The No. 9 Gators rolled up 422 yards of total offense on Saturday. They didn’t turn the ball over. They converted six of nine third downs and went 4-for-4 in the red zone. Defensively, they pitched a shutout and surrendered just 248 total yards, including just 65 on the ground. They forced three turnovers and racked up four sacks and eight tackles-for-loss. They committed just four penalties for 28 yards.
Still, the Gators’ (5-0, 2-0 SEC) 38-0 defeat of FCS Towson didn’t feel totally fulfilling. There was still something left to be desired. They controlled the game and the outcome was never in doubt, but they didn’t beat the brakes off of the Tigers (3-2) like you would expect them to.
“Sometimes, we kind of play down to our competition,” defensive end Jonathan Greenard said. “No disrespect to them, but we knew that we had better players. But, overall, we just knew that sometimes we can play down. But, I know when we play better teams in the future, that can’t happen, and I know we’ll play up then.”
The offensive line once again struggled to consistently create space in the running game, especially in the first half. Starting running back Lamical Perine gained just 16 yards on his six carries. After allowing just five sacks in the first four contests, the offensive line gave up three sacks to the Tigers.
Coach Dan Mullen said the biggest issue up front is communication. They aren’t getting whooped physically up front as much as they aren’t on the same page about who to block.
“I challenged them,” he said. “That has got to improve. That has got to improve for us. The mental toughness of the offensive line in their preparation has got to improve as we move forward. Those guys have got to. I know John [Hevesy] gets on them. They’re young guys. They go, ‘Coach, I’m working.’ No, you’re not, obviously not, because if you were working, we wouldn’t have missed assignments. So, what you’re doing is not enough. They need to do more.”
Center Nick Buchanan said he feels like the offensive line isn’t that far away from generating a strong running game. They just need to improve on the finer details in practice.
“That’s what it always is in football,” he said. “Just one little thing separates you from being good and being great. So, that just goes back on us in practice and getting better at the little things every day, so we don’t say, ‘Oh, we’re one tackle [away],’ we can say this running game is really explosive.”
Quarterback Kyle Trask completed his first 15 passes. Combined with his last three throws against Tennessee, he set a new school record with 18 consecutive passes completed. Overall, he completed 18 of 20 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns to Kyle Pitts. However, he held onto the ball too long at times, got away with throwing a ball right into a defender’s hands in the end zone and overthrew a wide open Van Jefferson on a post pattern.
Additionally, Jacob Copeland dropped a touchdown pass from Emory Jones.
This might seem nit-picky, but missed opportunities like these could hurt the Gators in future games.
Florida’s defense forced Towson to punt just one time in the first half, as Tigers quarterback Tom Flacco found plenty of open receivers downfield and running room. Some of the poor tackling and bad angles that plagued them in the Miami game showed up again.
“I was disappointed with that,” Mullen said. “One of their backs wasn’t real big. A couple of times, he was really low center of gravity and got underneath us.”
Cornerback Jaydon Hill dropped what should’ve been an easy pick-six in the second quarter.
For the game, the Tigers converted eight of 15 third downs. Not being able to get them off the field on third down limited UF’s offense to just 60 plays.
“We hold ourselves to a high standard, the school holds us to a high standard, the coaches hold us to a high standard,” Greenard said. “So, the small details, it’s not perfect, and that’s not what we want. For the defense as a whole and the team, we’ve got to step it up.”
If you’re an optimist, the sloppy play on Saturday is a telling sign that the program is moving in the right direction. Two years ago, they went 4-7. Now, they’ve progressed to the point where they can play poorly and still beat a team by 38 points and record their second shutout in three weeks.
If you’re a pessimist, you can look at the gauntlet of games Florida has coming up – they play Auburn, LSU and Georgia in a five-week span – and wonder how they’ll have any chance of winning.
Of course, the reality is probably somewhere in the middle. The Gators are a good team with some obvious flaws but also a lot of room for growth. Mullen acknowledged that the schedule is about to get much tougher.
“You look at this team, we've taken care of business to this point,” he said. “We have taken care of business. Whatever the situation, good or bad, we've taken care of business so far this season. We've played some good teams, but now it's going to go to a whole new level for us. Now you've got a top-10 team coming in here next week. It's going to go to a whole new level."
Some of the Gators’ issues are injury-related. Cornerback CJ Henderson, defensive end Jabari Zuniga, safety Shawn Davis, and receivers Freddie Swain and Kadarius Toney missed the game with injuries. Mullen said he expects all of them to be back next week except for Toney, which will certainly bolster the Gators’ chances. However, the players know that it’s all going to start by working harder in practice. The Gators have been held back by a handful of plays each game. They need to eliminate those to have a chance against Auburn next Saturday.
“If we don't prepare, practice better, if we don't have a better routine, if we don't take care of our bodies, have a great lift and put in a little extra time and do the things we need to do to get better as a football team, if our scout team doesn't perform better, whatever it is, every aspect of the game, if we don't get better this week, we can't expect to win,” Mullen said. “That has to be the focus.”
Receiver Trevon Grimes said he is confident that the Gators are about to get things figured out and go on a run.
“I feel like we have some potential plays we haven’t tapped into yet, and we’re going to do it and show everybody that we’re one of the best teams in the country,” he said.
“That comes with time, that comes with experience, and I feel like we’re at that point in the season where everything is starting to mesh together, and we’re going to be good.”