Florida needs non-offensive scores to take the next step

I think any observer of the Florida Gators in Dan Mullen’s two years would agree that the 2019 offense seemed to flow a bit easier than the 2018 offense did. At least, when it was passing it did, and that happened more as the season went along. The ’19 rushing game was a mess for a lot of the year and earned its post-off week marginalization, but the offense in general felt like it was smoother.

It may surprise some folks to note that the 2018 team actually scored more points than the 2019 team did. Both squads played 13 games. The 2018 team scored 455 points, whereas the 2019 team scored 432. It was a 35.0 to 33.2 edge in points per game.

How was this possible when the ’19 offense felt better?

Well, the 2019 offense was actually better if you take things as a whole. The thing is, it wasn’t miles better.

For the whole season, the 2019 offense gained 6.47 points per play. The 2018 attack gained 6.23 yards per play. The two offenses average 878 plays run per year, so over a normalized season, it’d be a difference of 5,681 total yards for the 2019 offense to 5,470 for 2018’s offense. That’s 211 yards’ worth of difference across the campaign, or a little over 16 yards per game. Not a huge gap.

As it happens, the 2019 offense actually did score more points too. It had 54 touchdowns and 17 field goals. The 2018 offense had 51 touchdowns and 18 field goals. The ’19 offense therefore scored 17 more points than the ’18 offense did, 428 to 411. Over the course of 13 games, a 17-point difference comes out to 1.3 points per game.

It’s true that the 2019 offense had fewer possessions, but again, it wasn’t a big change. Not counting drives that merely killed clock at the end of halves, the 2019 offense had 144 possessions. The 2018 offense had six more, 150. The points per possession edge the ’19 offense had, therefore, was just under a quarter of a point: 2.97 per possession in 2019 versus 2.74 per possession in 2018.

So for as much as the 2019 offense felt like it flowed better, it didn’t actually produce at that much higher of a rate of yards or points overall. It would’ve scored about 18 more points if it had the same number of possessions as the 2018 offense did, putting the season’s total up to 450.

If you remember from a few paragraphs back, the 2018 team scored 455 overall. Mullen’s first team still ends up outscoring his second if the offenses are on an equal footing of opportunities.

The answer to the “what gives?” question is twofold. One, the lack of a run game really did hold the 2019 offense back that much. For as considerably more efficient as the pass attack was, the lack of a rushing threat hamstrung the entire operation. With things like the emergence of Ethan White late last year and the arrival of Mississippi State grad transfer Stewart Reese, there was optimism about getting the run attack back up to par this year. Or, at least, make it not a glaring liability.

The rest, as you probably have guessed, was about non-offensive scoring.

I already went over how the return game hasn’t been anything special in Mullen’s return to Gainesville. Perhaps the game breaking speed of Lorenzo Lingard on kickoffs or any of a few freshman candidates in the punt return field could spice things up there.

But as the return game being uninspiring has been the case over two years, it wasn’t the biggest factor in the difference. In fact, the entire scoring difference from the return game can go to now-South Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. His Colorado State Rams allowed both Freddie Swain’s punt return touchdown and a touchdown off of a blocked punt early in 2018. Those are the only two return game-related scores in Mullen’s time as head coach.

Florida did have a fumble return touchdown in 2019, when Jonathan Greenard hustled a fumble 80 yards to the house against Vandy. It was the team’s only non-offensive touchdown of the season, though.

But while the ’18 team didn’t return a fumble for a touchdown, it had four pick-sixes. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson had two of them, but he was off playing in all 16 games, starting seven, for the New Orleans Saints in 2019. Ventrell Miller had one in garbage time against a bad FCS Idaho team, and Brad Stewart had his game-capping one against LSU.

So Greenard’s one score in a 56-0 win over Vandy aside, the 2019 offense had to do all of its scoring by itself.

The 2018 team didn’t exactly rely on those non-offensive scores. Stewart’s was the most consequential, but even it extended a one-point lead to an eight-point lead and left the Tigers with more than a minute and a half on the clock. Gardner-Johnson’s first interception return score was early on against Idaho, and his second came after the bowl win over Michigan was all but sealed. The two scores against Colorado State extended, not ensured, the win.

Still, there were plenty of times when coming up with a non-offensive score would’ve been great for the 2019 team. Late against LSU as the Tigers were starting to pull away springs to mind, as does literally any point during the Georgia game.

Those two obvious examples aside, the offense did score enough to win every other game. It’d be great if it didn’t have to, though. Beyond the direct effect on the scoreboard, a team that produces non-offensive scores gives opponents things to be worried about. They can establish no-go zones. CJ Henderson had more picks as a freshman (four, two returned for TDs) than he had the rest of his career (two). It wasn’t because he got worse, as his top ten draft status shows. Opponents had to respect him and most didn’t challenge him a lot in his final two seasons.

The most dominant teams don’t make their offenses do all the work. For Florida to take its next step and join the elite, it will need to find ways to score beyond running and throwing the ball.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2