Gators respond to Mullen’s challenge, blow out Vanderbilt

No. 20 Florida’s first half against Vanderbilt left a lot to be desired. Frankly, it was concerning.

A week after losing to Kentucky for only the second time since the Reagan Administration, they came out flat against one of the worst teams in the country.

They only outgained the Commodores 215-200 in the first half. They committed five penalties in the opening 30 minutes after committing 15 last week.

They weren’t dominating the line of scrimmage on offense, and quarterback Emory Jones missed some throws. Defensively, they struggled to get off of the field.

If not for a couple of missed field goals and an overturned touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal, Florida would’ve only led 21-13 going into the locker room.

Coach Dan Mullen was clearly agitated by what he saw, offering only a four-word halftime interview with the SEC Network reporter.

Whatever he told his team at halftime definitely worked. The Gators came out of the locker room with their hair on fire and outscored the Commodores 21-0 in the first six minutes of the second half. They cruised to a 42-0 Homecoming victory from there and emptied the bench in the fourth quarter.

“I love our team,” Mullen said. “I love the attitude of our team. We’ve got to do a better job coaching some things up, get it cleaned up and make sure the exactness of what we want is being executed on gameday, but team certainly [had a] great attitude all week, and I love the guys in that locker room and their mindset. It’s our job as coaches to kind of make sure that the intensity level every snap of the game is where it needs to be at.”

If you look at the final statistics, this game looks like the never-in-doubt blowout that everybody in Orange and Blue – and probably everyone in Black and Gold, too – expected. Florida outgained Vanderbilt 479-287, buoyed by 298 yards through the air.

They allowed the Commodores (2-4, 0-2 SEC) to convert just nine of 23 third- and fourth-down plays. They averaged 7.7 yards per play and gave up just 3.6 yards per play. They made three sacks and didn’t give up one. They pitched a shutout for the first time since the Vanderbilt game in 2019.

Individually, UF running backs Nay’Quan Wright and Dameon Pierce stole the show with Malik Davis unavailable. Wright led the team with 46 yards on seven carries and caught two passes for 57 yards. Pierce only gained 12 yards on his seven carries, but he made the most of them, scoring a pair of touchdowns. He also added a 61-yard receiving score.

Jones overcame his sluggish start to complete 14 of 22 passes and establish new career highs in passing yards (273) and touchdown passes (four).

“I didn’t even honestly know that I threw four touchdowns,” Jones said. “But I looked up at the scoreboard one time and it said I had four and thought it was wrong. I really didn’t remember doing it. It’s exciting, but, all the guys around me, they definitely were the biggest part of that. They make it all happen, especially the O-Line. They give me time back there. I have confidence in all those guys up front. All the skill players make plays for me all the time as you can see. They really made all of that happen.”

Safety Rashad Torrence had a monster day on the other side of the ball, recording 15 tackles, including 1.5 for losses. He made 13 of his stops in the first half alone.

“I’m thanking my whole defense because they bounced the ball outside to where I could make the tackle,” Torrence said. “But just knowing where the ball’s going, film study, you just see the small tendencies of certain guys and just know where you think the ball’s going to be.”

The Gators (4-2, 2-2) couldn’t have gotten off to much of a better start. After forcing a three-and-out, they marched right down the field on eight plays. Jones completed a 32-yard deep ball down the right sideline to Trent Whittemore, though the ball was significantly underthrown. It was the longest reception of Whittemore’s career.

Two plays later, Wright took the handoff and exploded through a gigantic hole up the middle of Vanderbilt’s defense. After gaining about 15 yards, he stuck his foot in the ground and bounced to the right sideline. He lunged for the end zone, and the officials initially ruled that he scored. Replay showed that he went out of bounds inside the 1, however.

“That’s my fault,” Wright said. “I should’ve got in right there, put my head down. I should have been a little faster, and I would have got in. I’ve just got to finish those type of runs right there.

“Every time I see green grass, I just think touchdown. The O-Line is doing a great job opening up those lanes. Once they give me a crease, I’m going to take advantage of it every time, every opportunity I get. So, hats off to those guys for opening up those lanes.”

Wright coming up just short didn’t matter. Pierce plunged in on the next play to open the scoring.

UF forced another punt on the next possession, and Harrison Smith’s kick went only six yards before flying into the stands.

A 16-yard scramble by Jones on fourth-and-1 led to Jones’ 5-yard touchdown pass to Ja’Quavion Fraziars on a pop pass to make it 14-0.

That was pretty much it for the good feelings in the first half for the home crowd, as the Gators’ mistakes started piling up.

Anthony Richardson threw an interception to Elijah McAllister as he got drilled.

An illegal formation penalty caused a three-and-out on their next possession. A holding call on Kingsley Eguakun killed the next drive.

With the exception of a terrific throw by Jones and an even better catch by Whittemore that resulted in a 9-yard score, the offense was stuck in neutral.

