(Photo courtesy Florida Sports Information)
“We’re 2-1, but we got work to do,” Gators head coach Billy Napier said following Saturday night’s win over South Florida. It took a missed Bulls field goal with under a minute left in the game for Florida to escape with the 31-28 victory.
The Gators are now 3-0 against the Green & Gold, but despite the win, it’s far from sunshine and rainbows in Gainesville.
Here are three thoughts as No. 18 Florida barely escaped with a three-point win over a team they were favored to beat by three-plus scores.
Richardson’s Struggles Continue
Anthony Richardson has now gone without a passing touchdown in each of the first three games of the season. Heading into Saturday, it was thought that he’d be able to get back on track after last week’s poor performance in the loss to Kentucky. The smart money was that he’d take advantage of a perceived mismatch and use this game as a momentum builder going into next week’s SEC road-opener vs. Tennessee.
However, that isn’t how it played out as Richardson ended up throwing two terrible interceptions while going 10-of-18 for just 112-yards. He also added seven carries for just 24-yards on the ground. He acknowledged after the game that “nobody” wants to see zero touchdowns and two interceptions in the box score after the game, but said that he’s learning every week and despite his second half struggles, his confidence didn’t take a hit like it did last week.
“I’d say it definitely got back up. Feel like I’m getting back to myself, just focusing on football not focusing on the outside noise,” said Richardson. “Despite the two interceptions, you know, I feel like I keep growing as a
player, as a person, put that in the past. Nobody wants to see two interceptions, zero touchdowns after the game but it is football and I got to get better.”
Defense Missed Miller
“He’s a quarterback on defense,” said Gervon Dexter of Ventrell Miller last week after the loss to Kentucky, “losing him is like losing your heart as a defense.” Tonight proved Dexter’s prophecy. South Florida ran all over the Gators, totaling a back-breaking 286-yards on the ground. The Bulls had two players go for over 100-yards; running back Brian Battie carried the ball 17 times for 150-yards, while quarterback Gerry Bohanon added 15 carries for 102-yards. To put it plainly, the defense looked confused, and communication seemed nonexistent.
The only positive takeaway from the defense’s performance was, well, an actual takeaway – a pick-six by Jalen Kimber.
After breaking his hand three weeks ago in practice, the transfer from Georgia made the play of the game for Florida Saturday night, returning his first career interception for a touchdown.
It was the first interception returned for a touchdown for the Gators since Chauncey Gardner-Johnson accomplished the feat in the 2018 Peach Bowl.
If Miller is to remain out next week vs. Tennessee, someone is going to have to step into his role as the leader on that side of the ball for this defense to be able to stay afloat.
Napier’s Peculiar Running Back Rotation Continues to Raise Eyebrows
Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne have looked like the clear-cut top-two running backs for Florida through the first two games. Actually, they’ve been the Gators’ only consistent offensive weapons. Tonight, Johnson rushed for 103-yards and a score, while Etienne added 56-yards and a touchdown. What raises eyebrows is the fact that they had just 14 combined carries.
In each game this season, a similar story has played out, with the thought process being that if the duo received more opportunities, the damage they could do is limitless. Napier seems to think otherwise, and he doesn’t appear inclined to change his view. To this point, Nay’Quan Wright has remained his starting running back.
Is that justified though?
While he had what was probably his best game of the season thus far against USF, rushing for 37-yards and a touchdown on an average of 6.2 yards per carry, he was still overshadowed by both Johnson and Etienne. After actually looking really good on the Gators’ first drive, Napier went through his rotation and started the second drive with Johnson – who preceded to produce a 62-yard touchdown run, the longest for Florida since Richardson’s 80-yarder in last year’s game against USF.
At the start of their third drive, Napier rolled with Etienne – moving through the rotation despite Johnson’s success.
The way he’s decided to handle the rotation has some questioning if it’s the best way to go about doing so. It’ll be something to watch for next weekend – whether Wright continues to start and if Napier continues to rotate the backs on a set schedule rather than based on performance and setting.