New year, same question: Could Florida score enough to knock off a ranked opponent?
The answer wasn’t terribly different from Jim McElwain’s first two season in Gainesville.
The Gators returned interceptions for touchdowns on back-to-back possessions, but offensive points were few and far between and mistakes too plentiful in a 33-17 loss to No. 11 Michigan on Saturday.
Feleipe Franks, making his college debut, started and showed some of the dual-threat skills that made him such a coveted recruit but couldn’t make enough plays and was replaced by Malik Zaire in the third quarter. Franks finished 5-for-9 for 75 yards.
Karan Higdon, a 3-star recruit from Sarasota who did not receive an offer from the in-state Gators, put the Wolverines on top to stay with a 3-yard touchdown run on Michigan’s opening drive of the second half.
Tyrie Cleveland fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Michigan quickly tacked on three more for a 23-17 lead.
Franks, trying to extend Florida’s next drive, fumbled at the Gators’ 37. Again, the defense held, but Quinn Nordin drilled his fourth field goal — and second from 50 or more yards — to make it 26-17.
That deficit wouldn’t normally seem insurmountable, but Florida was without its top playmakers — Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett were two of 10 Gators who were suspended — and nobody is real sure when they are returning.
McElwain turned to Zaire, who went three-and-out on his first drive without gaining a yard. Zaire was tackled for a 2-yard loss on a designed run, and scrambled early before misfiring on third down.
Zaire’s first completion, a screen to Josh Hammond, moved the sticks on Florida’s next drive — it was the Gators’ first first down of the second half.
Cleveland made a leaping grab for another first down as Florida made its way to midfield. Another short completion pushed the Gators into Michigan territory for the first time since late in the second quarter.
Just about everything Zaire threw came off some type of rollout, designed or otherwise, and the drive ended when he was sacked on a similar play. Sacks always make rushing stats look misleading, but the Gators ran for just 21 yards on their first 25 attempts.
Michigan continued to pound away. The Wolverines ran for 215 yards, totaled 433 overall. Doing so didn’t result in more touchdowns, but it effectively ate enough clock to make a Gators comeback all the more improbable.
Zaire was 7-of-15 for 58 yards before completing two late passes. He never looked comfortable in the pocket. On back-to-back plays inside his 10, he fumbled, the second of which Michigan recovered in the end zone for its final touchdown.
He looked, at times, like a left-handed Treon Harris.
Florida kept it close, but ultimately its offense, which couldn’t top 200 total yards and accounted for just three points, couldn’t do enough.
It’s a new year, but it sure seemed a lot like the previous two.