Defensively, they gave up 193 yards on the final four drives of the first half and allowed the Commodores to advance into their territory on each drive.

They were fortunate to not surrender any points when Joseph Bulovas missed two field goal attempts, Daquan Newkirk intercepted a Ken Seals pass and an apparent touchdown pass to Chris Pierce was overturned by replay.

The scoreboard showed the Gators with a 21-0 lead, but Mullen was anything but congratulatory in his halftime speech.

“We didn’t give up some points on mistakes maybe by Vanderbilt more than us dominating and shutting them down completely,” he said. “Now, we made the plays to put them in those tough situations. We made the stop in the first-and-goal situation. We made the stop on four straight plays. We made the stop to force them into some field goals. So, I’m really pleased with those aspects of things.

“But the standard is not just to make a stop at the end of the drive. The standard is every single snap from play one of the drive.”

They came out and did just that in the second half, on both sides of the ball.

They scored 21 points in a hurry. They held the Commodores to negative-1.8 yards per rush in the third quarter. They forced two punts, safety Trey Dean intercepted a pass and they held Vanderbilt to another missed field goal after Jones threw an interception on their half of the field.

Australian punter Jeremy Crawshaw got the train rolling with a 28-yard run on a fake punt on fourth-and-4.

“They were kind of showing a massive overload to one side and didn’t really have anybody on that side of the field,” Mullen said. “So, just kind of saw that, and Greg Knox saw it and took advantage of it and executed it. Luckily, Jeremy didn’t have a flashback and try to – What do you get? Five steps, 11 steps? You ever watch Aussie rules [football]? You’ve got to bounce it. So, he didn’t bounce it while he was running. He went pretty far, but you’re only allowed a couple steps, so many steps before you’ve got to bounce it.

“He had that ball high and tight, ran and got the first down for us. You can see why he’s a good athlete.”

Two plays later, Jones connected with a wide-open Pierce down the middle of the field for a 61-yard touchdown. It was the longest completion of Jones’ career.

After the defense forced a three-and-out, the offense scored in just two plays. Jones completed a deep ball to Jacob Copeland for 47 yards. They then linked up on a screen pass for the remaining 25 yards.

Following Dean’s interception, Jones completed a 19-yard pass to Rick Wells to put them on the 1-yard line. Pierce powered his way in for the score.

“He’s a pretty short, powerful guy,” Mullen said. “So, he ends up being in there a lot in those situations. He’s a strong, very strong physical runner, low center of gravity with power running the ball between the tackles. He gets the opportunity sometimes to go get those carries. He’s done a great job of punching them in the end zone.”

Just like that, it was 42-0, and the Swamp was in a much better mood than it was about 20 minutes earlier.

“It’s just the little details,” Wright said. “It was there for us in the first half. We just came out and listed to the halftime message that Coach Mullen gave us, and then we applied it. Because, like, we would get a first and then a penalty. We’ll have a guy wide-open and then just a dropped ball.”

The offense cooled down for the rest of the game, as they made some more sloppy mistakes in the third quarter before putting in the backups in the fourth quarter.

After the defense played “awful” in the first half, as Mullen said in his halftime interview, they played much better in the second half. The Commodores only reached Florida territory twice in the second half, and one of those drives began in UF territory following Jones’ interception.

“They played 50 snaps, gave up over 200 yards of offense, couldn’t get off the field [in the first half],” Mullen said. “They were on the field the entire half with the exception of our first, I think, two drives were three-and-outs. Missed tackles, giving up third-down conversions.

“Then in the second half, I saw us go back to where we were kind of those first two drives at the start to the second half where we completely slammed the door on them and played with an intensity. It’s not like ‘Hey, let them drive the length of the field.’ You look at the first half, defensively, they missed a couple field goals, and they had kind of a drop on an overturned play in the end zone. So, in the second half, we made sure they didn’t have those opportunities.”

Torrence said they took Mullen’s message personally.

“Coach Mullen came to us at halftime in the locker room and just told us that, the first half, even though they didn’t score any points, it wasn’t our brand of ball,” he said. “And just as a defense, we took that to heart. It was kind of like a jab because it was kind of disrespectful. We went out in the second half and just played to our brand of ball, and you all saw that.”

The day didn’t start out well, but, in the end, the Gators got exactly what they needed – a blowout win over a bad team that gives them momentum heading into a tough game at LSU next week.

“Anytime you’re playing your permanent [crossover] opponent, it’s a big game because it’s like playing anybody in the East,” Mullen said. “You’re going to play them every single [year], so it’s a big game. Obviously, Florida-LSU has been a big game throughout the years. We’ll enjoy the win, and, like I said, get back to work. Coaches this afternoon get back to work, and players get back in and recover tomorrow and get back in Monday ready to go.”

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.