Offensive fireworks the perfect way to open a weird season

Sep 27, 2020 | 0 comments

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College football in 2020 is going to look weird. Coaches and other non-players are wearing face coverings. Teams are playing shortened, conference-only schedules in front of significantly reduced crowds.

What happened on the field between No. 5 Florida and Ole Miss inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday afternoon might’ve been the weirdest of all.

The Gators’ defense surrendered 613 total yards, including 443 yards through the air. The Rebels converted nine of 14 third downs, averaged nearly eight yards per play, and visited the red zone eight times.

And yet, the Gators (1-0) still won the game, 51-35. No, your eyes didn’t deceive you. You really just watched the Gators win a game despite their defense instead of because of their defense.

From 2010-17, Gator fans would’ve given almost anything to field an offense that was at least decent enough to not waste an elite defense. They’ve finally got that and a whole lot more.

The Gators rolled up 642 yards of total offense against the Rebels (0-1), a new school record against an SEC opponent. They averaged 8.7 yards per play and picked up 32 first downs.

“I heard that it was a school record for offense,” coach Dan Mullen said. “I would expect, when I get home, my neighbor Coach Spurrier right around the corner right there, I should have a really nice bottle of wine sitting on my desk if I broke one of his records offensively. That’s at least deserving of a nice bottle of wine.”

That’s an understatement.

The explosion was led by the record-setting combination of quarterback Kyle Trask and tight end Kyle Pitts.

Trask completed 30 of 42 passes for 416 yards and six touchdowns. Those 416 yards were the most by a Gator in a conference game since Rex Grossman in 2001, and the six scoring tosses tied LSU’s Joe Burrow for the most ever by an SEC player in a conference opener.

However, his brilliance on Saturday wasn’t fully encapsulated by the box score, Mullen said.

“He did a good job of managing the whole offense and managing the game, getting us into the right plays,” he said. “All the adjustments we made on the sideline, he did a great job getting to those adjustments and finding the mismatches all over the field. I think we did a really good job of that all day."

Pitts was on the receiving end of eight of those completions for a career-high 170 yards and four touchdowns, which tied Ike Hilliard and Jack Jackson for the most receiving touchdowns in a game in school history. He became the third FBS tight end since 1996 to amass 150 or more receiving yards and four touchdowns in a game.

“He’s a special player,” Mullen said. “But you know what, one of the things you always try to do is create matchups. You saw some of the matchups we were able to create with him today. He’s that matchup problem as a tight end. That’s what you like. You get [linebackers] matched up on him, that’s a problem for them in the pass game. You put DBs on him in the run game, he’s a physical blocker at the point of attack. That’s what you want in a tight end position. We’ve been seeing it in training camp. I know he’s got a chip on his shoulder and wanted to go show what he could be this year and has really to me taken a step forward as a complete tight end for what we want.”

Trask, who was named Preseason First Team All-SEC earlier in the week by the media, was accurate, poised, decisive and smart. The Rebels mixed up their pressures and coverages and couldn’t do anything to even slow him down. Trask should be No. 1 on the way-too-early Heisman Trophy list after his performance.

“I just feel like we had a great game plan,” Trask said. “We had answers for every look they were throwing at us, and we had some great checks that we executed well. Overall, it was just a great team game. Everybody executed from start to finish.”

All four of the scoring strikes between Trask and Pitts came at critical points in the game. Trask found him on a play-action rollout on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line on UF’s first possession of the game. Their second scoring connection came on a perfectly thrown back-shoulder throw that gave them a two-score lead heading into halftime.

On the second play of the third quarter, the two combined for the play of the game. Pitts lined up as an H-back on the left side and ran a post pattern. Trask threw it slightly behind him, but the junior slowed his stride a bit, made the catch, stiff-armed a defender to gain separation and sprinted ahead for a 71-yard touchdown that extended the lead to 35-14.

“They kind of played a look where it was a Mike linebacker on me,” Pitts said. “And when we had that, we just knew it was me versus him. And I just felt like once I caught it and stiff-armed him that I just had to use the best of my speed to keep going.”

Their final scoring connection came from 17 yards out early in the final quarter after the Rebels had trimmed the lead to 15. Pitts was double-teamed on the play but still muscled the ball away from a defender for the record-tying score for both he and Trask.

Pitts said he thought from the looks they got from the scout team in practice during the week that he would have a chance to have a big game on Saturday.

“I think it’s a good start, but there’s always room for improvement and things I want to work on, during the run game,” he said.” But you know, passing-wise, I feel like that was a good start for the offense and myself.”

Aside from the Kyles, receiver Kadarius Toney also had a productive game, catching five passes for 59 yards and a touchdown and rushing twice for 55 yards. For the first time in his career, he looked like a legitimate slot receiver instead of an athletic former quarterback trying to figure out what to do. He ran crisp routes, caught the ball and got upfield quickly.

Trevon Grimes caught a touchdown, and Dameon Pierce rushed for 54 yards on nine carries.

Even Florida’s most criticized unit last season, the offensive line, showed tremendous signs of progress. They paved the way for 6.8 yards per carry and gave up only one sack.

Even with the record-breaking offensive outbreak, Mullen believes the Gators still have a lot of things to improve on offense.

“There’s a lot of little things,” he said. “We made a lot of plays. We did some things. We’ve got to finish a little bit better up front in the run game. A couple little misreads in the pass game, not just quarterbacks, receivers and route-running. We’ve just got to be cleaner.”

For the first time in what feels like forever, UF’s offense carried a struggling defense to victory. Of course, the goal is for the Gators to improve on defense and not look like a Big 12 team. Mullen believes part of their struggles can be attributed to only live-tackling twice in the last nine months and not hitting a quarterback at all during that span. He is confident that defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will right the ship.

Still, while there will be time to worry about this defense in the coming days, Saturday was all about celebrating the offense. For the first time in more than a decade, Florida’s offense is capable of overcoming a horrific day on defense.

How weird.

“We came out firing, and a lot of people maybe didn't expect that,” Pitts said. “But, you know, we've been practicing pretty hard, trying hard, so I feel like everything that we’ve prepared for, it showed today.”

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