Kyle Trask deserved better than Florida's Cotton Bowl disaster, and Gators fans deserved more, too
Kyle Trask finished his illustrious Florida career with a whimper Wednesday night at the Cotton Bowl, denied the storybook ending he deserved by a hungry Oklahoma team that intercepted Trask 3 times in the opening quarter alone. The Sooners stormed to a 17-0 lead and never trailed, ultimately mauling the Gators 55-20.
Trask and the Gators were outplayed, outcoached and outworked, undone by early mistakes, all errors Florida’s hapless defense couldn’t produce enough stops to negate.
Already a Florida legend, Trask’s Gators legacy is secure.
Trask is a well-deserved Heisman finalist, a consensus All-American and finalist for the Davey O’Brien Award, given annually to the best quarterback in college football. A massive underdog his whole career, Trask waited nearly 7 years between starts, a backup to D’Eriq King (now of Miami) in high school and Feleipe Franks throughout his early years at Florida. When his chance came, he seized it, throwing for over 6,500 yards in 2 seasons as the Florida starter and this season, leading the country in passing yards per game and passing touchdowns.
Less than 2 weeks ago, Trask went toe to toe with fellow Heisman finalists Mac Jones and DeVonta Smith of Alabama, throwing for 408 yards and accounting for 4 touchdowns in a thrilling SEC Championship game that saw the Gators fall just 6 points short of upsetting the No. 1 Crimson Tide.
But there would be no heroic, signature performance Wednesday in Trask’s Florida finale.
It’s a shame that on an evening Trask decided to stick around and play for his school one more time, in his home state, in front of plenty of friends and family, Trask’s coaches and teammates didn’t pick him up when he needed them most.
Thanks to a rash of opt-outs, beginning with key target and fellow Florida legend Kyle Pitts, Trask faced a vastly improved Sooners defense without his top 4 receiving targets in Pitts, fellow All-American Kadarius Toney, likely early-round NFL Draft pick Tre Grimes and sophomore Jacob Copeland.
Still, there was some reason for optimism, or at least hope, entering the game.
Trask spread the wealth all season, helping the Gators become the only team in the Power 5 with 8 players who had 15 catches or more. If anyone could overcome the loss of 66% of his total receiving production and 75% of his team’s total touchdowns, maybe it was the Heisman finalist.
It wasn’t to be. He finished a meager 16-for-28 for 153 yards. There were 0 TD passes and 3 interceptions — and in truth, it wasn’t all Trask’s fault.
A handful of plays and possessions demonstrate the way Trask’s teammates let him down, even if, as always, the senior held himself accountable following the game.
With Florida finally driving down 17-0, Dan Mullen made the curious decision to remove Emory Jones, who orchestrated much of the drive, from the game in the red zone, despite the way Jones was keeping the Sooners off balance.
Trask threw a devastating interception on a corner route where a true freshman Ja’Quavion Fraziars, who didn’t catch a pass all season, failed to run a crisp route, allowing Oklahoma’s Woodi Washington to gain good position for the pick.
This has not been a good night for Florida QB Kyle Trask's NFL Draft stock. This awful goal-line interception is his third interception of the first quarter vs Oklahoma. pic.twitter.com/chfb7RaQUQ
— The Comeback (@thecomeback) December 31, 2020
In the second quarter, with the Gators down 11 and driving, Trask threw a beautiful ball to Pitts’s replacement, Keon Zipperer, downfield. Zipperer, a highly coveted tight end recruit who chose Florida over Miami and Alabama, dropped the ball. Instead of 24-20, Florida was forced to punt.
Todd Grantham’s leaky Florida defense capitulated on the ensuing possession, allowing Oklahoma to convert a 3rd-and-11 on a draw play intended to run clock and establish field goal angle and then conceding a touchdown 4 plays later to allow the Sooners to lead 31-13 at the half.
The Gators’ much-maligned defense talked plenty in the buildup to the game, with linebacker James Houston (who spent most of the evening on the bench with his mouth shut) calling the Sooners “not on (Florida’s) level.”
The Gators didn’t back any of that chatter up on the field Wednesday, surrendering almost 700 yards and a Sooners’ bowl record 55 points to redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler and the Oklahoma offense. The Sooners averaged 10 yards per carry in the run game, and Rattler was an efficiency machine when called upon, calmly distributing the ball to playmakers who were on a different level than the Gators’ defense in space.
It didn’t get better in the second half, even as the Sooners pulled starters and turned to backups.
I love playing against this tough SEC defense. Boomer Sooner! pic.twitter.com/ZBflqJvtKt
— Darryl (@DarrylDJack) December 31, 2020
The fact is Florida was flattened in all facets of football Wednesday night, a team without a competent defense completely lost when missing the bulk of the playmakers who made this a fun season that ended just short of special. Say what you will about Florida’s roster being hollowed out due to injuries, opt-outs, and COVID-19, but the truth is this was a troubling effort by a Florida team that should have been motivated to send their Heisman finalist and leader out a winner.
Mullen demurred on the tough questions after the game, expressing professional and perfunctory disappointment in Florida’s 3rd straight loss but downplaying its significance to the program’s long-term health.
Maybe that’s fair.
After all, the bigger challenges for Florida wait in what should be the most interesting, inflection point of an offseason the program has seen in a decade.
What will become of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham? After 2 seasons of elevating the play of the defense, Florida fell off a cliff in 2020, finishing in the bottom half of the country in defense and surrendering a staggering 144 points in the team’s season-closing 3-game losing streak.
The Gators entered the Cotton Bowl having lost 3 games by a collective 12 points in games when they scored 38, 34 and 46 points offensively. That shouldn’t happen anywhere, and as Grantham acknowledged this week, simply isn’t up to the “Gator standard” Mullen consistently references. Will Mullen give his longtime coordinator, whose relationship extends back to Mississippi State, a year to fix it? Or will Florida move on, trusting that a fresh voice can trigger a turnaround in a group that isn’t lean on talent.
Is Emory Jones ready to replace Trask?
Jones looked poised Wednesday, but he wasn’t particularly accurate. Granted, like Trask, he was missing Florida’s best weapons. But he also missed some open receivers badly and for all the good he brings to the offense in the run game, the modern game demands that you be able to throw to win the biggest football games. Is Jones ready?
What about playmakers? Trent Whittemore showed his ability to get open and make plays Wednesday. Nay’Quan Wright is a versatile, explosive football player. No one else showed much interest in staking a claim to 2021 playing time.
In other ways though, Mullen’s deflection and decision not to put much stock in the loss is not good enough. Mullen is the CEO of one of the proudest programs in college football. Any 35-point loss, under any circumstances, is not something you write off. A loss to a perennial Playoff program, like Oklahoma, should only remind Mullen how much farther his program has to go, even if this team fell just short in Atlanta.
It also isn’t just about players who opted out, especially guys like Pitts and Toney, who left it all on the field in Atlanta. Toney was right when he took to Twitter to defend making a decision for himself after a career of making program-first choices.
It’s the job of the staff to have the “next guy up” ready to play. Florida’s staff didn’t do that Wednesday. That’s coaching.
In the end, it was a miserable performance by a team that should have played harder for a quarterback who elevated the entire program.
Instead, Trask trudged off the field, confined to the bench in the second half as the Gators looked to the future. It’s still a bright future, in no small part thanks to Trask, who constantly gave his all for Florida and helped make Gators football fun again.
That’s worth remembering, and there will be time for that, beginning with Trask’s Heisman ceremony clips next week.
But at the end of the 2020 season and in the Cotton Bowl, Trask deserved better, and Gators fans deserve more.