Florida football: 3 things the Gators have to clean up ... and 2 problems that might linger
It was a strange and often ugly football game, but Florida found a way to beat rival Miami on Saturday night in Orlando in the first game of the 2019 college football season.
Partly because of the sloppiness and partly because there was only 1 other FBS game played Saturday, the Gators have received loads of additional scrutiny over the past couple of days, with hot takes galore largely dismissive of Florida’s chances of weathering a brutal schedule without multiple losses, let alone posing a significant challenge to Georgia in the SEC East.
As Connor O’Gara wrote last week, media and fan overreaction to this game was inevitable, both because of the hype and national spotlight surrounding it and because after a summer of talking, we’re all ready to actually break down a football game and this was 1 of only 2 we had come Sunday morning. Nevertheless, there’s a significant risk in taking too much from a Week 0 (or 1, for that matter) performance, for a few reasons.
First — and this is most important — it’s early and early games tend to be sloppy. Here I’ll quote Kirby Smart: “No matter how hard or well you practice, there’s no way to replicate game speed.” That’s correct, and mistakes are inevitable in the opener, and maybe even more likely when you play a game in 100-degree heat in late August when you are usually still in training camp.
Second, a 1-game sample size is a bad one for sweeping generalizations. Many pegged Auburn as a college football Playoff contender last season when the Tigers walloped then No. 6 Washington in the opener. By the season’s end, most of the chatter on The Plains was about Gus Malzahn’s buyout and who would win the QB battle in 2019.
Michigan was doomed to have a miserable season after an opening loss to rival Notre Dame last autumn. All the Wolverines did was win 10 games in a row to get into a de facto national quarterfinal against Ohio State by season’s end.
Point being, for every opener that sets a tone (Alabama’s rout of No. 9 Clemson in 2008 ushered in more than a decade of dominance; LSU’s rout of Miami last September set the tone for a big Year 2 under Ed Orgeron in Baton Rouge), there’s a contrarian story where basically, we overreact to 1 football game.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t lessons to gleam. Florida’s win Saturday is no different. Dan Mullen and his staff will see plenty on film they’ll need to improve moving forward if the Gators are to attain their goals. Some of the problems are likely easier to fix than others: sloppy penalties, for example, are probably less systemic than bad run-blocking. But Florida will have an educational film study as they hit the bye week and look toward the home opener in Week 2 against Tennessee-Martin.
Here are 3 things the Gators need to clean up immediately, plus 2 problems that might linger.
3 things to clean up … now
Florida missed 20 tackles Saturday night, per Stats Solutions.
To put that in perspective, the Gators missed only 15 tackles in their final 3 games last season. I suppose that statistical contrast also points to the good news, which is that Florida can improve its tackling as the season drags on. Gators fans will remember that Florida had tackling woes early last season as well, missing 20+ tackles in a home loss to Kentucky. Eventually, that got better.
Further, “missed tackles” is a relatively new advanced metric, at least as it relates to college football. Not all missed tackles are equal. For example, if a running back trucks a defender, that is an obvious missed tackle.
That said, some are fall in a gray area.
If a defender was close to making a tackle, but didn’t take a great angle, or plugged a gap late, these might look like missed tackles, but we don’t know the full story. Sometimes this happens when a defender is out of position. Other times a defender arrives late to the ball and misses making a play, which can be charted as a missed tackle. Other times a missed tackle is an effort play where someone with great recovery speed can’t quite get a wrap on an offensive player. They are charged with a missed tackle even though in reality they made a very good play to simply get in position to cover up someone else’s mistake.
As such, you have to be careful when you look at the raw number.
But Florida’s missed tackles led directly to 2 Miami touchdowns Saturday night, with far too many of the whiffs being of the “glaringly obvious” variety.
Take this DeeJay Dallas run that gave the Canes the lead in the 4th quarter as “Exhibit A.”
Tackling is a problem Florida needs to fix, and it should concern the staff because depth concerns, particularly in the secondary, likely mean Florida doesn’t get to practice tackling in practice as much as coaches would like.
2. Clean up run-game exchanges
Correctable but concerning were 2 cheap turnovers, both of which snuffed out 1st-half drives that likely would have resulted in points.
The first, a botched exchange on a zone-read between Feleipe Franks and Lamical Perine, both upperclassmen who have shared a backfield for 3 seasons, shouldn’t happen. Chalk it up to an early-season repetition error if you like (Mullen did), but it was a red-zone turnover that changed the trajectory of the half. Instead of a 2-score lead, the Canes brought out the turnover chain and gained confidence. We all saw what happened when Miami was behind and had to throw against a Florida pass rush with its ears pinned back. You have to wonder how the game unfolds if Florida adds points on that possession instead of handing the Canes the football.
The second error was frustrating too, but for different reasons. It was a really well-designed speed option play and Franks made a high-quality pitch. Malik Davis hasn’t played much game-speed football since being injured against Georgia as a freshman and here, he just got ahead of himself, thinking about his first cut instead of catching the pitch. As this photograph demonstrates, if he holds the pitch, Florida has a big play, as the edge was sealed and Florida has good blocking setup downfield.
It’s too bad Davis doesn’t catch the pitch as speed option is a great call here which gives him the edge and a hat for a hat ahead. Should be at least a 10+ yd run near the red zone and possibly a TD. Instead it’s UM ball near midfield and the D is back on the field with no rest. pic.twitter.com/o1h1bSX3Rs
— Chris Doering (@ChrisDoering) August 25, 2019
Instead, Davis fumbled, then compounded the problem by trying to run with the fumble instead of just securing the football. Once again, out came the turnover chain and a momentum shift, and this one led to Miami points. That’s painful, but also correctable.
