At times, the No. 20 Gators played very well in their 42-0 win over Vanderbilt. Over the first five possessions of the game, they outgained the Commodores 127-27 and jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead.
Then they were outgained 173-88 for the remainder of the half and only kept the shutout intact due to missed opportunities by Vanderbilt.
After coach Dan Mullen delivered a passionate halftime message about playing up to their standard, they came out of the locker room, scored three touchdowns in a little more than six minutes and limited the Commodores to 33 yards in the third quarter.
Then they took their foot off of the gas again. They failed to score over the final 24 minutes of the game, and Vanderbilt moved the ball on them a little bit in the fourth quarter.
The Gators (4-2, 2-2 SEC) didn’t play very well for about 45 of the 60 minutes during the game. That was more than enough to beat a bad team like Vanderbilt, but it likely won’t be good enough to beat the better teams remaining on their schedule, including this week’s trip to LSU (3-3, 1-2).
Mullen said that he likes his team’s attitude, but they need to play with a high level of intensity on a more consistent basis. They can’t just flip the switch whenever they want to and expect to win games.
“We need to play with the intensity and the efficiency that we played with at both of those periods for four quarters,” Mullen said. “Go look at the first five drives in the game, and then look at the next five drives in the game. And then go look at the first six drives in the second half and then the next six drives in the second half. I explained to the team, obviously, in a game, the momentum, you’re going to have some of these things right here where they’re doing well, doing not as good, and it goes like that.
“It’s a great point for me to be able to make because there was such a drastic change at different aspects of the game to point out.”
Mullen said that, ideally, his team would play with high intensity on every single snap of the game, but he acknowledged the challenges that come with that.
“That’s probably unrealistic for that period of the game with young kids, and these guys are all still younger kids,” he said. “You’re out there for 3 1/2 hours of that. Just getting on our guys for keeping that focus. It’s certainly not an attitude issue. It’s not like ‘Hey, we really care now’ and then ‘We really don’t care now.’ It is the intensity that you need to follow to be successful, and that’s hard to maintain for 3 ½ hours, and ‘How are we going to continue to improve it to play at a higher level and consistently play at that point on every snap in the game?’”
Defensive end Zachary Carter said that making sure the team plays with more intensity is a responsibility of their leaders, including himself.
He doesn’t seem overly worried about this team’s ability to play a complete game.
“I’d say the leadership is definitely there,” Carter said. “We have a group of guys that really care about the program and really care about the success of our team behind the scenes. In a game, guys will get together. I talk to Mohamoud [Diabate] all the time, [Jeremiah] Moon, some of them older guys, leader guys that will come on, Kaiir [Elam]. We do that from time to time because we have to stay together.
“I think it starts within the team, guys holding each other accountable. If you see somebody drifting off a little bit, snap back, like, ‘Yo, we’ve got to go. We’ve got to wake up.’ Obviously, like Coach says, we’re like this, we’re excelling, then we’ll have moments that we’re really low. So, I feel like to fix that, it kind of starts within the team, and we have to keep holding guys accountable.”
Blades dismissed from program
Mullen announced that cornerback Elijah Blades has been dismissed from the program. As one of their top reserves, he made three tackles and broke up a pass in three games this season.
He committed a late hit penalty in the loss to Kentucky that wound up being one of the final plays of his brief UF career. He didn’t dress for the Vanderbilt game.
Mullen offered no comment on what went into his decision to dismiss Blades.
“I met with him and dismissed him from the program yesterday,” he said.
“He was dismissed from the program, so he’s no longer part of the team.”
Drama is nothing new for Blades.
He initially committed to the Gators as a four-star recruit during the summer prior to his sophomore year at Muir High School in Pasadena, California. He decommitted seven months later and eventually signed with Nebraska.
He didn’t meet the academic requirements and was forced to go to Arizona Western Community College. After a couple of successful seasons there, he committed to Oregon but flipped to Texas A&M on signing day.
He played in six games for the Aggies in 2019. He opted out of the 2020 season after suffering a shoulder injury and declared for the NFL Draft. He later changed his mind and returned to Texas A&M for the spring semester before entering the transfer portal in June. He joined the Gators about a week into fall camp in August.
