That term is not what I’d use to describe the feeling across Gator Nation after (or during) Saturday’s game against Bowling Green – we all know it’s been much, much worse, many, many times in the past. No, it’s how I would describe my reaction. Though ‘hysteria’ is an alliterative overstatement, when the game was over, this alarming thought crossed my mind: in 30 years of following the Gators, this was the most disappointing and frankly the scariest season opener I’ve ever watched. And that includes 4 losses, one to lowly Mississippi and one a 27-point beat-down in which our only scoring was from 2 safeties awarded to us by 2 punt snaps out of the end zone.
But that was my real-time reaction, my purely visceral response to the 4 quarters of frustration on Florida Field. However, when I re-watched the game, I didn’t have near the alarmist reaction. True, I am not about to reserve my seat in the Georgia Dome, but upon further review things were not nearly what they seemed on game day.
Missing the Signs
Perhaps it was the shock of a MAC team pushing us into the fourth quarter, and that shock needing to wear off before seeing or remembering all the positives of this game. After all, it bears repeating that this was not a standard cupcake opponent. They are a solid program that boasts a roster heavy with upper classmen, and while we should have handled them much more easily, this team was not going to be a push-over for a Gator squad breaking in a new offensive system, a new coaching communication system (with new guy Pease in the booth, as opposed to old guy Weis on the field), and holding a quarterback audition in the first half. In fact, it was clear from the substitution patterns that the staff was treating this game as a scrimmage as far as working out different lineups and combinations to reach a final decision on starters and rotations at several positions across the depth chart – not just quarterback.
And as tempting as it is to think this shocking effort and final score were the result of a team going all out on all fronts, it was not – and that was by design. The staff treated this as an exhibition game, of that there is no doubt. Not only in their choice of players, but in their choice of plays. It was not an accident that the pre-snap motion dynamics that we have read and heard so much about were suspectly limited and at some points disappeared altogether. And it was no accident that we just kept running the same simple running plays into an 8-man front, despite the fact that they kept getting stuffed. And it was no accident that our defense played very little outside of a standard base vanilla (pretty odd for a defensive guru, wouldn’t you agree?). Champ & crew are keenly aware of the challenge next week at College Station against a team that has been preparing all summer for their first toe-in-the-pool of SEC competition. We showed them nothing on offense or defense beyond vanilla and plain. There wasn’t even any French vanilla or fancy Ben & Jerry’s varietal here or there – this was as basic and as bland as it gets. One reason we just kept running the draw into the teeth of a defense that we couldn’t push back was that we simply did not want to show anything more than that. The staff (and fans) obviously expected the offense to be able to handle the Falcons’ front without doing anything special.
So with all that in mind, among the good things that happened Saturday, the following stood out the most:
*Gillislee has very nice vision, cutting ability and acceleration. He is clearly ready to carry this team on the ground. I look forward to see how he does against SEC defenders, when the speed and athletic differential is not so great.
*Both Dunbar and Hammond appear ready to be feature wide receivers on this team. Whether they can find their stride in this offense – and excel against SEC defenses at a high level – remains to be seen.
*Between Watkins (who really looked strong), Roberson, Purifoy and Riggs, our cornerbacks look as good or better than advertised and could be a key factor in whether this becomes a very good defense or a dominant defense.
*Donte Fowler had an impressive game. He was very active all day with 3 tackles and a QB hurry, and had good penetration throughout the game on both run and pass plays. The play where he stopped a drive on 4th down just outside the red zone by dropping the running back for a loss in the 4th quarter stands out in particular. And what’s really promising is that he is playing for the most part the full Buck position – he is not being asked to come in situationally and just rush the passer, e.g., as Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney was last year as a true freshman.
*The defense overall played well. They clearly showed Bowling Green too much respect early, but after their long TD drive, they eliminated the coverage cushions and attacked with more abandon, they shut them down the rest of the half, and only a short field from a fake punt and a 15-yard personal foul allowed them to get on the board again. Unfortunately that drive disrupted the entire offensive plan for the day.
