You will remember that last week I had a rather prescient ear worm ringing in my head all day leading up to the Ole Miss kickoff: was The Who’s “Another Tricky Day”, and the one line that kept ringing in my ear was, “Just gotta get used to it!” And truly, the message was sent last week that the rest of the SEC and their fans better get used to the Gators being back to…well, back to playing like the Gators. Well this week I had another ear worm planted in my brain when I saw that the Gator players had chosen another monochromatic uniform scheme: white jerseys and white pants.
I was like Dr. Ray Stanz of the Ghostbusters when Gozer the Gozerian told them to choose the form of the destructor. I couldn’t help it. It just popped in there. I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Some song I loved from my childhood. Something that could never ever possibly jinx us. What did you do, PD?! It was another line from The Who.
“The kids are all whiiiiite!”
That’s of course a twist on the titular lyrics, “The kids are alright,” from their 1966 song, “The Kids are Alright,” which was also the titular soundtrack anchor song for the 1979 Who rockumentary, The Kids are Alright. That’s a lot of the same phrase, like a lot of the same uniform color that the Florida Gators have been wearing. And if the uniforms were all white then the kids were alright, and that had to mean the game was in the bag…didn’t it? Not being an overly superstitious man, but having enough conviction in the possibilities to not want to tempt fate, I scrambled my brain to try to figure if this ear worm was a good sign or a bad one.
Was the repeat of an ear worm from the same band a foreshadowing of a repeat Gator blowout, just as last week? Or was it going to the well once too often? The rockumentary was released in 1979, the year the Gators went 0-10-1, and 0-6 in the SEC. That didn’t seem positive. However, “The Kids are Alright” was released as a .45 single (for you younger Gators, ask your parents what that is) in 1966. That was Steve Spurrier’s senior season that brought a 9-2 record (5-1 in the SEC) and the first Heisman Trophy to Gainesville. That seemed pretty positive.
As it turned out, the kids were alright, the uniforms were all white, and the game was all good. And the ear worm with its repetitive theme appears to have been a sign of repetition in the game. We saw a lot of the same results drive after drive for both teams. And at the end of the night, we saw the same end result repeating for the sixth time in a row this year.
For a team this young and inexperienced, coming off a huge home win over a top-3 ranked opponent, hitting the road for only the second time on the season to take on the top-ranked defense in the conference and the two-time defending division champions, they showed remarkable maturity. They prepared all week like a veteran team, they came to the stadium with focus and efficiency on offense, and after a brief but shaky opening drive the defense thoroughly dominated the entire game.
That is certainly not what anyone expected. But this game – like the whole team this season – was all about the unexpected. A team in its first year of a new coaching regime does not simply go into the defending champ’s living room for a night game and make them their water boys. But that is exactly what they did.
After establishing an early 14-3 lead, and making it clear that the defense was not going to surrender many, if any more scoring drives, Coach Mac did something that most Gator fans have grown to despise the last four years: he went into game management mode. The offense still took shots down the field, so the aggressive approach was still intact, but in the obvious long distance passing situations, Mac chose to stick with running plays or high percentage underneath passes. Almost none of them worked on third down after the first quarter, but that’s okay. They did not need more points; they needed only to abstain from giving the Missouri Tigers any cheap points. Mission accomplished. Fans were questioning the play calling and the conservative approach overall, but with Missouri’s punter getting off an average of 300 yards per punt, Florida was seldom in the field position to take any chances with a modest but otherwise insurmountable lead. The one time they were in favorable field position to take a risk, they should have cued the stadium sound personnel to pipe in “Yakety Sax,” the Benny Hill theme music, because the fake field goal attempt was a page right out of the Keystone Kops.
But that’s how you win big games against top conference teams and elite SEC defenses on the road. You play tough, play smart and hold the ball. And Florida held the ball. A lot.
Stats that Ruled the Day
Another common element of the last four years of Gator football that the fans would like to forget is the ever so fickle time of possession battle. It was impossible to watch the last four years of Florida football without associating attempts to win the time of possession battle with the ethic of “playing not to lose”. But the truth to that lies solely in the coaching staff. In the hands of a staff that knows how to use it, winning time of possession and controlling the game like a puppet master can be a powerful weapon.
