Gators pleased with win but know there’s work to be done

Nov 21, 2020 | 0 comments


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One of the telltale signs of a great team is when it wins a game by multiple scores on the road, and yet the performance still feels like a disappointment.

That was exactly the case in No. 6 Florida’s 38-17 defeat of Vanderbilt (0-7) on Saturday afternoon in Nashville.

“I think it was kind of just a ho-hum performance for us, if that's the best way to put it, which we can't do if we want to be a great team,” coach Dan Mullen said. “We can't do that.”

Offensively, the Gators (6-1) racked up 586 total yards, threw for more than 400 yards, averaged 7.7 yards per play, and scored at least 35 points for the ninth consecutive game and the seventh consecutive league game, both program records. This would be one of the best games of the season for most other offenses around the country.

But the Gators’ offense isn’t like most offenses. They expect much more than what they showed on Saturday. While quarterback Kyle Trask added to his Heisman campaign with a 26-for-35, 383-yard, three-touchdown effort, he missed a couple of throws that he would normally make in his sleep and made several poor decisions that probably should’ve resulted in interceptions. The normally reliable receiving corps dropped a few passes.

UF punted on two of its first three possessions, and the offensive line opened holes for just 37 yards rushing in the opening half.

“There wasn’t a lot of energy in the stadium since there wasn’t a lot of fans,” Trask said. “I just think we got to do a better job of bringing energy within the team and making sure we’re ready to play when that foot hits the ball.”

Defensively, Florida had a bunch of trouble adjusting to Vanderbilt’s tempo and getting lined up in time. The cornerbacks got beat on some slants, and the safeties took some terrible angles. The pass-rush disappeared for long stretches. The tackling issues that the Gators thought they had put to bed the past three games reared their ugly head again.

It all added up to the Commodores rolling up 406 yards, converting seven of 15 third downs and averaging 14.5 yards per completion. Freshman quarterback Ken Seals looked like Vanderbilt legend Jay Cutler, completing 22 of 34 throws for 319 yards and a pair of scores. For the third game in a row, UF gave up a long touchdown, this time a 58-yard pass from Seals to Chris Pierce that saw Pierce run wide open on a slant and break a couple of tackle attempts. For the fifth time in seven games this season, the opponent scored a touchdown on its opening drive.

“We shouldn't need anything to motivate us to start strong,” cornerback Kaiir Elam said. “I don't understand why we do that, but it starts in practice. I'm definitely going to try my best to have us to go faster, get the play-call faster, and just execute. I feel like we were supposed to dominate today, and we didn't.”

Even the special teams struggled, with Kadarius Toney’s long kickoff return in the third quarter getting negated due to a holding penalty committed by reserve receiver Ja’Markis Weston.

Mullen said there were numerous mistakes made in all phases of the game, and it wasn’t just one or two little things that kept giving them fits. The key now is to identify why a tackle was missed or why Trask missed a certain throw and try to correct those underlying issues in practice.

“Is it a missed tackle because we had a poor angle on the ball; is it a missed tackle because we had a missed tackle; is it a missed tackle for poor effort; is it a missed tackle because we had the wrong guy in a situation to maybe make that play one-on-one; was it a good call?” Mullen said. “Everything that you look at, it’s not, ‘OK, oh, it’s one thing leads to this.’ There’s a lot of different things that can happen on any given play, and you say, ‘Oh, that was a missed block.’ Well, maybe the quarterback checked us into the wrong play and made it a really, really hard block when there was a much easier thing for us to do.”

Mullen said he could sense an uneven performance like this throughout the week in practice, and they’ll need to practice better to avoid another game like this in the future.

“I don't know that we had our best week of practice this week,” he said. “Not attitude-wise, I just kind of thought we were a little bit blah a couple of the days, two of the days, a couple days of the practice, not as sharp, not as crisp with everything we were doing. That was kind of top to bottom. I think at times we came out here and played. It was kind of we had a good day and then a bad day. A good day and then a bad day of practice this week, and it kind of looked that way offensively and defensively [in the game]. A good drive, a bad drive, a good drive, a bad drive. So, I'm really pleased with our guys finding a way to win and suck it up and be good enough to win and make the plays we need to to win despite not playing at our top, our best for the entire game.”

Though he’s only a sophomore, Elam views himself as one of the leaders of the defense. He said it’s on him and the other leaders to hold each other more accountable in practice.

“I think it's just something we have to continue to get better on, and our leadership, I think that starts with practice,” he said. “Even leading up to the game, I feel like we have to do a better job of making sure we actually play like we have a National Championship Game or SEC Championship Game.”

Still, wins never come easy in the SEC, particularly in a 10-game league schedule where there’s so much uncertainty and adversity due to COVID. Trask said even the best teams are going to start slow sometimes, and he thinks they did a nice job of settling in and finding their groove eventually.

“It’s something Coach Mullen’s told us, was he’s been on championship teams, and sometimes they came out flat, but they still found a way to win,” Trask said. “And obviously, we came out pretty flat. Obviously, you want to start off faster than that, but at the end of the day, we found a way to win and that’s all that matters.”

Mullen thinks some of the plays they made down the stretch will increase the team’s confidence as they play in bigger games down the stretch this season.

“They punt us to the 1-inch line,” he said. “Their receivers are leaping over guys making these spectacular catches, converting some long-distance situations. They made some big plays. The defense, we give us these yards in a 14-point game, and we end up knocking them back to stop them. Then they punt us to the 1-inch line, and the offense comes out and goes 99 ½ yards. That’s great team football. That’s one side saying ‘Hey, look, we can make a stop’ and the other side saying ‘Hey, great, you make the stop, and we’ll put the game away.’ I think that helps build a lot of confidence with everybody within the team. You’re going to win as a team.”

Was the Gators’ performance on Saturday good enough to win the SEC Championship or make the College Football Playoff? Certainly not. But the beauty of the situation the Gators have put themselves in is that they don’t have to play at a championship level every game. They just need to survive the final few games of the regular season by any means possible and play the game of their lives against Alabama. So far, so good.

Against Vanderbilt, they were good enough to win by 21 points, and that’s all that matters.

“I have a smile on my face,” Mullen said. “You never take a win for granted. It’s hard to win football games. You’re playing a 10-game SEC schedule. I’m fired up. I was really proud of how our guys actually played today. We stubbed our toe along the way, and we still come out with a 21-point victory with the game in hand basically the whole second half. So, I am really proud of how our guys played today.”

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