If there is such a thing as an ugly blowout, this was it. The Florida Gators beat the Florida Atlantic Owls by 39 points Saturday, hitting the 50-point mark for the second straight week and the fourth time this season and yet the only way to classify this 59-20 stomping at The Swamp is ugly.
For all the things the Gators did well — and there were plenty of highlight reel plays — they had what seemed to be an equal number of mistakes. Perhaps it was a case of the Gators lacking the fire for a Sun Belt Conference team or maybe it was a case of looking ahead until next Saturday when Florida plays host to arch-rival Florida State in the regular-season ending game at The Swamp. Whatever the cause, it wasn’t exactly a sharp, focused performance by the Gators, who improved to 8-3.
This was a game that the Gators won in spite of themselves. About the only thing it proved was that the talent differential between Florida, which won’t win the Southeastern Conference championship after Georgia’s win over Kentucky, and Florida Atlantic, which could win the Sun Belt Conference championship next week against Troy, is enormous. But on this day, superior talent was all the Gators needed.
Florida scored seven offensive touchdowns and got a field goal, yet the offense could have played much better. Tim Tebow completed 25 of 34 passes for a career-high 338 yards for three touchdowns and he ran for 31 yards and a touchdown, but it was far from his best game. He threw an interception when he overshot a wide open receiver and that set up Florida Atlantic’s first touchdown. He had three other overthrows of open receivers and he missed a couple of reads on option plays.
“It’s pretty good when I can criticize a quarterback that went 25 of 34 for 338 yards and managed an offense that scored whatever it is that we scored,” said Coach Urban Meyer.
Tebow put up Heisman Trophy numbers even though it was far from his best performance of the season and that only emphasizes the talent differential between the Gators and the Owls.
“Tim didn’t play his best game,” said Meyer. “That’s being critical of him. I’m being critical of Tim but he needs some critical analysis once in awhile. He did not play his best game. That tells you how good a football player he is.”
The defense gave up only 75 second half yards and pitched a shutout in the final two quarters but the first half could only be described as a disaster as the visiting Owls gained 311 yards and hung 20 points on the Gators. After two games of improved defense, the first half was like one giant step backward.
“We’ve been getting better and that’s the thing that bothers you,” said Meyer, frustrated that Florida Atlantic quarterback Rusty Smith was 15-28 for 247 yards and a touchdown in the first half. The Florida secondary was so porous in the first half that Smith’s Hail Mary on the last play of the first half was completed for 57 yards to Chris Bonner was completed even though the Gators had three defenders back on the play.
The Owls also out-rushed the Gators 64-31 in the first half. Florida had its share of missed tackles but there were occasions that the Florida Atlantic line blew open huge holes in Florida’s defensive front.
“That first half was terrible,” said Meyer.
The Gators played substantially better in the second half, but the improved play was marred by injuries to a few players. Corner Joe Haden sprained his ankle, tackle Mike Pouncey hyper-extended his knee and tackle Lawrence Marsh suffered a foot injury that will be evaluated Sunday. Marsh left the field with his foot wrapped in ice.
Special teams produced a Markus Manson touchdown when Joey Sorrentino roared up the middle to block a Florida Atlantic punt on the Owls second possession of the game, but there were issues in Florida’s return game with Brandon James sidelined for disciplinary reasons.
“Brandon James … there are certain things that we expect of you on the field and off the field and he did not fulfill his obligation this week and he did not play,” said Meyer, who did said that James will play next week.
James wasn’t the only Gator MIA. Percy Harvin missed his second straight game due to intense migraine headaches brought on by a sinus infection. Harvin was at the game, however, and Meyer said he was with the team before the game and on the Florida sideline during the game.
“He [Harvin] was here today and Monday he should practice if everything is cleared up,” said Meyer. “He spent five days in the infirmary. He was here. He was on the sideline during the game.”
Meyer also indicated that contrary to reports by a couple of talk radio hosts in the last few days, Harvin’s issues are “100 percent health-related.”
No Percy? No problem for the second straight week as Bubba Caldwell once again picked up the slack, knocking down one of the longest standing pass receiving records in the Florida book. Coming into the game Caldwell needed eight passes to tie Carlos Alvarez as the all-time leading receiver in Florida history. Caldwell tied the record on a nine-yard pass from Tebow in the second quarter and broke it a few plays later on the same drive with a catch good for 10 yards. He finished the half with 10 catches for 137 yards and the game with 13 catches for 164 yards.
Caldwell has caught 33 passes in the last three games, going over the 100-yard mark in wins over Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida Atlantic. His season totals are 48 catches for 665 yards and four touchdowns.
Caldwell wasn’t the only record-breaker, either. Tebow became the first quarterback in Division I history to run for 20 touchdowns and throw for 20 in the same season. With one regular season game remaining and a bowl game that will count in the stats, Tebow has rushed for 20 touchdowns and passed for 26 this season. For the season, he has rushed for 749 yards and passed for 2,870.
The Gators put up 501 yards on Florida Atlantic but Meyer was disappointed with the way the Gators played. After last week’s effort against South Carolina in which the Gators had the running game and the passing game going at a peak level, this game was a letdown.
“I was disappointed in the offense,” said Meyer. “You take last week’s performance. That was a game of execution, a game of playmakers and I was very pleased leaving that field after last week’s performance offensively.”
The Gators finished the game with 155 rushing yards but they had only 31 in the first half. Meyer felt the line and the quarterback were never in synch.
“I’m very disappointed because I don’t think we were very productive running the football early in the game,” he said. “We had some misreads and some misplays by several positions, one of which was our quarterback position. Statistically we did okay, but execution for week whatever it is … week 11, week 12, I was disappointed.”
There were some well-executed plays in this game just not enough of them. Tebow looked sharp completing touchdown passes of four and 26 yards to Cornelius Ingram, playing healthy for the first time in three weeks. Ingram had four catches for 60 yards for the game.
“He’s been hurt for three weeks,” said Meyer, who said that Ingram admitted that this was the first time he’s ever had to face the adversity of injury. “He said he’s never been hurt in his career and he didn’t know how to handle it. He kind of struggled.”
Freshman Aaron Hernandez, who had a big play last week against South Carolina, had three catches for 58 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown catch was an athletic beauty as he went up over an FAU defender to catch the ball, then held on as the defender tried to muscle the ball away.
Meyer said Hernandez is going to become a bigger part of the offense.
“Get used to that name because he blocks well too,” said Meyer. “He’s a mismatch issue. Aaron’s earned it. That has been progressing over the last seven weeks that he’s really become a good player. Seven weeks ago he was not a good player. He was a guy still feeling his way and he was still injured with his neck. Now he practices his tail off. That’s player development. He’s done a great job.”
The good news Saturday was that the Gators won the game and improved to 8-3, which means Florida can still have a 10-win season even if a return to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game is out of the question. It definitely wasn’t a pretty win, but it did set the stage for Florida to close out its regular season for the third straight year with a win over Florida State.
“We’ve still got a whole world to play for, a top ten ranking, a great bowl game and obviously a bunch of seniors getting to play our rival,” said Meyer.