Last week left a terrible taste in the mouths of the Gators’ defense. They allowed Georgia to convert 12 of 18 third-down attempts. They applied almost zero pressure on UGA quarterback Jake Fromm, and the secondary got picked apart.
Due in large part to the defense’s inability to get off the field, UF’s SEC East title and playoff aspirations were all but obliterated. For years, the defense had carried this program while the offense lagged far behind. In their biggest game in years, the defense abandoned them.
“It definitely made us angry because I felt like we felt like if we would’ve done a better job, we could’ve won the game,” freshman defensive end Mohamoud Diabate said. “But, it was in the past. We just look forward to the future. We did not want it to happen again.”
Playing a Vanderbilt offense that ranked last in the SEC in scoring offense, total offense and passing offense entering Saturday proved to be the perfect remedy. No. 10 Florida obliterated Vanderbilt 56-0 for the defense’s third shutout of the season. It’s the first time since 1988 that the Gators have recorded three shutouts in a season.
The day was almost therapeutic for them. The Gators (8-2, 5-2 SEC) limited the Commodores (2-7, 1-5) to 128 total yards and 2.1 yards-per-play. The Commodores failed to convert their first seven third downs and finished 3-for-15. They sacked Vanderbilt’s quarterbacks six times, forced three turnovers and scored a touchdown. Starting quarterback Deuce Wallace was pulled in the fourth quarter. That’s what fans have come to expect from UF’s defense.
“[Stopping them on third down] gave us confidence because we’re like, ‘We’re stopping these boys,’” Diabate said. “Then after one, it’s just like dominoes, like two, three, four. It’s like, ‘We’re locking them up.’ Coach [Todd] Grantham’s calling great plays, players making great plays.”
Florida ran that fumble all the way back 😮 pic.twitter.com/UB99ECTpx6
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 9, 2019
UF coach Dan Mullen said one of their biggest keys entering the game was to pressure Wallace, who had been the third-string quarterback until the top two players both suffered concussions in recent weeks.
“Part of it helps that you’re playing a backup quarterback, with decision-making and all of that, you know what I mean?” he said. “I know how tough that is to do because I’ve had to do it. So, I think that helps with us being able to get pressure on him.
“But, I also think you see the young guys getting more experience and making plays.”
Wallace was impressed with Florida’s defense.
“They’re definitely a talented defense,” he said. “They brought some pressure. We had to get the ball out fast, and I wasn’t able to do that. That’s a solid defensive front. Really solid all-around.”
After a pair of Kyle Trask touchdown passes doubled the Gators’ lead to 28-0 early in the third quarter, the defense seemed to hit a little lull. The Commodores marched to the UF 10-yard line in 10 plays and seemed destined to get on the scoreboard.
Instead, Diabate blitzed to Wallace’s left. He blasted into the backfield untouched and hit Wallace from behind right as he was about to release the ball. The ball flew out of his hand and bounced right into the arms of Jonathan Greenard. Greenard returned the fumble 80 yards for his first career touchdown. It was UF’s longest defensive return since Quincy Wilson’s 79-yard interception return against Missouri in 2016 and was the Gators’ first defensive score of the season.
“Greenard’s touchdown was big,” Mullen said. “I’m on Todd [Grantham], it’s like, ‘We’re in complete control of this game,’ but, hey, you’re a score away or mistake away from this being a tight game, even though it didn’t feel [like] that. It was kind of like, ‘Hey, all’s good, no big deal,’ but we made the play and from that, I think we were able to refocus our edge to finish.”
Diabate said the defense badly wanted the shutout, so he wanted to make a sack to make the field goal attempt as long as possible. He didn’t initially realize that he had knocked the ball free; he found out when he turned his head and saw Greenard rumbling toward the end zone.
“I heard everyone cheering, and I thought they were just cheering for the sack,” he said. “Then I saw Greenard running and I was like, 'Oh snap, let me run too.' So, I got up, and I started chasing him, but he was going pretty fast, so I couldn't get him. I just turned to the sideline celebrating.”
Diabate entered the day with just half a sack this season but saw his role increased with the absences of Jabari Zuniga (ankle) and Jeremiah Moon (foot). To say he made the most of his opportunity would be an understatement. Yes, Vanderbilt’s offense is abysmal, but three sacks as a freshman against an SEC foe is highly impressive.
“Coach Grantham found a way to match me up with people that I could excel against, and he did a good job of putting me in a great position, and I just did what I’m supposed to do,” he said. “I did my job.”
Diabate said he’s tried to soak in as much as possible from Grantham and older teammates such as Greenard, Zuniga and Moon. He’s pleased with the way he’s developed over the course of the season.
“I always felt like I had the talent,” he said. “I just had to mature and get the opportunity to do so. So, when the time came – I talked to Mullen last night – I told him I was going to take care of it.
“Just being mature, learning my plays, being able to execute when it's time to execute, just doing your job, knowing that you don't have to make every play. You just have to do your job.”
He added that the biggest adjustment to the college level has been the size of the offensive linemen. Listed at just 213 pounds, Diabate is limited to a speed-rushing package where he can just run past people. The hope is that he’ll put on significant weight and become a three-down lineman over the next couple of seasons.
A trio of freshman also stood out on the back end. Cornerback Kaiir Elam received extensive playing time as the Gators moved Marco Wilson inside to nickelback. He fared well and broke up a pass. Cornerbacks Jaydon Hill and Chester Kimbrough also got plenty of playing time and had no noticeable breakdowns. Kimbrough also broke up a pass.
Mullen said previous starting nickelback Trey Dean’s dealing with “some personal stuff,” and his move back outside to corner was about putting him in the spot he feels most comfortable in and allowing him to gain confidence.
“He played last year outside, and we won 10 games and a New Year’s Six game with him having to play corner for us,” Mullen said. “Trying to get him back into the groove of getting that confidence, so trying to put him there where he had confidence last year. I thought he did a good job.”
It wasn’t just the young guys who stole the show, however. Safety Donovan Stiner made his team-leading third and fourth interceptions of the season, including one that he returned 29 yards to set up UF’s second score. It was the first multi-interception game of his career.
“He did a great job,” Mullen said. “He’s a smart player. He’s got great length and size and athleticism, and you saw it on those plays. His size and his athletic ability comes into effect, plus intelligence put himself in position to make those plays.”
It was only one game against an opponent that put up less resistance than UT Martin or Towson, but it was a near flawless performance that the Gators desperately needed to have. Next week, they’ll try to shake off some more demons when they take on a Missouri team that’s blown them out the past two seasons. They’ll enter the game with plenty of confidence.
“They didn’t score,” Diabate said. “I feel like we got our edge back. We played the way that we expect to play.”