They tried to tune out the noise but in the age of social media with Tweets, Tik Tocks, and Instagram, it was impossible for the Florida Gators defense to not hear what people thought of them.
They’d be the first to tell you they weren’t playing up to their standards.
Florida was ranked 101 out of 102 Division I football teams on third down, allowing opponents to convert on 58.7% of their tries. They were second to last in the SEC in total defense (495 yards per game), second to last in terms of scoring (33.3 points per game). Frankly put, the Gators defense hadn’t shown up in 2020 and the fanbase and media let them know it.
“We try not to listen to (it), like, we hear it but we know we have to play better as a defense and as a unit, so,” staring defensive back Brad Stewart said. “We hear what y’all write and we know we got to step up, so that’s what we are going to work on week in and week out, and hopefully we can have y’all saying different things, people saying different things about our defense because we know what we can do.”
To compound on Florida’s biggest deficiency, third-down defense, look at Missouri’s third-down offense. The Tigers came into the game against Florida with the sixth-best third-down offense in the conference, converting 47.54% of their attempts.
Saturday night, well, the Tigers were just 3-of-15. Prior to Missouri’s final two drives – by which time Florida built a 41-10 lead – the Gators allowed just 172 total yards and had not ceded a touchdown to Missouri’s offense. This is a Missouri offense that put up 45 points against LSU and then controlled the clock so much against Kentucky that the Wildcats only ran 39 plays. They showed they could move the ball, control the clock, they had a dangerous running back and an offense that could win in multiple ways.
None of that mattered on Saturday. Florida’s defense, missing three starters in the secondary and starting two true freshmen because of it, held Missouri to 40 rushing yards. The Tigers came in with a gameplan to run the ball, control the clock and Florida’s defense stopped it. Missouri didn’t have an answer.
“We wanted to play like dogs,” freshman defensive back Rashard Torrence said. “We just really wanted to show everybody that there wasn’t really a dropoff and that we all as a whole secondary unit can get the job done at a very high level.”
The biggest difference on Saturday night was the addition of senior defensive tackle Kyree Campbell. Bringing Campbell back into the fold allowed Todd Grantham to move Zachary Carter back to strong-side defensive end, and Brenton Cox to Buck linebacker. The two had been playing out of position but getting Campbell back allowed them to play where they belong. What was the result? Cox looked like the five-star recruit and the kind of player people around the program had touted him to be. After shaking off a knee injury on the first drive of the game Cox finished the game with five tackles, four solo, his first career fumble recovery and three quarterback hurries. Carter had a quarterback hurry and contributed to a tackle for loss.
And there’s a reason that Florida’s pass defense was better, it’s not only because of new players in the game. The fact that Florida was able to stop the run, make Missouri one dimensional, and then get pressure on the quarterback helped the secondary. Not to take away from the job that those players did, several playing meaningful minutes for the first time in their career, but football is a team game and one weak unit can drag an entire defense down. Florida’s defense played as a unit on Saturday and that is what we have come to expect the Gators’ brand of defense look like.
“Our guys taking a lot of pride to pick it up after people have been getting after them. But we haven’t lost confidence in that in our ability to make plays and our playmakers on the field,” Mullen said. “I’m really proud of how those guys played. You knew they were going to take pride in how they were going to play the game this week. And they certainly did that for four quarters.”