3. Run blocking
The decision to not put this in the “problems that will linger” section was made for 2 reasons.
First, John Hevesy is one of the best offensive line coaches in America. This unit is certain to improve.
Second, Miami is a very good defense, one that returned 6 starters from a unit that finished in the top 10 in America a season ago and has the best group of linebackers Florida will face until the Georgia game.
Add those factors to the choppiness of the game (Florida ran only 54 plays thanks to turnovers and never established much of a rhythm) and the fact Florida fumbled on a speed option likely destined for a huge gain, and you get an idea of why it’s OK to reserve judgment on Florida’s run blocking for the time being.
That said, the Gators need to get a better push, especially at right tackle, where Jean Delance just came nowhere near replicating the type of push and edge created by Jawaan Taylor a season ago. Mullen said he wasn’t concerned about Florida’s paltry run game numbers because the Canes put 8 in the box and have excellent linebackers, and Florida was happy to throw. But Mullen’s spread relies on the threat of the power game to create spacing mismatches in the pass game, and Florida should spend most the Tennessee-Martin game developing run-blocking confidence.
Florida’s play-calling also seemed suspect in this regard: The Gators were predictable on 1st down, running 11 times, largely into stacked fronts. They also more or less eliminated the QB power elements that helped Franks establish confidence late last season. Those are concerns Florida can correct, but the early returns were troublesome.
2 problems that could linger …
1. Feleipe Franks has to be more consistent
After a rewatch, here’s the main thing about Franks’ performance: It was too uneven.
The red-zone turnover marred an otherwise strong 1st half from Franks, who was 7-for-9 in the opening frame with a TD and had the Gators in Canes territory on Florida’s first 3 possessions.
The 2nd half was too much of the old Franks, with late reads, inconsistent throws and what at times appeared to be almost a lack of focus plaguing his performance.
Franks’s 1st interception came on a beautifully run inside post route by Freddie Swain (who read the safety and adjusted the route a bit upfield), where a good throw results in a huge gain.
It’s a route Florida uses and a throw Franks made as recently as the Peach Bowl, when he dropped a dime to Josh Hammond into tight coverage.
— IG: @SleeperAthletes (@SleeperAth1etes) December 29, 2018
This time, however, Franks isn’t decisive as to which receiver he wants to hit. He almost launches it for Cleveland down the sideline, but instead fires high at Swain at the last moment. The result is an inaccurate downfield throw that is intercepted.
— CaneSport (@CaneSport) August 25, 2019
Fortunately, Miami missed a field goal on the ensuing possession, but it was discouraging to see Franks miss a relatively simple intermediate throw without duress, especially given all the work he’s said to have put in improving that area of his game this summer.
Franks’ decisions Saturday night felt like someone not entirely sure about his inexperienced offensive line, which in truth was a shame because Florida’s pass blocking held up relatively well. Franks left clean pockets far too often and even short throws (especially in the 2nd half) were high and inaccurate, a sign of a quarterback who has lost focus or doesn’t take time to set his feet.
Of course, a possession after the 1st interception, Franks showed us the rocket arm and leadership that we know is inside the 6-6 frame. His 65-yard deep ball to Josh Hammond was a laser beam, and he showed his toughness on what proved to be the winning TD run.
But after a Florida stop, it was right back to the Franks that gives critics pause when they discuss Florida’s ceiling as Franks threw this unthinkable interception.
Sure, the decision to throw the ball on 1st down, up 4 points at the 35 with 4:20 to go, was a strange one. Worst-case, Florida could have run it 3 times, eaten some clock and allowed Tommy Townsend to pin Miami deep with a normal punt. Credit Mullen for being accountable for the play call after the game.
But Franks has to make a better decision on the play, even accounting for the fact he was hit. First, he has Trevon Grimes open in the flat to begin the play. That’s the safe and smart throw in that situation and there’s no protection issue at that point. Instead, with pressure mounting, he throws into triple coverage.
To be fair, Franks was hit and said that as he felt pressure, he was trying to throw the ball away. But even with good intentions, throwing the ball away in the direction of triple coverage is foolish, and but for Florida’s defense, this ends up a disastrous play for the Gators.
2. Florida’s safeties have to be better
Jeawon Taylor was Florida’s leading tackler (6), but he also missed 3 tackles, including a relatively textbook one on Miami’s first touchdown.
Jarren Williams finds Brevin Jordan for six. pic.twitter.com/8timO7hYym
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) August 25, 2019
Brevin Jordan is an exciting player, but this is poor technique from a senior safety.
Other safeties made errors, too. Shawn Davis looked lost in coverage at times, though he made a crucial pass breakup on Miami’s final possession. Donovan Stiner, usually Florida’s most reliable run-stopping safety, missed multiple tackles. And the safeties were a step late to help Marco Wilson and Trey Dean in pass coverage, a job that should have been easier for them given CJ Henderson operated mostly in man-to-man throughout the game.
Brad Stewart was suspended for Game 1. Perhaps his return will help. But Florida can’t rely solely on the talented Stewart, who is suspended too often and has a history of being a bit of a riverboat gambler in coverage when he is allowed to play. This unit needs to improve dramatically, perhaps as quickly as September road test against a good group of Kentucky wide receivers, for Florida to be successful in 2019.