Clearly still, despite the good aspects of the game, they were far outweighed by the bad. And these things I will chalk up to Communicative Dissonance, a made-up term to describe the difference between what we’ve been told by the coaching staff in the off-season and preseason and what unfolded as reality on the field Saturday.
Primary among them was the fact that the staff has hammered home the theme of having this team as disciplined as humanly imaginable, yet the team seemed significantly, even woefully unprepared to play, mentally speaking. The Gators had 14 penalties for 106 yards. And at least 1 more penalty was called on the Gators but was nullified by an offsetting penalty by Bowling Green. For their part, the little team from the MAC playing in the intimidating and supposedly deafening Swamp, was flagged for only 3 infractions.
Perhaps the biggest and most disturbing disconnect between words and reality was the difference that Jeff Dillman was to have made on the strength and endurance of our team, especially our offensive line. While the undersized team from the icy climes of Ohio was supposed to succumb to the heat and humidity of The Swamp and of course the superior size and strength of the UF athletes, it was the Gator team that looked in the second half to be the second-best conditioned team on the field, with the O-line in particular getting stood up and pushed back again and again, continually being stuffed on 3rd-and-short run attempts.
I may be the only one, but I liked what I saw out of Driskel, and as this was by far the biggest topic of the preseason and Game 1, I’ll spend the most time in this space discussing it. He did not light the world on fire, and did not direct the offense to a lot of scoring, but he did a lot of good things that you want to see a redshirt freshman do in the first game of his first season starting (well, sort of starting). Yes, I said “redshirt freshman,” because that’s essentially what he and Brissett are right now. Their experience last year meant nothing, in fact less than nothing – it was negative experience. But let’s not relive that unpleasantness. Driskel was great with his feet, both on scripted runs and evading the rush, and though a popular joke Saturday was how good he was at handing off, he actually did execute a long, difficult pitch perfectly that converted a first down on a big run. And yes I thought he threw the ball pretty well. I’ll pause for the explosion of murmurs to die down, then explain.
First, let’s just look at the basic numbers. Driskel went 10-of-16, 62.5% completion rate, with no picks or even near-picks. The only negative was the small yardage total. Of the 5 incompletes, 2 were thrown behind Dunbar & Burton – one was on the run in a scripted roll-out and one for which he apologized to Burton, saying it slipped; 1 was a throw-away when nobody was open; and 2 were drops by Hammond & Brown. So of 16 passes, he only had 2 errant throws. I consider that a good day. Can’t blame Jeff for the ill-advised stubbornness to keep running the ball on 3rd down, ending many drives, or for calling all of two downfield passes all day against a team that was flooding 8 defenders in the box every play.
More importantly, Driskel was very sharp on third down – a very significant metric for measuring quarterback performance. On the day, he was allowed to throw on 5 third downs, 4 of which were for 7 yards or more. On third down, Jeff was 4-for-5 for 78 yards, converting 2 first downs and tossing 1 TD pass. A third down completion percentage of 80%, a conversion percentage of 60% and a 20% touchdown rate is a pretty good first day at the office. And for his part, Brissett got to throw on 2 third downs, went 2-for-2 for 23 yards, with 1 first down conversion. Going into the game, I’d wager most Gator fans would say if their QBs combined for an 86% third down completion percentage on third down with a 57% conversion rate, they’d be very pleased.
