Florida football: Exposed defense a black cloud hanging over win
Florida’s offense was electric Saturday in the No. 5 Gators’ 51-35 season-opening victory at Ole Miss. The Kyles looked unstoppable, Kadarius Toney showed vast improvement as a route runner and the Gators posted nearly 200 yards rushing (196) in the SEC opener a year removed from rushing for more than 150 yards only once in SEC play. Florida had 40 points by the end of the third quarter and collected 642 total yards, a school record for a season opener.
There was plenty for Gators fans to be excited about in Oxford Saturday afternoon. In fact, when you win by 16 and your offense lights up the scoreboard like a Golden Tee golfer makes birdies, it’s easy to forget about the warts.
But we need to talk about that Florida defense for a moment. Because, yikes, will that ever be a grumpy group of alligators in Todd Grantham’s Sunday night meeting room.
The Gators gave up 613 yards to a team led by a sophomore quarterback playing his first game in a brand new scheme. The yardage was the most a Florida defense has allowed since giving up 672 yards to Alabama in 2014. The common denominator? Lane Kiffin, who was Alabama’s offensive coordinator at the time.
Kiffin is an offensive mastermind with the track record to prove it. Certainly, Kiffin’s scheme had something to do with Florida’s problems, and it assuredly had to do with the outstanding performance of Matt Corral, a longtime Florida commit who flipped to Ole Miss after Jim McElwain resigned as UF coach. But two things can be true, and the Gators were woeful defensively. They missed tackles, they blew coverages, the pass rush was inconsistent and, in a flashback to their two losses a year ago, they couldn’t get off the field on third down.
The Rebels went 9-for-14 (64 percent) on third down, and Ole Miss’s Elijah Moore caught 10 passes for 227 yards, a monstrous performance and the kind of numbers that keep defensive coordinators up at night.
Yes, the Gators were missing key pieces Saturday. Kyree Campbell, a key guy getting a push up front, was out. Starting free safety Shawn Davis was ejected for targeting on the first Ole Miss drive, and the oft-suspended Brad Stewart was also unavailable, depriving the Gators of their two best safeties in coverage.
But whether the Gators are playing Ole Miss or Old Dominion, they shouldn’t surrender 443 yards passing, and as it stands, the Gators are a long way from the DBU standard. The secondary was a concern entering the season, and it remains one following the season opener.
As expected, the lack of reps and practice time with contact challenged both defenses. Dan Mullen was mindful of that when talking to the media after the game. Still, he expects — as Florida’s fans should — the Gators to be better.
“There’s a lot we’ve got to be better at, to be honest with you,” Mullen said. “We’ve tackled twice since the Orange Bowl. Normally you’ve got a lot of spring ball, you’re getting physicality, you’re getting tackling. We only did two in our scrimmages, and they were spread out over this long period of time. We were down some guys defensively today, too. Hopefully, we get some guys back next week. We just haven’t played much football.”
That’s true. Then again, Kiffin was coaching his first game with a new program after no spring ball and a summer camp controlled by COVID-19 restrictions. You would think Florida would have been ahead of a program like that. Instead, they weren’t. They were just fortunate their offense was outstanding and there to bail them out.
The Gators have excellent talent on defense, where, in truth, the Mullen staff has recruited even better than on offense.
And there were, for all the doom and gloom, some bright spots. Freshman defensive tackle Gervon Dexter is going to be a problem. He collected an interception and a tackle for loss in his Gators debut. Brenton Cox was as good as advertised, with 8 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack, and plenty of other pressures. Ventrell Miller was everywhere (15 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack).
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He brought the boom on plenty of hits and looked more than capable of stepping into the vacuum cleaner role occupied by departed senior linebacker David Reese.
This is a prideful group, and Grantham has produced defenses that finished in the top 20 nationally (9th last season) in both his seasons at Florida. They will improve. The question of “how much” may just define this Florida football team’s ceiling.