Florida football: Kyle Trask and unbeaten Gators march toward defining stretch
When Florida’s 34-3 rout of Tennessee was over on Saturday and the players finished singing the fight song in the North end zone, Kyle Trask stopped to smile for every selfie and shake every hand.
Who could blame him for wanting to linger a little longer?
After seven years of waiting, Trask was a starting quarterback again, this time on a sun-drenched September Saturday in The Swamp.
It wasn’t how Trask drew it up, this golden opportunity to start at quarterback for a school he felt too loyal to leave.
Feleipe Franks is Trask’s teammate, a team leader and friend. No one wanted Franks’s junior season to end with a horrific injury on the turf the previous week in Lexington. Injuries are part of football, however, and when Trask was forced into action, he was ready, leading the Gators to a furious double-digit comeback win at Kentucky.
It’s one thing to perform and win in the heat of the moment. How would Trask perform when it was truly his team?
Saturday didn’t deliver the final verdict on that question, but it offered the Gators more reasons to feel encouraged.
Trask wasn’t great, but he was more than capable, throwing for 293 yards and 2 touchdowns in Florida’s 14th win over Tennessee in the previous 15 meetings.
“I’ve been waiting to get my number called,” Trask said following the game. “I knew I’d be ready.”
He was ready, consistently reading progressions and spreading the ball to Florida’s elite collection of wide receivers and tight ends. Ten different Gators had a reception Saturday, with 7 catching more than one pass. That’s just who Trask is, senior Freddie Swain told the media following the win.
“Kyle reads the field, sees things develop,” Swain said. “He gives us opportunities to run better routes. We will be patient too because (we) know he’s going to sit back there and actually wait on us to run our routes,” Swain said. “It just gives us a little more confidence.”
Trask wasn’t perfect. He had three turnovers, holding the ball too long on a strip-sack fumble and throwing two second half interceptions into coverage.
There were, as Gators coach Dan Mullen put it after the game, “coachable moments.”
But Trask showed plenty against a Jeremy Pruitt Tennessee defense that threw the kitchen sink at him– exotic blitzes, disguised coverages, zone, man — to suggest that this Florida team remains very much in the mix to accomplish tremendous things despite the loss of Franks.
In truth, the Gators with Franks don’t look much different — yet — than the Gators without Franks.
Florida is still a work in progress, and the Gators were far from perfect Saturday.
They’ve turned the ball over nine times in four games, adding three more Saturday. They still aren’t getting much of a push in the run game, though there were some moments of promise Saturday, especially when Richard Gouriage played left tackle. The pass protection looks terrific for spells and then crumbles completely for an entire series, as it did with Florida nursing a one-touchdown lead most of the first half.
The Gators continue to battle injuries too.
All-American CJ Henderson missed his second consecutive game with a high ankle sprain. All-SEC defensive end Jabari Zuniga remains out with an ankle as well. Florida battled most of the day without linebacker Ventrell Miller, an emerging star. Kadarius Toney, the team’s do-everything playmaker who adds an element of dynamism to a moribund rushing attack, appears out for an extended period of time.
But the Gators continue to win.
Florida extended the SEC’s longest active winning streak to eight Saturday with a program staple: ferocious defense.
For the second time this season, the Florida defense kept an opposing offense out of the end zone. The Gators added four sacks to their nation-leading total Saturday, with “Buck” Jon Greenard once again basically unblockable.
After a sloppy night in the opener against Miami, the Gators continue to tackle better, and they are playing fast, fundamental football at linebacker, fitting run gaps and slowing opposing rushing offenses much more effectively than a season ago.
Saturday, a Tennessee run game that had generated nearly 250 yards per game in the prior two contests managed only 88 yards on 27 carries, a paltry 3.25 yards per attempt. Florida stifled the Vols on third down, limiting Tennessee to 4-for-13. On the season, teams are converting only 34% of third down opportunities against UF.
Most critically, the defense is carrying Florida in pivotal moments.
The Gators are doing a marvelous job mitigating the impact of the team’s early season turnover problem. Opposing offenses have managed only 10 points off of 9 Florida turnovers this season. Against the Vols, Trey Dean negated a red zone turnover with this sensational interception of Jarrett Guarantano at the goal line.
The concentration 😮 pic.twitter.com/QwxXE6yxIz
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) September 21, 2019
Florida has plenty of work to do, and even as the team celebrated Saturday, it was easy to see the four-game October and early November stretch that will define this football team come into view on the not too distant horizon: Auburn, at LSU, at South Carolina, Georgia. Three teams that will be ranked in the top 10 at kickoff and a testy road trip in between.
The stakes couldn’t be larger. Ready or not, October will bring answers about this Florida team.
For now, Saturday in The Swamp was fun for the fans and one more Saturday remains in Florida’s feel-good September. After crushing Tennessee, who could blame Kyle Trask for smiling and soaking it in? After all, he waited a lifetime for this moment.
Sometimes you have to enjoy the moment to appreciate the difficulty of what comes next.