the ball back quickly. The Gators steamrolled their way to 21 points in less than 7 minutes of the quarter, stretching a 21-point halftime lead to 42-0 and stirring a sedated Homecoming crowd out of its slumber.
Jacob Copeland going 72 yards in 2 plays and flashing some shiftiness for the TD 💪pic.twitter.com/l9hnpnIvPz
— Boom or Bust: The Draft Show (@BoomOrBustDraft) October 9, 2021
It was the kind of electric spurt we’ve seen from the Gators this season, a stretch of brilliance that shows what this team is capable of when they are focused in all three phases. Whether it was Saturday’s third-quarter eruption, or 3 splendid quarters against defending national champion Alabama, where the Gators outscored the Tide 26-10, or a half against Tennessee, when Florida blew a nip and tuck game against an improved Vols squad wide open, Florida is absolutely capable of being a great football team.
The problem for Florida is that an SEC football game lasts 60 minutes. The problem for Florida is that championship-caliber teams don’t take quarters off, let alone halves or games. The problem for Florida is that 4 years into the Dan Mullen era, they still need their head coach to lead and light a fire under the locker room at halftime against Vanderbilt.
Mullen’s halftime interview suggested he saw the problems, too. He saw a team that was somehow lethargic after a tough loss at Kentucky and he was furious. Asked 2 questions at the half, Mullen offered only 3 words.
“What would you say to your quarterbacks after that opening half?” Mullen was asked.
“Play better,” Mullen quipped.
“Well, your defense has the shutout at the break. How would you assess their first half?”
“Awful,” Mullen deadpanned.
Here’s the thing: He wasn’t wrong. Here’s the other thing: Whose fault is that, really?
Florida’s offense managed 3 first-half touchdown drives, which was good. All 3 of those scores came on the only 4 possessions starter Jones played in the opening half. But the Gators sputtered and stumbled when Anthony Richardson entered the game, turning the ball over once and punting quickly on the other possession. Meanwhile, Grantham’s defense missed 9 tackles in the first half alone and surrendered 200 yards to Vanderbilt, which had 3 red-zone possessions only to come up empty.
Vanderbilt ran 50 first-half plays to Florida’s 30, suggesting the football on the field was a bit more even than the scoreboard suggested.
Of course, to Florida’s credit, the third quarter counts, too. Mullen lit a fire under his team and Florida responded, putting the game to bed early in the third quarter. For a quarter, the Gators just plain overwhelmed Vanderbilt.
Of course, it’s Vanderbilt. And worse, if it’s possible to look just plain average in a 42-point victory, the Gators did it Saturday.
The Gators’ vaunted running attack was held on 200 yards rushing for the second consecutive week. The quarterback tandem of Jones and Richardson tossed 2 more interceptions (one each), and now lead the SEC with 8. Florida missed 15 tackles, and when a safety makes 15 tackles, as Rashad Torrence II did, that’s usually a sign of systemic problems wrapping up ball carriers.
Yes, Florida was without key pieces, with All-American Kaiir Elam out for the third consecutive week and leading running back Malik Davis out offensively. But injuries are part of football, especially in October, as the grind of conference play hits its apogee. When, for Florida, do injuries and circumstances become excuses for this Florida team? Or for Florida’s program in Year 4 under Mullen? Does this Gators’ team have the ability to play consistently? Do they have the desire to be great?
The schedule dictates that the answers to these questions will come quickly.
Next week, the Gators travel to Death Valley, where they have 1 victory in the past 11 years. Win that game and perhaps you take momentum into the Cocktail Party. Lose it and there’s a good chance you limp away from TIAA Bank Field 4-4 and debating whether a Music City or Duke’s Mayo Bowl trip would be a worthwhile holiday getaway. After the way Mullen and his program treated a Cotton Bowl trip like a spring game last winter, the answer to that question is likely no — but the debate could be reality 3 Saturdays from now.
Two games to take the temperature of a program that just last December seemed ascendant, even after it lost a heartbreaker where it went punch for punch in Atlanta with one of the greatest college football teams ever assembled.
Two games, 120 minutes of football to define what’s left of the 2021 season to be defined at Florida.
To win either, Florida will need to play 60 minutes of football for the first time all season.