Notebook: Gators Found a Way

Oct 19, 2019 | 0 comments

No. 9 Florida’s game at South Carolina on Saturday had all the makings of a trap game. The Gators were coming off back-to-back emotional games against Auburn and LSU, while the Gamecocks were riding high falling their upset of Georgia a week ago. The bye week and the clash with Georgia await for the Gators. Then there was the noon kickoff and the consistent rain throughout the game.

For a while, it looked like the Gators (7-1, 4-1 SEC) were going to fall into the trap, but they scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to defeat the Gamecocks (3-4, 2-3) 38-27.

Quarterback Kyle Trask seemed to struggle to get a firm grip on the wet ball in the first half, as a lot of his throws fluttered, sailed high and took longer to get to his receivers than normal. He completed just nine of 16 passes in the opening half for 113 yards and a touchdown. He threw an interception on the second play of the second half.

“Sloppy first half for us with execution and not just, ‘OK, well we didn’t block or this,’” coach Dan Mullen said. “I mean, guys just going the wrong direction, getting the wrong signal, running the wrong plays.”

Defensively, a pair of offside penalties by Luke Ancrum led to South Carolina’s touchdown on their opening drive. The pass rush was virtually non-existent in the first half.

After Trask’s interception, they gave up a 21-yard scoring run to Tavien Feaster on third-and-11 to fall behind 17-10.

Then, something clicked. Trask threw three touchdown passes in the final quarter, the defense shut down the Gamecocks’ offense and forced a turnover and the running game produced just enough to seal the win.

“We had a couple of mess-ups, and then we just all came together like ‘This isn’t us,’ and we kind of just found our identity, and that’s when we started making plays,” Trask said.

“We have a very resilient team. We’re never going to panic no matter the situation. I think this is a special group of guys because we all got each other’s backs, and we always make plays when we need them.”

The Gators will enter November in the situation every team wants to be in – controlling their own destiny. They’ll play three SEC East opponents in a row with all of their championship aspirations still intact.

“You’re heading into November in control of your own destiny and what’s going to happen,” Mullen said. “That’s where we want to be. That’s where we expect to be at Florida.”

Copeland’s Breakout

Entering the day, redshirt freshman receiver Jacob Copeland had caught just nine passes for 92 yards and a score this season. He made three catches for 89 yards against the Gamecocks, and two of his catches were massive.

On third-and-1 at South Carolina’s 37-yard line early in the second quarter, Trask floated a ball between two defenders down the left seam. Copeland high-pointed the ball, bounced off of the defenders and raced into the end zone for a score that tied the game at 10.

His 20-yard reception midway through the fourth quarter set up a Trask touchdown pass to Kyle Pitts that put the game out of reach at 31-20.

Mullen said Copeland’s breakthrough wasn’t a surprise to him. Copeland’s always had the physical traits to be a good receiver in the SEC, but Mullen said he’s noticed a difference in his discipline in practice over the past few weeks.

“Just a different player in the discipline and what he’s doing and knowing his assignment, knowing how to run routes, which I think for young guys, that’s the hard thing,” Mullen said. “They’ll look at me, ‘Coach, don’t you see me make these great plays? I’m a playmaker.’ And I say, ‘I do, but then I see you go the wrong way sometimes.’

“You’ve got to be disciplined and exact, and in the last two weeks, he’s really done a good job of improving that way. I think he’s gotten a lot more trust from everybody, and you saw that he has the ability to make plays.”

Trask’s Turnaround

One of the attributes of a good quarterback is the ability to help his team win even when he doesn’t play his best game, and Trask did just that on Saturday.

Trask ended up completing 21 of 33 passes for 200 yards and a career-best four scores. He became the first Gator since Tim Tebow in 2007 to throw for four touchdowns in a road game.

While it seemed like he struggled to grip the ball for most of the game, Mullen said he thinks Trask was just trying to do too much instead of taking what the defense gave him. Trask easily could’ve thrown a couple of more interceptions by forcing the ball into traffic.

Trask agreed with his coach’s assessment and said that they practice with wet balls to prepare for games like this, so the rain isn’t an excuse. Communication was the biggest problem early on, he said.

Whatever the issues were, he got them corrected when the Gators needed it. His throws seemed to have more zip and accuracy in the fourth quarter.

One play exemplifies the growth Trask continues to make from week to week as the starter. A week ago against LSU, receiver Tyrie Cleveland got mugged by a defender but no flag was thrown. Instead of sticking with Cleveland, his primary read, he forced the ball into double coverage in the end zone and was intercepted.

Trailing 20-17, Mullen called a similar play on Saturday. Freddie Swain was the primary read and got held by a South Carolina defender. This time, Trask stuck with Swain and lofted a ball toward the end zone that Swain dove for and hauled in for the go-ahead score.

Mullen said he discussed that play against LSU with Trask in meetings this week and told him to stick with his primary read longer.

In what’s becoming something of a tradition, Trask held his index finger up to his mouth as if to shush the crowd following his five-yard touchdown pass to Pitts that put his team up 31-20. The Gamecocks’ fans had thrown towels and other debris onto the field to protest a couple of questionable officiating decisions earlier in the quarter.

“I had to do one for [Feleipe] Franks right there,” he said.

Running Game Improving

Florida has struggled to run the ball all season behind its revamped offensive line, ranking just 12th in the league entering Saturday.

They weren’t great against the Gamecocks, but they showed signs of growth for the second week in a row. The Gators rushed for 154 yards at 5.1 yards-per-carry. Dameon Pierce broke off a 75-yard touchdown that tied the game at 17 early in the third quarter. It was the Gators’ third 75+-yard touchdown run this season, a new school record.

“I think that brought some juice and life to the team to avoid the negative start to the second half,” Mullen said. “It changed it around immediately.”

Lamical Perine gained 68 yards on 14 carries (4.9 yards-per-rush).

Mullen said he’s pleased with the direction the running game is headed and the explosive runs they’re generating, but he wants to see more consistency.

Overcoming Injuries

Defensive ends Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard did not play as they recover from ankle injuries.

Unlike a week ago, UF’s young but talented reserve ends played well in their absence and gave their team a chance to win. Florida sacked Gamecocks quarterback Ryan Hilinski three times and recorded seven tackles-for-loss.

“We’re well aware in the room of what’s going on,” defensive end Zachary Carter said. “We knew we had to step up with our guys being down. We did a good job of stepping up. We made the plays that need to be made.”

Other than the final few drives when the game was at hand and they played softer defenses, they defended the run well.

“It’s a great credit to the guys, our team, the next guy up to get us in this position with all the injuries we’ve had to deal with this year,” Mullen said. “But, hopefully, we get healthy moving forward.”

Mullen said he’s optimistic Zuniga and Greenard will return to practice the week of the Georgia game, but he doesn’t know for sure.

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