One of the Gators’ biggest issues against Kentucky was the lack of a deep passing game. They didn’t attempt a single pass that traveled more than 20 yards downfield. Even when factoring in yards after catch, their longest completion went for just 22 yards, and that happened in the first quarter.
They essentially played that game in a 15-yard box, which made them predictable and easy to defend. That led to a horrendous offensive showing and an upset loss.
It became clear early on that the No. 20 Gators weren’t going to repeat that performance against Vanderbilt on Saturday.
On their fifth play of the game, quarterback Emory Jones lofted a deep ball down the right sideline for Trent Whittemore. The ball was behind Whittemore by several yards, but he adjusted and hauled in the pass for a 32-yard completion.
On the very next play, Jones fired deep for Whittemore again, this time on a post route. He overthrew that one, and it landed incomplete. Still, it foreshadowed what was to come in this game.
The Gators completed four passes of greater than 30 yards against the Commodores. Two of them went to running backs. Jones connected with Nay’Quan Wright down the middle of the field for 51 yards. He later found Dameon Pierce on a similar play for a 61-yard touchdown. He completed a 47-yard pass to Jacob Copeland that set up a touchdown connection between the two on the next play.
They also threw a couple of incompletions on deep balls.
Coach Dan Mullen said that their offensive strategy wasn’t any different against the Commodores than it was against Kentucky. Vanderbilt’s defense just gave them more opportunities to generate explosive passing plays.
“The defense determines where the passing game goes,” Mullen said. “That’s the big deal. They kind of determine where the ball gets thrown by what coverage they’re in. The coverages they played led to us to take some more deep shots today. Everybody plays different coverages. That’s the type of coverage they played to allow us to do that, and we took some.
“If they’re going to bail everybody way deep, you can’t throw it deep. It’s always coverage-based, where the ball goes.”
Thanks largely to the deep balls, Jones established new career highs in passing yards (273) and touchdown passes in a game (four) by the end of the third quarter.
Jones said that he’s gotten better at being resilient throughout the season, which has allowed him to play better as the year has gone on. Earlier in the year, an interception turned into another interception which then led to the passing game basically shutting down for the day.
Against Vanderbilt, he was able to overcome an inconsistent first half and a third-quarter interception to turn in a career day.
“I would say just eliminating those 4-5 bad plays that I’ve had in the first couple games,” Jones said. “Just eliminating those bad plays and just taking what the defense gives me. They were giving me some shots down the field, so I took them.
“Growing up I learned, especially playing the quarterback position, I learned that mistakes are going to happen, that everybody on the team is going to look to you no matter who makes the mistake, or, especially when I make the mistake, they want to see how I respond. I was always taught that growing up playing quarterback, and I never let it phase me. I know I’m going to go back out there again. So, I just look at it when I go back out there as another opportunity to make a play or improve from the mistake I made.”
Wright said that Jones’ success since SEC play began isn’t a surprise to him. He knows that he’s capable of greatness because of how hard he worked in the offseason.
“Like I said a couple of weeks ago, the guy put in the work in the offseason,” Wright said. “It’s all going to make sense real soon. He had to put in all that work in the offseason. The guy stayed late. The guy keeps the receivers [around]. It’s his show. He just has to stay locked in and focus on the little things and keep working.”
If he does, more deep shots could follow.