Less than two months later, he’s gone.
The last time the Gators played on the road, things went about as poorly as possible. They committed 15 penalties, including eight false starts, and couldn’t establish any sort of offensive rhythm in a loss at Kentucky.
After that loss, Mullen said that he and offensive line coach John Hevesy would evaluate what went wrong and make the necessary changes in future road games. Those changes could include altering the snap count after the Gators relied on quarterback Emory Jones to clap and yell to signal to the center to snap the ball against Kentucky.
“There’s so many things you can do,” Mullen said. “I’m not going to get into what we’re going to do. We’ve been coaching a long time.
“We’ll have some things. There’s tons of things you can do. We’ll get under center, use a verbal count. When I was at Utah, we played at Texas A&M on the road and at BYU, all we used was the quarterback’s voice count. There’s a lot of things you can do. We’ve got to do what works best for our guys and make sure all of them can function and be efficient.”
More than anything mechanically, though, Mullen said that the players just need to focus more in the midst of the crowd noise. He’s expecting to walk into a raucous environment even with an 11 a.m. local kickoff and the Tigers’ struggles this season.
“We just have to be mentally focused and get in there,” he said. “It was a loud environment up there at Kentucky. I always know Death Valley is going to be a loud place. Any time you go there, it’s a wild, crazy environment.”
Jones echoed Mullen’s comments and said that playing better on the road this week is on the players more so than the coaches.
“Knowing what happened last game we played in a hostile environment, it’s mainly just the focus and the discipline in making sure we’re just locked in every single play because we have to be,” Jones said. “That’s for all 11 guys on the offense; really, on the whole team. In the sense of the snap count and stuff like that, we’re probably going to do the same thing. It’s just a point of just being focused and disciplined.”
Whittemore becoming a weapon
Redshirt sophomore receiver Trent Whittemore has quietly developed into one of the Gators’ most versatile offensive weapons.
At 6-foot-4, he’s tall enough and strong enough to box defenders out and make contested catches in the end zone, as he did against Vanderbilt for a 9-yard score last week. He’s also a terrific athlete, which allows him to create separation out of the slot and beat cornerbacks deep on the outside, which he did for a 32-yard gain against the Commodores.
And, of course, his background as a high school quarterback makes him a threat to occasionally throw the ball, which he did for a 13-yard touchdown against Tennessee.
In some ways, he’s sort of a mixture between former tight end Kyle Pitts and former slot receiver Kadarius Toney, although he’s obviously not close to their level yet.
“He has good size, and he has really good body control – how to use his body – and catches the ball really well with his hands,” Mullen said.
“His ability to kind of shield people off and catch the ball, extend the hands and catch it at a far point away from the body is something that allows him to use to his strengths. I think he’s a guy who understands his strengths, and he really is a smart football player that plays well to those.”
Mullen hasn’t exactly been the most reliable source of information when it comes to injuries this season. Nevertheless, he sounded optimistic that they’ll get back several players who missed the Vanderbilt game this week.
He said that preseason All-American cornerback Kaiir Elam and left tackle Richard Gouraige should play against LSU. Elam hasn’t played since spraining his right knee against Alabama on Sept. 18, while Gouraige suffered an undisclosed injury in the second half against Kentucky two weeks ago and didn’t dress for the Vanderbilt game.
Meanwhile, Malik Davis – who leads the running backs with 49 carries for 279 yards – is also expected back. He didn’t dress against the Commodores after getting dinged up against Kentucky.
“He should be back this week,” Mullen said. “I haven’t gotten a report yet, but he was on the report expected to be back to practice this week.”
Finally, Mullen doesn’t anticipate edge rusher Brenton Cox having any trouble going this week. He didn’t play in the second half against Vanderbilt.
“He was banged up during the week,” Mullen said. “I was concerned about him being able to play as the week went on. He did a good job at the back end of the week, played the first half of the game, and I thought did a great job. When we came out in the second half, we said, ‘We’re going to try not to play you in the second half.’ I think the fact that we were able to kind of score points quick, we didn’t play him in the second half. He should be fine. He should be good to go.”