Most media members and fans expected the No. 7 Gators to face a steep, uphill battle in the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma on Wednesday night. They were without their top-4 receivers due to opt-outs and a positive COVID-19 test, and their already abysmal defense was without four starters. No. 6 Oklahoma, meanwhile, only had one player opt out of the game and featured a top-25 offense and defense.
Still, few could’ve seen a butt-whooping of this proportion happening. The Sooners (9-2) ran around, through and over the Gators (8-4) in their 55-20 win. Oklahoma piled up a Cotton Bowl record 684 yards of total offense and averaged 10.5 yards per play.
What’s most concerning is how the Gators lost. They didn’t lose because they didn’t have Kyle Pitts, Trevon Grimes or Kadarius Toney in the lineup. They lost because they played with poor effort and looked completely disinterested in being in North Texas. And it wasn’t just the veterans who are on their way out that looked lethargic; the young players that Dan Mullen recruited as the future of his program did the same.
One easy way to gauge effort is to look at the rushing statistics. While there are important technical and strength components to stuffing the run, a large portion of it simply comes down to determination and toughness. Oklahoma ran for a Cotton Bowl record 435 yards and averaged 10.9 yards per carry. They broke off runs of 73, 50 and 46 yards. It looked like the Gators’ defense was playing at half-speed on several plays.
“I'm not going to sit here and say we gave up a lot of rushing yards because Kyree [Campbell] wasn't there,” linebacker Mohamoud Diabate said. “Because at the end of the day, Kyree was not there the first couple of games, and we played. Kyree's a great player. We need him. He's a big part of the 2020 team, but at the end of the day, just like Trey Dean said, players have to get out on the field and make plays. We're the University of Florida. We can't say we didn't have one guy. This is Florida.”
Florida coach Dan Mullen, however, didn’t seem overly upset or angry with his team’s performance after the game. The Gators were below the minimum threshold of scholarship players needed on the defensive line to play the game, according to Mullen, so they could’ve called it quits like so many programs did this postseason. However, their younger players wanted to play this game to advance their development. Because of the roster shortage, he doesn’t view this debacle as anything other than a valuable learning opportunity for the players they’re going to build around in the seasons to come.
“Maybe this is wrong,” Mullen said. “I viewed this game very [differently]. That wasn’t the 2020 football team that you saw. There were 25 guys missing off the 2020 football team out there tonight. That was kind of like a kickstart for us for the future and the opportunity for young guys to go play. Even with me with all the coaches, I wanted to make sure, I think you saw a lot of different guys on the field, us rotate a lot of different players in different situations, and a lot of that was for me to get to evaluate guys and for us to be able to teach those guys moving forward.
“I’m excited. You look at the experience we were able to get out there on the field tonight, all of the different young guys. A lot of the guys that were out there playing tonight were on the scout team most of the year for us. We kept things simple, some simple things for them because they just never really had the chance to play within the normal game plan week. Some really good experience for those guys and a lot that we can teach off of with that group.”
As they’ve done throughout the season, Gator fans took to social media and message boards during and after the game to beg Mullen to fire defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Quite frankly, it’s hard not to agree with them. Between the SEC Championship Game against Alabama and the Cotton Bowl, the Gators surrendered nearly 1,300 yards and 107 points. Prior to the 2020 season, UF had given up 600 yards in a game twice in school history: the 1995 national championship game blowout to Nebraska and a game at Alabama in 2014. They gave up three such games this season.
Grantham’s players believe that fans’ frustrations should be directed toward them and not on their defensive coordinator. He works extremely hard to put them in position to be successful and calls good plays; it’s up to the players to do their jobs and execute the calls.
“At the end of the day, players got to make plays on the field,” Diabate said. “It's their responsibility to teach us it, but we have to make the plays. If I don't make a play out there, I can't blame Coach Grantham because I was on the field. I know Coach Grantham cares because I left something at the facility on game week, I came back at 2:00 a.m., and Coach Grantham's car is still there. Nobody's car is there. I'm not going to listen to somebody say he doesn't care. No, Coach Grantham has had a long, successful career. He's respected in this league. He's respected in the NFL. We respect him. In these two years with him, he's taught me a lot about the game.”
Linebacker Amari Burney said it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what went wrong with the defense this season.
“One person out of position, that messes up the whole defense,” Burney said. “Everybody's got to hold each other accountable. When we mess up, everyone wants to blame Coach Grantham. It's not his fault. When we watch film, when we look at the plays that Coach Grantham called and everybody executes, then we're going to stop them.”
Offensively, quarterback Kyle Trask was out of rhythm with the revamped receiving corps and didn’t seem to trust them by the end of his night. In what was likely his final college game, Trask was limited to 16-for-28 for 158 yards. He entered the night with five interceptions this season. He threw interceptions on the first three possessions against the Sooners. He failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in his career and was replaced by Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson for good following the first possession of the second half.
Rick Wells and tight end Keon Zipperer were the only players to catch more than two passes, and no one accrued more than 47 receiving yards. The group struggled to get open and likely dropped somewhere around 10 passes, including a couple of passes that would’ve gotten them back into the game in the first half.
“Obviously, it was a little more challenging,” Trask said. “When you think about it, you’ve got a whole offseason to get timing down with that group of guys, and we essentially had about two or three days to get the timing down. Since we had so many opt-outs, we only had about two or three days of practice to get the timing down with the next guys up. That’s not making excuses or anything, but that’s just the amount of work that goes into this. You don’t just flip a switch and you end up in the end zone.”
Entering the offseason on a three-game losing streak will be tough for everybody associated with the program, from the fans to the coaches to the players. It’s an especially hard pill to swallow knowing that the players most responsible for this once-promising season will no longer be around. However, the Gators remain confident that the program is headed in the right direction despite what the scoreboard showed inside AT&T Stadium.
“I got faith in everybody on our team,” safety Trey Dean said. “Everybody can make the same plays. Anybody can make those plays. At the end of the day, we're the Florida Gators, and we're going to play to the Gator Standard.”
That would be a welcomed reprieve from the flaming pile of garbage that they put on display on Wednesday night.