Against Missouri, Florida not only had its biggest edge of the season in time of possession, but the Gators also led in time of possession in all four quarters. That is very difficult to do, even in overwhelming blowouts. And it made it impossible for Missouri to get any rhythm or momentum. This was the kind of game where a hurry-up offense like Missouri’s was a killer…for Missouri. Although Florida only had one fewer 3-and-out series than Missouri (six to seven), the Gators had seven drives of at least six plays, while Missouri only had four. And with each extension of a drive, the possession time differential would widen in Florida’s favor. The Gators almost doubled the Tigers’ possession time in the first half, which meant late in the fourth quarter when Mizzou was trying to get back in the game, Florida’s defense was as fresh as when it stepped off the bus.
Offensive Stat Pack
Although the Gators struggled mightily to sustain drives after the first quarter, this was a very successful offensive game in many respects. Florida earned the most first downs it has managed all year (as always, the meaningless New Mexico State game is omitted from my comparisons). In fact the 23 first downs were five more than last week’s high water mark of 18 against Ole Miss. Florida also managed the most offensive plays of the year against real competition, with the 77 plays being only the second time since Week 1 they exceeded 70 (also getting 71 against Tennessee).
Missouri came into the game with the best team in total defense in the SEC. They left the game in second place (UF is 4th). They are third in passing efficiency defense (UF is 2nd). Despite giving up two scores to Florida, Missouri still leads the league in scoring defense, surrendering just 13.5 points per game (Florida is second with 14.0).They are only sixth in rushing defense, which is perhaps why Kelvin Taylor was able to notch a 100 yard game (even thought he lost it on his final carries), but they still only give up 112.7 yards per game (UF is second in the SEC at 99.2). Missouri leads the SEC in pass defense, giving up 163 yards per game, a figure that was inflated when Florida threw for 208. Florida is surprisingly only seventh in the league (197 yards per game).
This was the first game in nearly two years in which the Gators scored a touchdown on their first possession.
Will Grier is the first Gator since Tim Tebow in 2007 to complete at least 20 passes in three consecutive games.
Unfortunately the fake field goal that failed constituted a failed fourth down conversion, which broke Florida’s sting of ten-straight on the season.
Defensive Stat Pack
The Gators held Mizzou to only 7% 3rd down conversions, the lowest of the year by far. Against SEC competition, the Gators have only allowed 31% of their third downs to be completed.
If there is hope for success in Baton Rouge this week, some of it would be rooted in the fact that in Florida’s first two SEC road games this year, the Gator defense has not allowed a single touchdown.
In the third quarter, the Gator defense held Missouri to 1.1 yards per play.
This was Florida’s fifth-straight game with at least three sacks, which has not been done since 2009. It was the seventh-straight game with multiple sacks, which ties the 2005 team with the longest streak since 1998.
While the defense had its fewest backfield penetrations of the season, it dominance was secured by a stellar night by the pass defense. They held Missouri’s Drew Lock to a 41% completion rate, the second-lowest mark by the defense on the year (33% in another road game against Kentucky), and held him just 3.9 yards per attempt and 9.4 yards per completion, both season bests for the Gator defense.
In four SEC games, Florida has only given up 3 points off of turnovers. This is usually a measurement of how a defense responds after the offense puts them in a bad position, but this year it is a measure of the fact that Florida’s offense has only turned the ball over two times in SEC play. Florida has not lost a fumble since Game 2 against East Carolina, and has not thrown an interception since Game 4 against Tennessee. Florida has only had one multiple-turnover game all year, when they had two against ECU.
I just wanted to make a note on Ahmad Fullwood that epitomizes the improvement of the entire team at all positions. If you want to see how much he has improved, and know why he is now trusted as a receiver as he was on the long bullet pass to set up Florida’s second touchdown Saturday night, just watch what he does when he is not targeted. When a receiver is falling well below expectations as he has been, that is where you can track his progress. For the guys who finally step up and start playing at a high level catching the ball and running after the catch, their progress always seems to begin with blocking. Then route running. Then they start to get targeted and then they start to make the big plays.
Right now, Fullwood is blocking very well for the first time in his career. He was instrumental in springing Brandon Powell on his big touchdown catch and run against Ole Miss. This tells me that for the first time in his career, he is taking his job seriously and not just here to run around and shag balls. Watch the replays and you will see that Ahmad has been trailing most of the long touchdown catches this year, pulling a John Capel and blowing past the defense as if HE were the one trying to make the tackle. Instead, he is doing it to try to get in there and help out with a final block. That final block has not been needed yet on those long touchdown plays, but this kind of selfless team play again really outlines his effort and the fact that he is starting to “get it.” And it is the kind of different effort that we have seen all over the field, all over the roster this year.
