Florida’s defense gives encouraging performance at Utah despite miscues

Today, I’m not going to focus on the negative from Florida’s loss to Utah. I already covered that in my postgame analysis on Saturday, and if you are a Gator Country subscriber, you saw even more of it in my newsletter on Monday. So, if anything here it sounds too sunny for you, hit that link above for some gloom.

Now, even as the Saturday column was downbeat, I did say in the first paragraph that the bones of a good performance were present in the game. The punt and kickoff coverage units were good. Graham Mertz was accurate, even if he showed some first-game issues with his targets. Several true freshmen showed real promise, with Eugene Wilson the highlight on offense and TJ Searcy the one to watch on defense.

The defense in particular had a good showing outside of a couple of problems. I’m not trying to make excuses with the following, but I want to help you find those bones of the good performance under a lot of the frustration.

Utah was playing without its top two quarterbacks and its best tight end. The output from the Utes should’ve reflected those facts, and it very nearly did.

You already know that the Utes opened the game with a 70-yard touchdown pass by Bryson Barnes. Without that pass, he was 11-for-17 (65%) for 89 yards (5.2 yards per attempt), with no TDs or picks. That computes to a passing efficiency of 108.7, which is quite bad. That first pass aside, he played like a former walk-on third stringer.

He wasn’t the only player to attempt a pass, though. So did fourth stringer Nate Johnson and, on a trick play, wide receiver Devaughn Dele. Add up the team performance without the initial bomb and you get 14-of-22 (64%) for 95 yards (4.3 YPA) with no TDs or picks.

That comes out to a passing efficiency of 99.9, which is even worse than Barnes’s alone. In fact, it’s the worst a Florida opponent has done as a team since 2021 Vandy (81.6) and Kentucky (91.8). Florida beat those Commodores 42-0, and well, I’m trying to stick to positives here so I won’t discuss the contest against the Wildcats. Suffice to say, the Gators made the Utah pass attack look exactly as limited as you’d expect on 22 of the 23 pass attempts Utah had.

The next bit here is more tenuous than trying to get past a single outlier of a play, but here goes.

Johnson has track speed. Legit track speed. As in, there was a clip of him winning a sprint in relatively comfortable fashion on the telecast.

The SEC is not short on speed, as perhaps you’ve heard once or twice over the years, but track speed is still track speed. This season, the SEC also just doesn’t have much in the way of track speed from the quarterback position. LSU’s Jayden Daniels is the fastest QB on the Gators’ league slate this year, but he doesn’t have something like Johnson’s personal record of 10.52 in the 100 meters on his resume.

Track speed doesn’t always translate to football speed, but for Johnson it did. And though there are wide receivers and running backs who are plenty fast left to face, rushing from the quarterback position is special because it gives the defense an extra person to deal with. See the entire history of the spread option for more details.

All of this is to say, Johnson is a unique player on the schedule this year. And no doubt, his speed hurt Florida. It was particularly a problem on his 27-yard touchdown run where he avoided the initial tackler and sped past the pursuit.

Utah as a team ran for 117 yards on 27 carries when you take out the clock-killing kneel downs at the end, which is only 4.3 yards per rush. That’s not skewed by sacks counting as run plays, as UF didn’t have any. Johnson’s 27-yarder was the team’s longest of the night.

The rest of Utah’s ball carriers absent Johnson ran for just 72 yards on 21 carries, or 3.4 yards per rush. The longest carry among them was only 13 yards.

But even as Johnson blazed through the defense on his scoring scamper, it shouldn’t have even happened. Earlier in that drive, UF had the special teams penalty of two guys wearing No. 3 at the same time. If that snafu hadn’t occurred, then that particular touchdown doesn’t happen.

Florida was quite generous with the Utes. A busted coverage gave up the first touchdown, a penalty extended a drive for the second one, and a turnover provided a short field for the third. The one field goal Utah had also came on a 14-yard drive following Jeremy Crawshaw’s shanked punt.

As Don Meredith so memorably said, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas. If you take enough bad plays out of a game, any performance will look good.

The point of this piece is not to say that if you squint hard enough, actually everything is fine and the Gators really should’ve won. They shouldn’t have. Utah took advantage of the handful of opportunities it had on offense and was rock solid in the other aspects of the game. Florida, meanwhile, was constantly shooting itself in the foot and throwing away opportunities left and right.

The point is that the defense really was terrific most of the time. The long bomb to open the game and Johnson’s long-ish touchdown run were easily the best plays Utah had. The rest of the game was a slog for them, averaging 4.3 yards per pass and 3.5 yards per rush. Give me a defense that allows those numbers on all but two plays of the game, and I’ll show you a defense that easily played well enough to win.

Yes, Utah was without a couple of its best players, but for nearly the entire game Florida’s defense made the Utes look like a limited offense missing its two best players. The defense is not going to be perfect, especially not on the road in Week 1, and you should give Johnson credit where it’s due. The Gator defense also didn’t come away with any sacks or turnovers, and that will need to change in a hurry.

However on the whole, the defense played excellent. It was far from some of the disastrous outings we’ve seen in the prior three seasons. It’s hard to be encouraged when you think of this game, but if you focus on the defense, there are things to be happy about. Austin Armstrong’s debut performance was about as good as you could expect given what he’s building from.

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