In the spirit of Monty Python’s Black Knight, we’ve ‘ad worse.
We’ve had actually a lot worse against Kentucky. And I am just talking about during the previous 28-straight games of the now 29-game win streak over the ‘Cats. To think of a tougher game against this traditionally passive program, why we would have to go all the way back to last year. Sweating out triple overtime and a game-winning touchdown pass that technically was snapped after the play clock had expired. And that one was at home in the Swamp. Then of course there was the 2003 game when the Florida Gators found themselves in a Lexington lull and facing an 18-point deficit (that’s right, they were behind Kentucky 21-3 in the fourth quarter) and needed a 35-yard interception return from Johnny Lamar to set up a short score to finally take the win with just over three minutes to go. The Gators also trailed the ‘Cats the year before in the third quarter at home before coming back to edge them out by one score.
And who could forget 1993? Future Heismam front-runner Terry Dean and future Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel combined for seven interceptions on a Lexington evening before the Gators snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with a desperation 28-yard touchdown loft that created the most legendary radio call in Florida history. And how about 2007, when Florida was reeling from two-straight SEC defeats and future Heisman winner Tim Tebow had to save a young and flailing Gator defense with a late touchdown plunge in another one-score victory. Every Gator remembers the year Florida won its first “official” SEC title in 1991, and no doubt they remember that it almost didn’t happen because of the Kentucky Wildcats. Leading by 22 points, the Gators had the title in the bag, the band did the equivalent of talking about a no-hitter during the game by playing “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, and Gator fans responded by throwing sugar packets from Skeeter’s and Grandy’s all over the sidelines. Then of course ‘Cat ‘back Pookie Jones led a furious Big Blue comeback to eat up all but two measly points of the Gators’ lead with half a quarter yet to play. Finally Gator legend Errict Rhett led a long drive capped by a short scoring run to seal the game and the SEC crown. Even in 1988 when this win streak was only a year old, the Gator has to battle tooth and nail to beat UK by a paltry five points.
So yeah, we’ve ‘ad worse against these ‘Cats. Every single coach since this winning streak started has had a tougher game against Kentucky. That’s Galen Hall, Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook, Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp. Some of them twice. Combined, those coaches accounted for 11 SEC titles and four national titles (though not all of them “official”) as well as two NFL Europe championships. Nevertheless, Saturday was a tough one to gut out for the fans. Sweating out a close game with Kentucky always is. But this year’s cardiac contest was a little different than those in the past. All of those previous ‘Cats teams were anywhere between good and terrible, facing Gator teams that ranged from powerful to national elite. This year, the Gators were underdogs, and this was likely the best Kentucky team Florida has faced since Bear Bryant was the head coach in Lexington. In Bryant’s eight years as the UK head man, Florida faced him six times and lost five of them. Since then Florida owns a 46-7 edge.
Nevertheless, it was a tough game to sweat out for Gator fans. The reasons were much like last week’s, only less so. That is, penalties and poor offensive line play, and a lot of bad luck, whether mistakes coming at the worst possible times or the officiating that was among the worst I have seen since the Swindle in the Swamp way back in 2003. Let’s look at what made it so uncomfortable.
As The Offensive Line Turns
It was another adventure up front for the Gator offense. With the step up from mid-major ECU to an SEC foe and perhaps the best Kentucky team in many decades, led by one of the brothers Stoops, the first family of college defensive gurus, fans braced for a step back in performance. And they got it.
Pass protection actually did not drop off that much. Of the 34 called pass plays Saturday, the line provided a clean pocket 22 times (65%), which was only marginally diminished from the 67% against ECU. I would call that a win except that there is some nuance here that does not show up in the numbers. Whereas last week many of the collapsing pockets led to rushed throws or did not affect the throws, Kentucky flushed Will Grier out of the pocket a dozen times: every single time the pocket shrunk, it forced him to pack his trunk. A few of those could be on the quarterback, as he could have squeezed off a pass before getting drilled, but I will address that in a moment. Overall, the protection took a step back, but not a big one, considering the increased level of the competition.
Run blocking was a much different story. Last week, while the line almost never got to the second level, it was able to open at least small holes or get some push on 73% of the running plays. This week that percentage dropped hard to 52% – just 12 out of 23 running plays. That’s how you only get 66 yards from your running backs and your pocket quarterback leads the team in rushing, even when counting lost yardage from two sacks. I don’t know what to say about the near future prospects of this team other than to say that if this does not improve, the pass protection is going to nosedive as well because when there is no reason to respect the running game, the defense can bombard the pocket with rushers. The right side of the Florida line right now is getting brutalized and Kentucky does not have one of the better defensive lines Florida will face this year. But every week there will be improvement with Mike Summers coaching them up. The issue is whether or not Florida’s improvement trend line can keep up with the incrementally increasing talent on the opposing defensive lines each week. With Ole Miss in two weeks and LSU in four weeks, it does not seem remotely possible.
But we will see.
Houston, We Have a Quarterback
After following the game thread and reading fan opinion posted on the forums Saturday night and Sunday, I would have to say that Will Grier is going to grade out a lot higher than many fans would guess. The biggest criticism appeared to be that he missed or ignored a ton of open receivers before bolting the pocket too soon to avoid the rush. Reviewing the game, that is not what I saw. Out of 34 called pass plays, 12 of them forced Grier to scramble (I am omitting an additional two that resulted in sacks, in which he had no chance of throwing or running). Of those 12, I can honestly say that I only saw one instance where he absolutely had time to throw to his first open read, but bailed on the closing pocket. That was on the third play of the third drive of the second half, where he had Brandon Powell open near the first down marker but he tucked and ran – getting tackled just short of the first down. Two plays earlier, Kelvin Taylor was complaining that he missed him on a wheel route, but Kelvin did not run a good route and broke open too late, so Grier had to check down to Valdez Showers underneath.
