Florida football: 3 matchups that will define Florida-Missouri
Florida’s two-week COVID-19 pause is over, as the Gators returned to practice this week to ready for Saturday’s Halloween under-the-lights battle with Missouri (7:30 p.m., SEC Network). The Gators will flash awesome throwback uniforms for their tilt with the Tigers, with blue jerseys, white pants, black shoes and blue helmets with the classic “F” logo UF wore in the 1960s, the program’s best decade until Steve Spurrier returned as head coach in the 1990s.
Florida will be hoping they can throw their season back to the joy of Weeks 1 and 2, when their defense did just enough to allow their prolific offense to win games. That wasn’t the case against Texas A&M, as the Aggies converted a staggering 12-of-15 third downs against the Florida defense in upsetting the Gators 41-38.
Waiting for the Gators under the lights in The Swamp will be an improving Missouri team that should be plenty confident coming off a dominant 20-10 victory over Kentucky. The Tigers started the Eli Drinkwitz era slowly, with lopsided losses to Alabama and Tennessee. But the Tigers have rallied for two consecutive wins, upsetting defending national champion LSU 45-41 and whipping Kentucky last weekend. Complicating matters for Florida, the Tigers are facing the Gators with what amounts to an extra week to prepare, as the originally scheduled game was cancelled due to Florida’s COVID-19 outbreak. The impact of that cancellation, at least as it relates to this game, is that Missouri was able to practice and prepare for the Gators while Florida’s football facility was shut down entirely. Is that advantage Missouri? We’ll find out Saturday night.
Here are three matchups that will define the Florida-Mizzou game.
Missouri’s power run game vs. the Florida defensive line
Missouri is coming off a win over a physical Kentucky team in which the Tigers held the football for more than 43 minutes. As Texas A&M and South Carolina have shown, the key to “slowing” the Florida offense is keeping it off the field. There’s no question that Missouri’s plan to win Saturday night in Gainesville will prioritize keeping the football as long as possible. The Tigers have the personnel to do that.
Missouri’s rebuilt offensive line looked rough in Weeks 1 and 2, but it played well against LSU and Kentucky, running for 400 yards over the two games while surrendering only 2 sacks. Missouri’s young, improving line is bouyed, of course, by senior running back Larry Rountree III, who is averaging nearly 100 yards per game and has accumulated more than 3,000 rushing yards over his outstanding career.
Florida has allowed 100-yard rushing performances to Kevin Harris of South Carolina and Isaiah Spiller of Texas A&M and have shown themselves to be particularly susceptible on power runs inside (opposing offenses have a 55 percent success rate running inside, per Stats Solutions). Rountree might be the best back Florida has faced, and he’s certainly the most physical, as Kentucky learned last week.
Video of the Larry Rountree truck stick + bench reaction pic.twitter.com/kz9G4ao1tK
— Mark Kim (@MarkJKim_) October 24, 2020
Missouri’s success rate in the run game is only 43 percent, a modest number that is a sign of a young offensive line. But Drinkwitz has been unafraid to use Rountree liberally, as his 37 rushing attempts and the 62 overall team rushes against Kentucky demonstrate.
Florida’s run defense is allowing 4.1 yards per attempt, which ranks 50th out of 100 teams in the country. As noted above, it has been most vulnerable inside. Florida has played the first three games without their best leverage guy inside, senior nose tackle Kyree Campbell, who has been out for undisclosed reasons. Should Campbell return Saturday night, the Gators could get a huge boost. Expect the Tigers to ride Rountree and try to keep the football away from Florida regardless of Campbell’s status.
Missouri freshman Connor Bazelak vs. Florida’s defense on third down
Bazelak has been one of the most impressive freshmen in the SEC. The redshirt has a huge arm and has shown the ability to make precise throws and play safe in wins over LSU and Kentucky. Like Florida, LSU’s secondary and defense have been a mess. But Bazelak was excellent against a very stout Kentucky defense, throwing for 201 yards on 30 attempts with only 9 incompletions.
Most importantly, Bazelak kept drives going in what was a ball control game. The Tigers had 4 possessions of 12 plays or more in the win over Kentucky, including a marathon 21-play drive to open the second half — one that ended bizarrely with 0 points after Kentucky sacked Bazelak on 4th-and-1 at the 7-yard line. Mizzou finished with 92 plays from scrimmage, their most in three years. The Tigers converted third downs at a 50 percent clip in wins over LSU and Kentucky, a good mark that should give them confidene against Florida, who have been the worst team in the country on third down, allowing opponents to convert at a 59 percent clip (minimum two games played).
In Florida’s past two defeats (Georgia in 2019 and Texas A&M this year), opponents have converted a staggering 24 of 33 third-down attempts. Mizzou comes into Gainesville with a terrific third-down offense, and if the Tigers can stay on schedule, Florida’s defense has not proven it can make stops. As long as Bazelak doesn’t try to force things, it should prove difficult for the Gators to get off the field — and that will put pressure on Florida’s offense to be perfect. It was, for the most part, in its first three games. Can it be again?
Missouri’s embattled secondary vs. the Florida passing game
If the first two matchups appear to favor Mizzou, the last one is big advantage, Florida. Missouri returned three starters to their secondary in 2020 as well as three key safeties in Tyree Gillespie, Josh Bledsoe and Martez Manuel. Depth was supposed to be better, and the unit was expected to improve.
Instead, the Tigers rank 75th out of 100 teams in yards allowed per pass attempt (8.4) and 79th in success rate against in pass defense (54 percent). These are not the kinds of numbers you want to take into the Florida game.
The Gators will be the third elite pass offense the Tigers will have faced, and only Alabama ranks above Florida in overall offensive success rate on the young season. Kyle Trask ranks fourth in the country in passing efficiency and has shown a proclivity to spread the wealth, with 12 different Gators catching passes over three games. He does it a bunch of ways, from being the best passer in college football on short passes, per Stats Solutions, to being able to hit precision throws downfield to the back shoulder of guys like Kyle Pitts:
— CFB Kings (@CFBKings) September 26, 2020
Missouri will need to dial up pressure to help their defensive backs, but the Tigers haven’t done that well this season, ranking only 62nd of 100 teams in sack percentage and 74th in quarterback pressures. Those are problematic numbers against a Florida offensive line that has been exceptional in protection, ranking 15th in the country in sacks allowed.
Trask can make throws even when he is pressured, mostly due to his terrific pocket presence and footwork:
If Missouri gives Trask time to throw, well, no matter what PFF says about the Gators senior, it’s a problem, as the videos in this segment demonstrate.