As they’ve done numerous times this season, the No. 11 Gators’ (9-2, 6-2 SEC) offense got off to a sluggish start on a cold late morning in Missouri. Despite gaining 176 yards, averaging 5.3 yards-per-play and not turning the ball over in the first half, they went to the locker room at halftime with only a pair of Evan McPherson field goals to show for it.
“We were moving the ball well, and it wasn’t like we were stuck in the mud,” coach Dan Mullen said. “It was, we were moving the ball, big negative play that we couldn’t recover from and ended up having to punt. That’s annoying.
“We just had to clean up some little things.”
Actually, to be more accurate, they had five big things to clean up – the five offensive linemen.
Missouri entered Saturday with just 14 sacks this season, which was tied for 105th in the country. They sacked UF’s Kyle Trask four times in the first half, and they all killed promising drives.
They turned things around in a big way in the second half of Florida’s 23-6 defeat of Missouri (5-5, 2-4) on Saturday afternoon. Trask wasn’t sacked in the second half, and he took advantage of the clean pockets by firing a pair of third-quarter touchdowns to Josh Hammond and Lamical Perine to put the game out of reach.
Trask said their prior experiences with slow starts this season helped them remain calm and trust their game plan.
“We have had a couple games like this where it’s a little slow start this season,” he said. “I tell our guys just to stick with it; that’s why we’re never panicking, especially in a situation like this where it’s so low-scoring at halftime. It seems like there’s not a lot positive going on because the scoreboard’s so low. I’m really proud of the way our guys just stuck with the game plan and eventually we got it rolling.
Added receiver Van Jefferson: “You just got to believe in yourself. You got to believe in the guys around you. Everybody just came together, and we’re like, ‘Man, let’s get it done.’”
One of the reasons Perine chose to come back for his senior season after the 2018 campaign was to become a more well-rounded running back. Yes, he ran for 826 yards while splitting carries in 2018, but with the way the game is being played in the NFL these days, running the ball is only part of the equation. Running backs are also expected to be a dynamic weapon out the backfield and hold their own in pass-protection.
While he hasn’t had the season as a rusher that a lot of people expected out of him, he’s third on the team in receptions with 32 and hasn’t had many breakdowns in protection.
“He gets lost, the year he’s having catching the ball and the matchups and the problems he causes coming out of the backfield,” Mullen said.
“I think that’s one of the things he’s understood and really benefit is, ‘Hey, I’m running an offense that is going to be similar to what I might be doing next year when I get the opportunity to go play in the NFL and catching balls and doing this and, hey, I’ll get some carries here and there. I got to take advantage of my carries, but I got to be a three-down all-purpose back to be able to do everything. Got to be able to catch, protect, run, do it all.’”
Most of his receptions this season had been short dump-offs when nothing was open downfield. That changed against the Tigers.
On first-and-10 from UM’s 15-yard line in the third quarter, Trask rolled to his left to escape pressure. He lofted a ball between two defenders that hit Perine in the chest in the edge of the end zone. Perine trapped the ball against his chest, got a foot down and held on as he hit the turf. It was initially ruled an incomplete pass, but it was overturned after a review.
“He catches the ball very well,” Jefferson said. “He’s always over there catching with us sometimes. He’s been working on it all summer. So, I think he’s just showing it in games now.”
Defense Getting Its Groove Back
After getting torched repeatedly in the loss to Georgia, UF’s defense has bounced back nicely in the last two games. After shutting out Vanderbilt for their third shutout of the season last week, they limited Missouri to 256 total yards, held them to 5-for-18 on third downs, forced a turnover and recorded three sacks and 10 tackles-for-loss.
“Defense did a great job,” Mullen said. “You’re looking, playing a team here in Missouri that’s averaged 40 points-per-game at home, a team that’s blown out everybody they’ve played at home. Come in and hold them to six points I think was fantastic effort by our defense. I thought we played really, really hard defensively.”
Part of this turnaround certainly has to do with a declining level of competition, but getting defensive end/linebacker Jonathan Greenard back from injury didn’t hurt either.
Greenard had been in and out of the lineup since he suffered a sprained ankle against Auburn on Oct. 5. When he was playing, he didn’t seem to have the same burst off of the line that he showed earlier this season.
He scored his first career touchdown on an 80-yard fumble return against Vanderbilt and followed it up with perhaps his most complete game of the season against the Tigers.
“I felt pretty healthy today; the ankle felt really good,” Greenard said. “I just wanted to make some plays, and I did.”
Yes, he did. He sacked Kelly Bryant twice and made five tackles-for-loss. He lived in the Tigers’ backfield and blew up several running plays.
“I think it’s a lot help and the leadership he brings, but I think it also is the fact now that we’ve had so many injuries, had to play so many guys, all of a sudden, you have some depth,” Mullen said. “Now we’re rolling a lot of guys on defense, and you’re seeing us be fresh for four quarters and go be able to play.”
Another boost to the defense is the emergence of Marco Wilson at nickelback. Wilson moved to that position full time after the Georgia game, but this was his first test against a decent offense.
He made his third interception of the season and made a tackle-for-loss on a blitz. He seems like an upgrade over Trey Dean at the position, as his quickness allows him to stick closer to slot receivers than Dean. He didn’t make any noticeable errors against the run.
“He’s a playmaker,” Mullen said. “That’s probably the second-most important position in the secondary. So, he’s really bought into adapting that, and you see him making some plays.”