Notebook: Saturday a great opportunity, but Gators are focused on task at hand

Dec 1, 2020 | 0 comments

On Saturday, No. 6 Florida has a chance to further validate all of the progress the program has made in its three years under Dan Mullen. While beating Georgia in early November was nice, the Gators and their fans expect to win championships, not just games. The first step toward that is to win the SEC East, which the Gators (7-1) can do by beating Tennessee (2-5) at Neyland Stadium.

“It would mean everything,” quarterback Kyle Trask said. “At the beginning of the season, we have all these huge goals, but the first real goal we have to accomplish is to win the East. We have a chance to do that on Saturday. We’ll definitely be playing at our top level to get that done. It will mean everything to get back to Atlanta. I remember it just like it was yesterday, my freshman year we went in 2016. It goes by so fast. It would be cool to be back there and hopefully get a win.”

Added linebacker James Houston: “This is the game to assert our dominance and tell everybody we’re going to the SEC Championship, and I think everybody’s pretty excited. I don’t think too many people need motivation for this game; we all know what’s at stake.”

While Mullen acknowledges that this game represents a great opportunity for his team, he also knows the importance of focusing on what’s immediately in front of them, especially in a season like this where games are getting moved around and canceled seemingly every hour. If they get caught thinking too much about the future, that future might not come to fruition.

“We’ve got to qualify to get there first,” Mullen said. “That’ll be much more important than even thinking about that. For us, we’ve got to focus on beating Tennessee this week. They’re going to be a really, really talented team. Really talented offensive line; great running backs; threats at receivers; and the quarterbacks who, if they need to, throw really good deep balls; very, very veteran units on defense. We’ll see. If [the SEC Championship Game] becomes a reality, we’ll think about that then.”

Mullen said this week will be another test of his team’s mental toughness. They’ve been practicing since August, and this would normally be the time of year the players would be getting ready to celebrate Christmas and preparing to play in a bowl game. Instead, they’re still in the middle of a championship hunt. It’s important that his players don’t get lackadaisical as the grind of this challenging year weighs on them. Mullen has no reason to believe that they won’t show up to practice this week with a positive attitude based on how they’ve handled adversity so far this season.

“I’ve seen us continue to not get too high and not get too low, to show up every day and put in the effort to try to get better and come with a great attitude every day,” he said. “It’s a long season, but to try and maintain and continue to have that great effort and that great attitude and that desire and drive to continue to improve, that’s probably the thing I’m most pleased with our guys.”

Trask said the team’s resiliency stems from the way the coaches prepared them for the obstacles this season would present during the preseason.

“I think the coaches just did a great job from the jump kind of getting an idea of how this season was going to go,” he said. “Coach Mullen said this was going to be a season with a lot of adversity and a lot of changes and that we're going to have to be able to do things on the fly and overcome things that we aren't expecting. So, we kind of already had that mentality going into the season. So, therefore, when things did happen like the [COVID-19] outbreak, we knew exactly what to do. We overcame it, and we got right back on track once those two weeks were over.”

Offense thriving in key situations

One of the biggest keys to the offense’s success this year has been its execution on the first and final drives of halves. They’ve scored on seven of their eight opening possessions this season, including six touchdowns. On six occasions, they’ve scored touchdowns the final time they touched the ball in the first half, and the only two times they didn’t were when they got the ball with not much time left against Missouri and Vanderbilt. They’ve also scored on their first drive of the second half six times, with five touchdowns.

Because UF has gotten the ball first to start the second half six times, they’ve been able to take control of games by bookending the halves with scores. This has helped make up for UF’s defensive inconsistencies and forced opponents to play from behind during the entire second half.

Mullen said they spend a lot of time working on situational football throughout the year, so he’s been pleased to see their work translate into production in games.

“The opening drive of the first half is a situation,” he said. “How you're doing in end-of-half, the last 2-3 minutes of the first half, really the last four minutes of the first half, first four minutes of the second half, huge situation time. Two-minute situations at the end of the game or four-minute situations at the end of the game. Then obviously, you have red zone, third down. All the different situational things in the game we spend a lot of time on. I think our guys understand that, and it's a lot of team focus.”

The Kentucky game was a great example of how it takes an entire team to thrive in key situations. Florida’s offense punted on its final possession of the first half. However, Jacob Finn’s punt went out of bounds at the 1-yard line, the defense forced a three-and-out and Kadarius Toney returned a punt 50 yards for a touchdown. Kentucky never threatened the Gators again. Trask said moments like that at the end of halves provide a jolt of energy for the whole team.

“It does create a lot of momentum, especially if we're getting the ball back in the second half,” Trask said. “It gives us a chance to go two-for-one and really take that jump in the lead. And unfortunately, we weren't able to do that ourselves [against Kentucky]. Special teams ended up doing it for us, but obviously, we need to be more efficient trying to complete that on our own as an offense. We can't shoot ourselves in the foot with penalties and things like that. If we play cleaner, we should be able to get right back to doing things like that and scoring right before the half.”

Offense looking to crank things back up

Over the past two games, UF has gained exactly 1,000 yards and scored 72 points. Normally, that would be a terrific two-game stretch for an offense against conference opponents.

However, when you rank among the national leaders by averaging more than 500 yards and 40 points per game, the last two games have felt just kind of “ho-hum,” as Mullen put it. After throwing at least four touchdowns in the first six games of the season, Trask has only thrown three each of the last two weeks. They’ve lost three fumbles, dropped an unusually high number of passes and committed some costly penalties. After compiling a highlight reel of explosive plays against Georgia and Arkansas that most other teams would like to have for their entire seasons, the Gators haven’t generated as many exciting plays the past two games.

“That [Kentucky game] was a game where we scored 34, but we did not play well, and we didn't play clean,” offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said. “We left eight points in red-zone possessions, 14 points by turning the ball over. So, it just was not a complete effort. We obviously didn't play to the best of our abilities. I think the key is obviously coaching it. It's much easier to coach that type of stuff when you win, but the key is just understanding what the standard is and playing to your standard, playing to the best of your ability each and every play, and we didn't do that this past Saturday.”

The way defenses are playing against the Gators might be the biggest explanation for the slight downturn in production. After torching secondaries with big plays for the first half of the season, their last few opponents have opted to regularly drop eight defenders into zone coverage. This strategy makes it extremely difficult to create explosive plays and forces the Gators to put together long drives to score. Obviously, the more plays an offense has to run, the more likely they are to make a mistake that the defense can take advantage of.

“[Kentucky] said, ‘Hey, we’re going to let you make a mistake,’” Mullen said. “Before the half, we end up with a 15-yard facemask penalty, so now we’re second-and-25. Now even if we get 10 on second down, 10 on third down, you’re still fourth-and-5. You’re still punting. We fumbled the ball twice. I think a lot of it is how people are playing us. They’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to let you go be efficient in each play, but we’re not going to give up the big explosive [plays].’”

Until the Gators show that they can consistently move the ball down the field 5-10 yards at a time, they’ll continue to get those drop-eight looks. They need to do a better job of executing consistently.

“There’s ways to beat it, and we’ve just got to be more efficient as an offense to overcome those things and be more effective in the end,” Trask said.

Quick Hitters

  • Linebacker James Houston said Mullen and Todd Grantham argue like that all the time, but it's all coming from a good place. They're pushing each other to be great.
  •  Malik Davis says they're close to putting together a complete game. They haven't even scratched their potential for how good they can be as an offense. It comes down to repetition in practice.
  • Everything that was said during today’s press-conferences is posted in the We Chomp Chat.

Suggested Articles

Tags: Player

Never miss the latest news from Inside the Gators!

Join our free email list