Florida Gators’ bad offensive starts are only getting worse

One of the stories of the Florida Gators’ offense under Jim McElwain was that the team began games with scripted plays on offense. Mac and Doug Nussmeier would work together during the week to craft a set of plays to start things off, after which Nussmeier would then pilot the offense on his own.

Beginning late last year and especially during this season, there was a sense that those scripted plays were the best ones Florida would run all game. Now that McElwain is gone, we can begin to evaluate that hypothesis.

No amount of scripting helped in the opener against Michigan. The Wolverines’ defensive front proved too strong and fast for the Gators’ offensive line, and UF put up a success rate of a mere 15%. The national average is 40%. Even against a tough defense, 15% is horrible.

Setting aside that debacle, Florida had five other games this year when McElwain’s job status was not in doubt. In those contests, the Gators had their highest combined success rate in the first quarter. Otherwise, though, it was their worst quarter for gaining yards and scoring points.

The Gators’ success rates for the other three quarters were not too far off from that of the first quarter. However, the yards per play was more than a yard better in the second through fourth quarters. The quarter with the scripted plays kept the ball moving marginally better, but it didn’t produce many big plays.

It also didn’t produce many points. The second and fourth quarters were the Gators’ best scoring periods.

The second quarter point total being nearly three times that of the first isn’t attributable to first quarter drives extending across the quarter break either. Only one second quarter scoring drive began in the first, a touchdown drive against Kentucky. Florida got 11 of the 58 yards on a single play that ended the first period. The second quarter began with a 1st & 10 at the Kentucky 47, and Karadius Toney housed it from 36 yards out on the third play of the period.

The most recent two games against South Carolina and Missouri are the first ones since 2014 not to start using scripted plays with McElwain’s input. That’s a small sample size, but it’s what we have to work with. It can also be noted that those opponents have mediocre-at-best defenses, so it’s not like the Gators have been running into brick walls over these last two games.

Looking at the same measures, the first quarter has been UF’s worst quarter, and it’s not close.

Florida’s 12% success rate in the first quarter against South Carolina is the worst the team has put up in any quarter this year. It’s worse than that horrible first quarter against Michigan and worse than the 17% they put up in the first quarter against Georgia.

The second quarter yards per play rate is a function of that being the time when the team figured out how to generate some bigger gains. They had a combined nine plays of at least 15 yards in the second quarters against the Gamecocks and Tigers, including four of more than 30 yards. The bigger yards per play rate in the fourth quarter is mostly due to garbage time against Missouri. It was 4.31 against South Carolina in a game that was actually close at the time.

The scoring is once again much higher in the second quarter than the first. There was one scoring drive that spanned the first two periods, though. The 26-yard field goal drive that came after South Carolina’s punt snafu turnover gained 24 of its yards before the break, so most of those three points belong to the first quarter. Even doing that accounting keeps the first quarter output in a bad light, particularly since a special teams turnover did most of the work there.

There are plenty of factors to consider here. The first drive against Missouri was hamstrung by this atrocious attempt at blocking by Tyrie Cleveland on first down and Freddie Swain, the receiver Malik Zaire targeted with a pass, tripping and falling down on his cut on third down. Zaire was making his first starts in years in these last two games, so some rust and jitters may have been at play.

More than anything, there are real questions about how many players are properly motivated right now. If they aren’t really feeling it, then that would manifest the most in the first quarter.

I suspect that factor would swamp anything we could determine about the play scripts. David Reese called out his teammates after the Missouri debacle, but on offense at least, the success rate (12%, down from 33%) and yards per play (2.08, down from 2.50) got worse week-over-week.

Poor starts have plagued the Gators going back to the Georgia game, shortly before which McElwain discussed rumors about his impending firing with the team. The team’s three lowest first quarter success rates in SEC play have come in those three games. Florida hasn’t scored a point in any of them, though it nearly did with that aforementioned field goal drive against South Carolina.

The first quarter had already been the offense’s worst quarter this year, all things considered, and it’s only gotten worse since the open date between Texas A&M and Georgia. Whatever the case with play scripts, Florida has been much better in second through fourth quarters all throughout this year. A big task for the new head coach will be figuring out a way to get this offense to play well from the opening snap.