Florida football: Gators right ship, show youthful promise in rout of Vanderbilt
A week after a heartbreaking Cocktail Party loss to Georgia, it would have been easy for the Gators to pout Saturday.
The sting of losing a hard-fought rivalry game that could very well have decided the SEC East, coupled with a noon kick against a weak Vanderbilt team, seemed like the perfect recipe for a flat Florida performance.
In many ways, a letdown would have been human nature. It had, after all, happened before. Just a year ago, a Missouri team with a .500 record rolled into Gainesville a week after another crushing Cocktail Party defeat for UF. The Tigers steamrolled an emotionally listless Gators team, 38-17.
But in 2019, instead of another letdown, the Gators relished the opportunity to play at home in The Swamp for the first time in a month. Florida exploded for 42 second-half points on Saturday to rout hapless Vanderbilt 56-0.
It started Monday in practice, according to senior wide receiver Van Jefferson.
“We had our best week of practice,” Jefferson said after the game. “We wanted to come out this week and show people our character, what Florida football was all about.”
His fellow senior wide receiver, Tyrie Cleveland, who had 3 receptions for 51 yards including an acrobatic diving catch early in the third quarter, agreed.
“It started Monday in practice,” Cleveland said. “It was intense. Guys were flying around, tempo was fast, defense was running to the ball, it was physical. It was a great week of practice for us and it showed today.”
The Gators were not perfect, but when have they been in this season that is just a play or two from being championship special?
The offense marched up and down the field in the first half but couldn’t finish drives. UF committed red zone turnovers, missed field goals and let the chance to build a huge halftime lead slip.
Dan Mullen was visibly frustrated in his halftime television interview, telling ESPN that the Gators “really should be up 31 or 35 to nothing right now, if only they would execute all the way down the field.”
Whatever Mullen said at halftime worked, as the Gators put the sloppiness behind them and put the Commodores to bed in a dominant second half.
Leading the way were some of Florida’s younger faces and playmakers, a positive sign for a program only just beginning to tap into what it is capable of under Mullen.
Florida averaged an astonishing 24 yards a play in a 4-TD third quarter, which included two touchdowns on just three plays on Florida’s first two possessions of the second half. The half started with an explosive 66-yard catch and run by junior Trevon Grimes, the latest Gator to emerge as an elite weapon in the past few weeks.
Grimes has prototypical NFL size and speed, and might consider testing the NFL draft waters this spring. But with several Gators receivers lost to graduation, Grimes can be one of Florida’s top targets next season as a senior — meaning a return to school would be sensible and a terrific opportunity to vault him into the first or second round of the draft.
Florida added to the lead with a defensive score, which came after Vanderbilt put together its best — and only — extended drive of the game. Inside the Florida red zone, true freshman linebacker Mohamoud Diabate whipped his man off the edge and forced Commodores quarterback Deuce Wallace to fumble. Jon Greenard scooped it and ran 80 yards to the house.
Diabate gets his third sack and Jon Greenard recovers the ensuing loose ball and takes it 79 YARDS TO THE CRIB pic.twitter.com/Y0msiZgCZB
— libgator (@lib_gator) November 9, 2019
The hit was the third sack for Diabate, who exploded after an impressive outing a week ago against Georgia. Diabate is still adding weight and muscle to a lean, fast and athletic frame — another year in Nick Savage’s strength and conditioning program should have him ready to embrace the role Greenard, a senior, will leave behind this spring.
Other young Gators also seized their moment.
Kyle Pitts’ breakout sophomore campaign continued, with the mismatch nightmare collecting 3 more catches for 51 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore tailback Dameon Pierce, the heir apparent to Lamical Perine, didn’t run the ball often, but he showcased his versatility as a pass-catcher with 2 receptions for 27 yards and a video game like 5 broken tackles on only 4 touches.
Playing outside, often in man coverage, freshman cornerback Kaiir Elam allowed 0 receptions on 4 targets with a pass breakup. And junior defensive tackle TJ Slaton finally is showing glimpses of his high 4-star rating, collecting 6 tackles, including 2 for loss, as he builds on a strong few weeks next to senior Adam Shuler up front.
Finally, and perhaps most encouraging for Gators fans, QB Emory Jones looked sensational in spot duty throughout the game.
Yes, we can’t forget about Feleipe Franks, who is only a junior and could decide to return for another campaign (or two, theoretically) in Gainesville. Yes, Kyle Trask is also only a junior, and it’s rare indeed that a Florida quarterback could go 25-37 for 363 yards and 3 touchdowns and add a rushing touchdown and not be the story on Sunday.
But when Gators fans see Jones — the perfect blend of arm strength, speed and unusual calm in the pocket — they see not only the kid compared to Jalen Hurts constantly in recruiting circles but also flashes of a Dan Mullen spread offense prototype quarterback. Jones has the skills that made Dak Prescott so devastating under Mullen at Mississippi State even without the type of playmaking talent the coach is working with in Gainesville.
Jones flashed the big arm everyone in America recruited Saturday.
Emory Jones hits Copeland for 37 yards to set up the Gators final TD in a 56-0 blowout of Vanderbilt pic.twitter.com/O1dTHpdJtx
— libgator (@lib_gator) November 9, 2019
Jones also sliced and diced through the Vanderbilt defense with his legs, collecting 34 yards on 5 carries and tallying 3 rushing touchdowns. Florida fans have been clamoring for more Jones, and Mullen himself said he’d like to give the redshirt freshman more opportunities to run the offense down the stretch.
Jones showed Saturday, just as he did leading a crucial drive in Florida’s win over Auburn, that he has an evolving and improving grasp of Florida’s playbook on offense. The step from “grasp” to “mastery” is the toughest step, but Jones’s performance Saturday certainly inspired confidence in what’s to come.
What’s to come.
That’s the phrase Florida is staring down over the season’s final month. A chance to vanquish a program bogey next week at Missouri. A chance to beat Florida State in The Swamp for the first time this decade — that’s not a typo. A chance to have an undefeated home record for only the third time this decade. A chance at back-to-back New Year’s 6 bowl appearances, one buoyed by Penn State’s loss at Minnesota.
A chance to keep building for what once again appeared on Saturday to be a bright, exciting future.