Florida's defense protects The Swamp, gives Billy Napier his first SEC win
GAINESVILLE — 365 days.
That’s how long it had been since Florida’s last SEC win when the sun rose Saturday morning on what became a splending October day in Gainesville.
Six consecutive SEC losses. One head coaching change. One army of a new staff hired. One spring camp under a new regime completed. One state-of-the-art football complex opened. And finally, after Saturday’s 24-17 victory over Missouri in The Swamp, one SEC win.
Florida held off Missouri on Saturday thanks to a terrific performance from its defense, a unit much-maligned by the fan base not just this year, but over the past 3 seasons.
What could have been in 2020 if one of the greatest offenses in Florida history had played alongside a serviceable defense? Instead, the Gators finished in the bottom third nationally in total defense and lost 4 games, including the last 3 they played.
Would Dan Mullen still be in town if he had simply changed coordinators before the 2021 campaign? After all, for all Florida did wrong in 2021, the Gators still finished 2nd in the SEC in yards gained per play (Georgia), 23rd nationally in rushing offense, and 19th in offensive success rate. It wasn’t like the Emory Jones version of Florida under Mullen didn’t move the football. They just didn’t give it to Dameon Pierce — a weird and inexcusable flex, to be sure — but not one that decimated the effectiveness of the offense. None of that mattered, of course, because Florida finished in the bottom half of the country in total defense, scoring defense, etc. That’s how you go 6-7 and make a coaching change after 3 consecutive trips to New Year’s 6 bowl games.
Saturday, however, was different.
For the first time since shutting down Bo Nix and No. 5 Auburn in 2019, the Gators won a game with their defense.
Junior corner Jaydon HIll picked up his first and second career interceptions Saturday, taking advantage of Eli Drinkwitz’s strange decision to rely heavily on the passing game in the first half to stake Florida to a 10-0 lead on the first interception.
? FLORIDA PICK SIX!!! ?
Jaydon Hill to the HOUSE.
— 247Sports (@247Sports) October 8, 2022
The second interception stopped a potentially game-tying drive by Missouri in the second half, and shifted the momentum of a tenuous, back-and-forth affair fully in the home team’s favor.
The Gators were also steady against a Missouri run game that had come to life in SEC play entering Saturday. After Mizzou averaged over 5.5 yards per carry against Georgia on stretch and off-tackle concepts, the Gators limited Missouri to just 4.1 yards on those types of plays, and 3.6 yards per carry overall, stymying the Tigers’ run game when Drinkwitz finally decided to turn the football game over to his talented running back duo of Nathaniel Peat and Cody Shrader.
Was Florida perfect defensively? Not remotely.
Florida was downright poor for much of the game on third down. Missouri converted 9-of-17 3rd-down tries, including 3 on 3rd-and-15 or more. The Gators were also inconsistent in the pass rush, producing 4 sacks, but generating only 10 pressures (a season-low).
But the Gators made big plays and came up with stops when they needed them. Florida produced a season-high 13 tackles for loss, keeping Missouri behind the chains all afternoon. The Gators also played clean football, committing just 1 penalty — and none on defense. Florida also missed only 7 tackles, their best tackling percentage of the year, per Stats Solutions.
Florida knew it had a star at middle linebacker in Ventrell Miller, who was magnificent yet again Saturday, tallying a team-high 11 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, a quarterback hurry and 2 pressures. But in Hill, Florida has found a third elite corner, joining Jason Marshall Jr. and Jalen Kimber as players who can lock you down on the boundary. Meanwhile, Gervon Dexter Sr. had his finest game of the season, grabbing a sack, 2 tackles for loss, and a pair of quarterback pressures while also helping the Gators frustrate Missouri’s run game. Even better, after tiring out in the second half all season, Dexter was dominant in the critical half Saturday, helping Florida consistently produce stops with the game on the line.
This wasn’t the roving band of angry reptiles defending their Swamp that Patrick Toney wants to field consistently in Gainesville. That group is a year or two of high-level recruiting away. But this was a defense growing, making strides and playing clean, assignment football like a well-coached group. It’s also a group that made plays when they needed: whether it was Brenton Cox Jr. making a huge tackle for loss in run support or Princely Umanmielen holding the edge on stretch plays better than any Gator since Cece Jefferson, the Gators did both the big — and little — things it takes to win.
Win. That’s the name of the game in the SEC, and something this program had not accomplished in the league in a full year (Oct. 9, 2021 over Vanderbilt was Florida’s last league win until Saturday). Winning is a familiar sight for Florida fans, and there will be more days like Saturday in The Swamp for Napier. Another familiar sight? A tough Florida defense winning a football game. That returned Saturday. Florida fans and Napier hope that’s just the beginning.