And some fans may differ, but I did a progressive frame-by-frame review of those other 11 scramble plays and the window between the receiver being open and the rush pummeling the quarterback was either not there or it was simply too close to judge. And most of the time, the receiver was not open by much or the ball needed to be thrown before the receiver broke open. This would have been very risky since every one of those reads were between or just outside the hash marks in a lot of traffic. On the fifth drive of the second half, no doubt being reminded of this by his coaches, Grier threw a pass to a spot before the receiver made his turn and it almost became the disaster of the game. When Brandon Powell failed to stop and/or turn for the pass, it bounced off his rear end and luckily ricocheted in the opposite direction of the defender closing in for the interception. That was the last drive of the game that did not use the victory formation.
I have to believe Grier’s decisions not to throw early or not to risk being hit during a throw resulted from the week-long coaching mantras to stop throwing dangerous passes like the three he nearly had picked off against ECU last week, and the mantra that he did not have to be Superman to win this game or win the starting job – rather he had to make smart decisions and manage the game. Whether or not he could have pulled the trigger on some of those throws and made bigger gains than his scrambles, I think he was just following the Football Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm.
With this in mind, I considered those 11 scramble plays to be good plays by Grier. This led to a statistic that I really did not expect to see in this review: Grier’s good play ratio was 82% for the game. That is markedly better than the 56% from last week. It was much closer to Week 1, when he was darn near 100%. But how does a quarterback make good plays on over 80% of his passing downs and only score 14 points? Well, for starters you take a blocked field goal off the board and you take a touchdown off the board which came on one of his bad plays, and you take another touchdown off the board because of the huge drop by Brandon Powell on the second play of the second half. A 31-9 win gives you a much different feeling than 14-9. And many of his good plays were not for big yards (such as his scramble plays or quick passes designed for short yardage to convert first downs). And there were just the right number of very timely sacks, hurries, big defensive plays and penalties. Obviously the Gator coaches don’t use my method of grading quarterbacks, but I would bet good money that Grier has much better marks this week than last week when they look at the film.
The No Score Zone
At least for touchdowns. Any time you hold an SEC team to single digit scoring is a huge defensive night, but holding them out of the end zone is a real head turner. This was the first time since last year’s Tennessee game that Florida had held an SEC or Power 5 team out of the end zone for 60 minutes. That’s a span of seven games for a defense that has been basically dominant over that span. Even for dominant defenses, holding a No Score Zone at the goal line is a big accomplishment.
And it all started up front Saturday night. Last week the Gators disrupted 32 plays by the ECU Pirates, and this week that number dropped to 31. However ECU ran 16 more plays than the ‘Cats, so the Gators in fact improved their production in the opponent’s backfield from 40% to 48%. To be disrupting one shy of half the plays in the backfield of an SEC opponent is just ridiculous. For the second-straight week, Bryan Cox Jr led the way. Against ECU, he disrupted five plays; in Lexington against what Mark Stoops called the best and most experienced line he has coached, Cox did it ten times. His defensive end mate on the other side Alex McCallister did nearly as well with eight, followed by Caleb Brantley (7), Jonathan Bullard (5) and freshman phenom CeCe Jefferson (5). And all this while being hugged and mugged by the Kentucky grope squad.
Overall, 70% of the defensive plays on the night were positive plays holding Kentucky to short gains, incompletions, negative yardage or turnovers. There are still some areas in need of improvement, of course. There were an alarming seven missed tackles by six different Gators. Most of these would have been tackles for loss and over half of them led to big gains and first down conversions. The defensive backs still have a gap to close in their coverage and run recognition and support, but they improved a great deal over last week in the Swamp.
Overall, the defense is playing as close to lights out as could be hoped for considering they are running a new defensive scheme and are not being helped out at all by the offense in either field position or time of possession.
*Everyone knows that the 29-game winning streak is the longest active streak in the nation over an annual opponent, but it bears repeating when you couple that with the fact that the Gators also hold the nation’s longest active winning streak in season openers. Not something you would expect from a program that has suffered so many setbacks the last seven years.
*This is Florida’s first 3-0 start since their 11-win Sugar Bowl season of 2012.
*If anyone who was worried that the departure of a certain head coach defensive back guru might lead to a letdown in performance in the secondary, they can breathe easy. Saturday marked the third time in the last five games that the Gators have had multiple interceptions in a game, and have had at least one pick in each of the five.
Interesting Scores from Saturday
#22 Missouri 9, Connecticut 6 (how are the Tigers still ranked?)
#1 Ohio State 20, Northern Illinois 13 (benched their starting quarterback)
Stanford 41, #6 Southern California 31
Texas Tech 35, Arkansas 24
California 45, Texas 44 (missed PAT lost the game)
As difficult as it is and will continue to be to have an effective offense – let alone win many games – with the offensive line playing as poorly as it is now, the team appears to be at least on schedule, if not slightly ahead of schedule in terms of grasping the new schemes, playing with better discipline, building quarterback efficiency and forging an identity. There have already been nearly as many exciting plays on offense in three games as the Gators produced the last two years combined. The offensive concepts being run by the 2015 Gators are so far ahead of the simpleton schemes of the former regime, that even though they are not being executed at a very high percentage of success, you can see the machine running correctly. The parts just need time to learn how to operate within the machine. How fast they advance up that learning curve will dictate how many wins this team has at the end of the year. Ultimately, though, the success of this year will bear fruit in 2016 and beyond. Anything they can accomplish this year is just gravy.