What’s more, he clearly seemed to gain confidence, create excitement and exert leadership over the offense as the second half wore on and he got more comfortable. Despite this, however, and despite whatever passing accomplishments or lack thereof, one of the biggest criticism of Jeff among Gator fans is that Driskel did not appear to demonstrate poise and composure in the pocket Saturday. This is the knock that has followed him since first taking the field last year, leading many fans to believe Brissett was the heir apparent (and erroneously assuming he was comfortably ahead in this preseason QB battle, when it appears the opposite was probably true), because he seemed very calm and collected and Jeff appeared wide-eyed and overwhelmed by the experience. It’s my belief that this is born from an impression made by Jeff’s schoolboy facial appearance that makes fans nervous and Jacoby’s nothing-rattles-me expression that puts fans at ease. But I saw another Jeff Driskel Saturday, one with a nice measure of poise and composure. On his first third down of the game, he moved the pocket to let Jordan Reed get open, then threw across his body on the run for a fastball strike and a first down. On the next play, on a planned rollout, everyone was covered and he juked a defensive end out of his cleats and made 5 yards out of nothing. On his second and final possession of the first half, he converted another 3rd down on a great sideline pass that crossed the field and covered a lot of green on a rope to Trey Burton in tight coverage. In the second half, with the game on the line clinging to a 3-point lead, Jeff stood in the pocket and hit Frankie Hammond for 8 yards while being nailed by a rushing defender – extending the drive that was ended on the next play by the fumble by Hines, who did himself no favors all game long. And although most of the yards were YAC, the long TD pass and run to Hammond was an excellent throw by Driskel. It was a dart to convert a third-and-7, still clinging to that 3-point lead, again hanging in the pocket with a stunt-delayed blitzing linebacker barreling down in his face, releasing the ball one step before getting leveled. Both of those plays also flew in the face of another popular knock on Driskel: that he runs out of the pocket at the first sign of trouble and does not stay put and find his receivers. Finally, on the 3rd and 10 in the fourth quarter, he read the blitz accurately and correctly picked the hot receiver to unload the ball just short of being hammered, completing the pass to Trey Burton. His only mistake was throwing a bit behind him, denying him the chance to run for the first down. But that timing will come.
And while he does have work to do on his poise and composure, and he is nowhere near a finished product as a quality SEC quarterback, we should not have expected that from either of our signal callers Saturday. This was the first game of his true sophomore season, his second year in the program. Danny Wuerffel was not ready to be a top-flight SEC quarterback in his second year either – his redshirt freshman year. He was a complete mess in the beginning of the year, and though he did end the game with the famous “Doering’s got a touchdown!” pass, he played terribly that whole game against Kentucky in 1993, throwing several interceptions. He did not show a starter’s poise or composure until his first start in the Tennessee game, the third game of the season. And then he lost that poise and composure 3 games later when another multiple interception game cost the Gators a game against Auburn. Then he lost more than his poise and composure the following week – he lost his starting job against Georgia when he couldn’t move the team in the drizzling rain. He did not regain his starting spot for another 13 games – returning to the #1 spot on the depth chart for the Georgia game a whole year later. That’s when Danny Wuerffel was ready to be a top-flight SEC quarterback – that’s Danny Wuerffel, Heisman Trophy winner & runner up and national championship quarterback – finally ready to be “the man” in the 7th game of his 3rd season with the Gators. Driskel was in the 1st game of his 2nd season Saturday. And Danny was tutored, mentored and developed all 3 years by the best QB coach in the country – possibly the best QB the college game has ever known…whereas Driskel got nothing by way of development last year (and was in fact an afterthought on every level by the Offensive Coordinator who had recruited and anointed Brissett as “his guy”), and has basically had just one off-season of decent position coaching by an assistant who, for any and all of his abilities, is no Steve Spurrier in his prime. Thus I am inclined to give him some more time yet before passing judgment on the future of his UF career.
The Curse Continues
One last observation that never gets old – and never seems to deviate: the curse continues! I’m talking about the Curse of the Chomp. The legend goes that any opposing player who upon successful play or just attempting to be a jack-wagon, throws up a sarcastic, mocking Gator Chomp to the Gator bench or the Gator fans – that Chomp will come back to bite them in the collective posterior. It happened again Saturday when Bowling Green’s Anthon Samuel (I love Anthon’s preseason football mags, by the way) ran 12 yards for a touchdown that knotted the score at 14. It was more than 5 minutes into the second half and the game was truly in doubt. They had seized momentum and with UF’s struggles on offense, it seemed they were actually in a very good position to pull off the upset. Then he had to do it – Samuel discarded the ball, disregarded his teammates and strutted by the Gator fans doing a mocking Gator Chomp. True to the Curse, they never scored again, giving up 13 unanswered points to end the game, perhaps another numeric omen of bad luck. Will they ever learn?
Well those are my thoughts on Game 1. I expect Game 2 to be much different, and hope the differences are positive ones. Until then remember that each day is a gift – that’s why they call it the present.