Good Will Hinting
Well what started as hinting and rumors sadly exploded into the reality of the Gators losing their starting quarterback, the battery of their newly-dangerous offense, and potentially the best signal caller in the league by year’s end (or even right now). You have all by now digested the entire minutia of the saga, so I will not revisit it. I will just speak to my reactions and the implications on the team and the season.
I have watched this a number times and it just does not get any easier to watch. This kid has just had his college and pro careers crippled over an honest mistake and by a rule and penalty that should not exist. The way Mac spoke about it, though he did not say anything untoward in his soft-spoken and respectful delivery of gravitas, he could not have been any more clear if he had simply shouted, “This is complete BS!!,” and dropped the mic. I’ve witnessed a lot of kids have their lives drastically altered and certainly their college careers significantly injured by the NCAA, but this is a new one. A legal substance buried in the ingredients label of something that probably every player in America is taking, and somehow our starting quarterback gets pinched for it after leading the team to two huge wins and signaling that the Gators have returned to the SEC and national competitive scene. And magically the Sentinel has an article all loaded up and ready to publish as soon as the news hits – an article wherein Jimbo Fisher goes on a preach sanctimonious rant about how great their ‘roids compliance system is at FSU. Gee, how coincidental.
As for the timetable aspirations of Will Grier’s return, rest assured the suspension will not be dismissed upon appeal. That is 100% assured. The suspension might be reduced to just the remainder of this year. However if it is, it will NOT be because the NCAA shows reasonable restraint or considers the circumstances or the absurdity of the suspension penalty. The NCAA does not give a tinker’s flush about the student athlete, and in fact has historically always taken the most adversarial and combative position possible with regards to the student athlete, bordering on sadistic. The ONLY way the suspension will be reduced is if Jeremy Foley and UF bring their considerable influence to bear on the case, and this would include support from many other Power 5 schools in the vein of pushing the tipping point to breaking away from the NCAA, rendering it a dead institution.
The only thing that should give us any hope for this reduction is that Mac said it was going to be appealed by the university. That indicates that at least some of Florida’s influence will be applied. And that is the absolute best case scenario.
As for the season outlook, there is no denying that our prospects just took an enormous hit. I am not even talking about the reduction in quarterback ceiling. The hit that the team takes mentally and emotionally is not to be ignored. Firstly of course there is the fact that Will has completely won over the support of the team. There is always a split on some level among the players when there is a quarterback battle, and this one was no different. But after winning the job, Will’s production and sheer guts and toughness in every game, every drive, has won over the entire team. He started the year as a quarterback, but he came into the Missouri game as a team leader. That is gone now. But if there is a silver lining, it is that Treon will have no trouble winning the team over with a few good performances. He has always been a teammate favorite and has always had that innate pied piper “It” factor for leadership.
More impacting, thought is that this is a team playing with all sorts of new-found confidence and spirit this year, and you better believe that every player on the team knows that each game this year was another running stride away from the curse-like bad luck and bad results that they have experienced every year since joining the team. We now have a program that has not known any normal season of success before this year. And just when they thought they were out, like Al Pacino in Godfather III, they puuuuull them back in. Maintaining the mental and emotional edge of this team will be the biggest coaching challenge of this staff. It can be done, but it is just another brick in the wall that this staff did not want or need to overcome on their journey back to the top of the SEC and nation.
Now, about the more direct hit the team takes on the field with the forced quarterback change. Treon is a serviceable quarterback, and may in fact already be a good quarterback (or certainly can be coached up to be one soon). Treon Harris has won games in the SEC and can do so this year. But there is simply no denying that the offense takes a measurable hit with the change from Grier to Harris. Despite the public message that the quarterback battle was neck and neck through two games, it was not based on talent or potential. It was based on motivation and focus. That said, we saw in the first two games that Treon is currently a 1-read-and-run quarterback, he often ignores his first open read, he almost always throws late, and lofts and under-throws most of his deep balls. Will also started the season bailing on a lot of plays after just one read, but by his third game he had curtailed that significantly and by the Ole Miss game, he was really dialed in. He has a lot of learning left and a lot of progress left to being a complete quarterback, but he was well on his way. Treon would have been much farther along this development arc if he was starting all season, but he has not thrown a pass in a game since the Week 2. His big SEC win last year against Georgia was a hand-off-only game for Treon. He was not move the offense against a very beatable FSU team. He has yet to be battle tested for a whole game against a quality opponent like Will had the opportunity to be the last three weeks. This does not mean he can’t get the job done; but he has not had the opportunity to do so. Near-term expectations can only be based on faith at this point.
