Florida's defense has a long way to go -- and the hard part starts next week
Florida was challenged in its Swamp debut Saturday afternoon by a game Gamecocks team that was physical at both lines of scrimmage. The Gamecocks ran the ball effectively inside and generated just enough pressure to make life a little more difficult on Kyle Trask than it was in Oxford a weekend ago. Still, Florida weathered the body blows and won comfortably, defeating South Carolina 38-24 on a warm Saturday afternoon in Gainesville.
Florida took South Carolina’s best shot and walked away with a 14-point victory in its home opener. Kyle Trask threw for 268 yards and 4 touchdowns, Kyle Pitts added 2 touchdowns, raising his 2-week season tally to 6, and 9 different Gators had a reception as the Florida offense continued to roll. The yardage wasn’t spectacular (358 yards), but the yards per play (6.8) were solid and the offensive success rate eclipsed 50% for the second week in a row. Florida’s offense is legitimate, and the Gators are going to light up the scoreboard in 2020.
As for the much-maligned defense, it was better Saturday, but hardly good.
On the bright side, the Gators limited the Gamecocks to just 4.5 yards per passing attempt, a very efficient number and a vast improvement after being shredded by Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss a week ago.
Unfortunately, Florida couldn’t parlay the improved pass defense into stops. South Carolina went a too easy 5-for-6 on 4th down and ran 30 more plays than the Florida offense, making their own ability to keep the ball on offense an integral part of their defensive strategy to stop Florida’s high octane offense.
And while South Carolina only finished with 117 rushing yards, sophomore tailback Kevin Harris hit the 100-yard mark and the video will show that Florida was bullied in the inside run game, as an experienced Gamecocks offensive line got a good push most of the afternoon against a Gators defensive line that sorely missed defensive tackle Kyree Campbell. Campbell’s status for the remainder of the season remains unclear, leaving the Gators searching for answers at a critical position as they enter the meat of their SEC schedule, beginning with a trip to College Station and what figures to be a wounded, dangerous Texas A&M next week.
And that’s the thing about Florida’s victory Saturday.
The Gators are good enough to win comfortably against a team like South Carolina, even when the Gamecocks play well and Florida doesn’t play at its best. Having an All-SEC quarterback and maybe the SEC’s best football player will help you do that.
Kyle Pitts on pace for a cool 40 TDs this season
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 3, 2020
With the Kyles largely unstoppable, a vastly improved offensive line and plenty of weapons on the perimeter, the Gators have the ingredients offensively to compete for championships.
Still, Florida only scored 1 touchdown in the 2nd half Saturday, stymied by a very talented South Carolina secondary and its own defense’s inability to get off the field. If you cover Florida, you can slow them down, and it’s hard to score if you don’t have the ball. Both of those issues plagued Florida Saturday, and while they won by two touchdowns anyway, you have to nitpick when you are talking championship contenders.
When that happens, will Todd Grantham’s defense be able to come up with big stops with the game on the line? We’ll find out in the next month, that’s for sure.
Perhaps a late goal-line stand that kept the margin at 14 points will inspire some confidence in Florida’s defense. Todd Grantham will hope so, because while Saturday was a modest improvement, Florida has a long way to go defensively.
There is certainly some high-end talent on that side of the football. No one doubts that.
Georgia transfer Brenton Cox Jr. has been as advertised and maybe better, the lone Gator to consistently get pressure on the quarterback. On the back end, Donovan Stiner is still a force as a run-stopping safety and the return of safety Shawn Davis was immense for Florida’s vertical pass defense. At corner, Marco Wilson is elite, and South Carolina respected him so much they hardly targeted him Saturday. Kaiir Elam was challenged, but responded, with multiple pass breakups and a handful of excellent open-field tackles Saturday. But better quarterbacks than Collin Hill await over the next 2 months, and Florida must continue to improve up the middle on defense, both in the secondary and up front.
Without Campbell, Florida’s defensive tackles are either young or very average. At defensive end, it has been a mixed bag behind Cox. Khris Bogle has shown flashes, but Florida’s struggled to set the edge consistently and its inconsistent quarterback pressure was non-existent for spells Saturday outside of 4 sacks.
At linebacker, Ventrell Miller has been good, and James Houston IV had a huge 4th-quarter sack with the game still in doubt Saturday, but Amari Burney and Mohamoud Diabate — both very talented — have been quiet thus far in 2020.
In other words, there’s room to grow, but the Gators won’t get any Group of 5 or FCS games down the line to provide low-risk reps. There’s only big boy football this season, and Florida will have to improve in the teeth of its SEC schedule.
That can happen. Well-coached teams tend to improve as the season goes along and the Gators are certainly well-coached. Plus, Florida need only look at LSU from a season ago to realize that eventually, a very talented defense will figure it out and play like it. It took LSU 3 months, but by late November, Atlanta and the College Football Playoff, the Tigers looked like the Tigers on defense again. Maybe Florida will save its best football for last.
With a trip to Texas A&M waiting next weekend, and LSU and Georgia lurking behind them, will that be good enough?
The good news in this strange, COVID-shortened season, is we don’t have to wait long for answers. We’ll have a really good idea how good this Florida team is by nightfall next Saturday.