The three phases of Florida’s 2021 rushing game

Florida’s run game was one of the relatively few highlights from the 2021 season. After years of underwhelming-at-best results on the ground, the Gators finally returned to excellence in rushing. For about the first half of the season or so, UF was challenging the triple option service academies for the title of best and most prolific running team.

As it turns out, there were three distinct phases to the 2021 rushing attack. To demonstrate this, I broke down each game’s performance by comparing the Gators’ yards per rush to the season-long yards per rush that each opponent allowed. To clean up the data, I removed sacks and performances against FCS teams from all figures.

Here’s how the campaign played out in three acts.

Phase 1: Dominance

It’s hard to ask for better play out of the rushing game at the beginning of the season. Dan Mullen returned to his spread option roots with Emory Jones behind center, and he was in his wheelhouse.

Opponent Real Att. Real Yards Real YPC Real YPC All Difference
FAU 46 400 8.70 5.11 3.59
USF 43 371 8.63 6.14 2.49
Alabama 42 246 5.86 3.98 1.88
Tennessee 39 285 7.31 4.50 2.81

Even as FAU and USF were poor defensive teams to begin with, the Gators ran through them with ease. They topped those teams’ season averages by three-and-a-half and two-and-a-half yards per rush, respectively.

The early success carried forward. The run game was a major reason why Florida was able to hang with Alabama throughout most of the game, and it led the Gators in their fairly smooth win over the Vols.

“But wait,” I can hear you say. “What about Anthony Richardson’s long runs in the first two games? Do they skew things?”

The answer is that they do in different amounts. Taking out the 73-yard run against the Owls, the team’s real YPC falls to 7.27 and the margin over FAU’s average drops to 2.16. It’s still well above pace, just not to the same degree. In the case of the USF game, removing the 80 yarder that hurt Richardson’s hamstring brings the same figures down to 6.58 and 0.44. In other words, it doesn’t look nearly as dominant. Florida still breezed to victory, so it’s not that big a deal.

Phase 2: Down to Earth

After those terrific performances to start the year, the rushing attack lost its momentum.

Opponent Real Att. Real Yards Real YPC Real YPC All Difference
Kentucky 39 171 4.38 4.61 -0.23
Vanderbilt 34 181 5.32 5.90 -0.58
LSU 33 149 4.52 4.99 -0.47
Georgia 37 173 4.68 3.80 0.88

I can’t help but wonder if the offensive line lost its mojo after the eight false starts and two holding flags it picked up against Kentucky. The road tilt against the Wildcats was the first time that Florida failed to exceed an opponent’s season-long average, and it’s also the first time that the sack-free yards per rush fell below five. UK did have a good defense, but Tennessee’s YPC defense was in the same ballpark and Bama’s was noticeably better.

The second game in this bunch is, like in the first bunch, not a lot to worry about. UF breezed to a 42-0 win over Vandy, though notably it was not with the same free running aspect of the G5 blowouts that began the season.

Then against LSU, UF was back under five yards per carry despite that being right around the Tigers’ average. The team fell behind, and it was largely Richardson’s arm that got the Gators back into it with there being only two explosive runs across the four second-half touchdown drives.

The run game actually did an admirable job against UGA. If a game that was 3-0 with under three minutes to go in the second quarter had remained a 3-0 game at the half, then the run game would’ve been credited with keeping the Gators in the game the same as the Alabama loss. Alas, the utter and complete meltdown in the final 2:45 before intermission meant that rushing success was moot.

And then, things got worse.

Phase 3: The Bottom Falls Out

After the loss to UGA, motivation was clearly a big issue for the team. In a phase like the run game where it’s more about effort than anything, it showed.

Opponent Real Att. Real Yards Real YPC Real YPC All Difference
South Carolina 24 95 3.96 5.49 -1.53
Missouri 36 111 3.08 5.86 -2.78
Florida St. 45 150 3.33 4.30 -0.97

As good as the Gators were in the first month of the season, reverse it and that’s basically how they were down the stretch. You can take some of the earlier margins versus season averages and slap negative signs in front of them and not be far off.

Sometimes South Carolina or Missouri can turn out to be a defensive beast for a season. This was not that. Among all opponents, only the opening G5 opponents allowed more rushing yards per carry than the Gamecocks and Tigers.

Once the run game was done, so was the season. And so was Mullen’s tenure at UF.

Denouement: The Bowl

By the time the Gasparilla Bowl rolled around, there was not much reason for folks to care anymore. A new head coach had already been hired to replace the shrinking lame duck staff, players were already both leaving and arriving via the portal, and everyone expected (rightly, though with some twists and turns) it to be the final game for Jones. However, there was one bright spot in an otherwise forgettable outing.

Opponent Real Att. Real Yards Real YPC Real YPC All Difference
UCF 28 208 7.43 5.31 2.12

The rushing performance was efficient, if not all that explosive, and the margin over average is back to looking like one from September. Maybe it was getting Ethan White back for the first time since he went down against LSU, or maybe it was simply getting to go up against a G5 defense again. Regardless, it was the sort of performance where, if you believe in expected points added, UF shouldn’t have thrown a single pass all game for how well the run game worked and how poorly the pass game performed.

The fact that the team bounced back significantly even under those circumstances is a small point of hope for this year. Three offensive line starters return, O’Cyrus Torrence projects to be a big upgrade at right guard, and Michael Tarquin at right tackle is probably a wash at worst. Richardson has breakaway ability that Jones doesn’t, and raw speed in the backfield will rise with Lorenzo Lingard and Demarkcus Bowman entering the rotation.

The new scheme will be different, with far less an emphasis on option plays to try to put defenders in bad spots. It is, though, much closer to the rushing attacks at Alabama and Georgia that move the ball just fine on the ground.

I don’t think Billy Napier will call as many runs as he did at Louisiana, as Richardson is a far better passer than anyone he had in Lafayette. However the new boss does like to lean on the run game more than most, and the 2021 rushing attack could put up great numbers even against good opponents. The pieces are there to replicate those results provided the line stays healthy and cohesive and the team’s motivation doesn’t slip again.

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