But Treon does have a lot going for him. As stated, he is a player favorite and a natural leader. While his quarterback production has been sparse in his career, he has always shown a mystical ability to raise the level of play of those around him, just by being in the game. All ten players on offense played better for him than they played for Jeff Driskel last year (or any other quarterback over the last five years). Treon also has a much better compliment of play-makers around him on offense than he had last year. He is now in a system that makes sense and is for the first time being run by a staff that understands offensive concepts. He also has a better defense helping him on the flip side of the ball than he had last year. So it would be unfair to pigeonhole Treon’s potential for leading the team to wins this year based on last year’s evidence.
However, based on this year’s evidence, there is ample reason to gear down expectations. Sunday Florida was a mortal lock to win the SEC East, and was a legitimate contender for the SEC title and a playoff spot. Today, the Gators are no lock and may even be a long shot for the East title, and there cannot be any reasonable speculation about the SEC title or the playoffs. Not until we see what Treon can do in this spot. Not until we see how the rest of the team responds. We have seen what it looks like to have an offense that cannot move the ball, waiting for the defense to win games. Treon must be able to move the offense. He must create a significant passing threat to back off the safeties and help open running lanes. He must not throw interceptions, something that Grier has only done on average once every two games. He must do this as a pocket passer because he has to stay healthy: the third option at quarterback is Clarabelle.
Can he do it? Can the team do it? Can the coaching staff do it? Absolutely. But will they? Time will answer that question. As a team, all goals and expectations remain the same. But as fans, until we see what we have the next two games against LSU and Georgia, there are no realistic reasons not to scale back expectations. We are basically back to square one, game three. We didn’t have 6-0, #8-ranking aspirations or expectations after the ECU game. We had to see what Will and the team could do against SEC competition first. Now we are there again: we have to wait and see what we’ve got now.
If nothing else, it is the perfect preventive medicine against a young Florida team getting ahead of itself or getting complacent. This has turned from a high-flying squad with the risk of over-confidence, to a cornered mama bear, circling the wagons, and whatever applicable analogies we can think of. It may also guard against playing tight as well, which often happens when newly discovered high expectations set in and start to create pressure on a team. They are back to the early-season mentality of having nothing to lose. In both of these respects, they have been given the mentality of a team that is on the verge of having their season ended, or fighting for the job of their head coach, while having the luxury of being 6-0 and having all their season goals not only in front of them but in their direct control.
That’s a pretty astonishing dynamic. I don’t know if I’ve ever witnessed it in college football.
And it is reason to be optimistic.
In the short term, this could be seen as just another incision in the death of a thousand cuts; just when we thought the ongoing Gator football nightmare was over, we realize we just woke up into another one. But I think the reality of the matter is that this is just another challenge that will make our program better or worse over the long term. And we will see which one it is. I have a good idea that is will be for the better. On the plus side, it almost assures that Treon Harris stays with the program through his junior year, and possibly his senior season if he either wins the starting quarterback job outright or if the staff finds him a suitable alternate position or better packages than the loudly telegraphed tuck-and-run (although I believe the coaches were setting up tendencies so that Treon could surprise LSU with a Tebow-esque QB-run-fake turned long touchdown pass). And it likely assures us that Will Grier will stay all four years, unless he wins back the job next year and has a Heisman Trophy-worthy season in 2017. Of course, by 2018, Florida will have Jake Allen and other great options if both Treon and Will take their early leave.
So while there is no way to spin this as a positive or blessing in disguise – losing Grier for a year is simply an awful blow in all possible ways – in the long term, the Gators will be okay. The coaching staff will continue to build the program the way they had planned and the team will be elite again much sooner than anyone thought as late as last month. The fans will get over it.
Most of all, the players are okay.
The kids are alright.