Gators’ defense found its footing in win over Kentucky

Nov 28, 2020 | 0 comments

Kentucky’s first four drives took 22 minutes and 10 seconds off of the clock and resulted in 10 points. The Wildcats rushed for 126 yards in the first half.

Everything seemed to be going according to script for the offensively challenged Wildcats. They were wearing down UF’s defense by dominating time-of-possession, keeping Florida’s high-powered offense off of the field, and taking advantage of scoring opportunities when they got them.

Then the chewing out happened.

On multiple occasions during a drive in the second quarter that saw Kentucky take nearly 7 ½ minutes off of the clock and kick a go-ahead field goal, television cameras caught UF coach Dan Mullen engaging in a passionate and one-sided conversation with defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.

Mullen should try to remember what he said to Grantham and say it again before every game for the rest of the season. Grantham’s defense pitched a shutout from that point on in No. 6 Florida’s 34-10 defeat of Kentucky (3-6) on Saturday afternoon in the Swamp.

“[The players] look, and they sit there and say, ‘Hey, that’s not the best we can play,’” Mullen said. “Our coaches understand that, too. ‘Hey, we’ve got to make some adjustments, make sure we make the adjustments for what they’re doing.’ I think Todd, we went through that at halftime. The game is so much about adjustments. People are going to come in and have some different wrinkles and different changes and do different things each week. I think our guys came in, made a great adjustment, and our guys came out really motivated in the second half. I think they were probably a little disappointed with how they played in that first half, and that was Gator defense, really, from that last drive of the first half on, that was what we expect Gator defense to look like.”

After giving up 175 yards in the first half, the Gators (7-1) held the Wildcats to 46 yards and two first downs after intermission. About half of those yards and both of the first downs came after UF put the second string in about midway through the final quarter. They intercepted starting quarterback Terry Wilson twice and backup quarterback Joey Gatewood once. It was unquestionably the beleaguered unit’s best half this season.

“We definitely started off the game kind of slow,” said linebacker James Houston, who tied a career-high with eight tackles and led the team with 2.5 tackles-for-loss. “Second half, we made our adjustments. We did what we had to do. The defense came together as a unit. We basically said, ‘We’ve got to get three-and-outs. We’ve got to get off the field and get our offense the ball so we can start winning this game and start turning the corner.’”

With the outstanding second-half performance, the Gators’ defensive statistics for the entire game ended up looking pretty good. They limited Kentucky to 221 total yards, 62 passing yards, 2-for-13 on third downs and 3.6 yards per play. Those 221 yards were the fewest given up by Florida this season.

Freshman defensive back Tre’Vez Johnson, who made his first career interception, said the way they rebounded sends a clear message to future opponents.

“You’re going to have to play all four quarters versus us,” Johnson said. “So, we know the game [is] never over; we know we come out here to win. So, just going into the second half, we knew we had to come out with more energy than we did in the first half. Come out, play better [as a] team, play to the Gator Standard. So, I mean, we weren't really trippin'; it was just something we knew we had to come out with a lot more energy and show what Gator football does.”

While the defense’s poor start only resulted in 10 points for Kentucky, it clearly had an impact on UF’s offense. They only ran 21 plays and had the ball for only a little more than 6 ½ minutes in the first half. Quarterback Kyle Trask and his receivers looked out of sync, Mullen seemed a little off with his play-calling and the offensive line looked like an abject disaster. They only scored on one of their four drives in the opening half.

Once the defense got them some stops and gave them the ball regularly in the second half, they rolled up 243 yards, and Trask fired a pair of touchdown strikes to tight end Kyle Pitts. In turn, the offense gave the defense a three-score lead to work with for most of the second half, which forced Kentucky to abandon its strategy of milking the clock and limiting possessions. The Wildcats were forced to throw the ball, which resulted in even more success for the defense.

That cycle wasn’t just a coincidence. That’s what coaches often refer to as complementary football. The Gators haven’t played enough of it this season, putting almost all of the burden on the offense. On Saturday, neither side of the ball was sharp enough to win the game on its own, but they worked in concert with one another to get the job done.

Of course, the goal is to play well on offense, defense, and special teams from the first snap of the game to the last, and it will likely take such an effort for the Gators to win championships this season. Still, Mullen cautioned that the season is a long process full of ups and downs. The goal is to peak as a team in December and January, not right now. He thinks they’re on the right track.

“I don't think we've played a complete game yet,” Mullen said. “I think complete games are hard to get, but, I mean, we're not looking to peak as a team in the midpoint of the season or in the kind of the middle part of the season. We've got to continue to improve, continue to get better, and our job as coaches is to make sure we're coaching, teaching and motivating our guys to get better. Our guys’ job is to show up every day and work as hard as they can, have a great positive attitude, and push themselves to try to improve. They can't get bored with repetition; they’ve got to try to get better every single day.

“We want to keep doing that and keep getting better, so that, [as the] season goes on, you get that late part of the season is when you want to peak and you're playing your absolute best and you're playing great in three phases of the game.”

When Mullen berated Grantham on the sideline, Gator fans rejoiced. A lot of fans don’t exactly have a positive opinion of Grantham. It was enjoyable for them to see their frustrations shared by the head coach.

If that’s what it takes to get his defense to play at a championship level, maybe he should yell at Grantham more often.

Gator Nation would really enjoy that, especially if it keeps producing results.

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