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The No. 17 Florida Gators ended the 2016 season on a positive note with an absolute whooping of the Iowa Hawkeyes on Monday in Tampa, Florida, at Raymond James Stadium in the 2017 Outback Bowl.
OnlyGators.com breaks down what we learned from the game.
1. The defense may be just fine … Florida is going to lose some talented players to the 2017 NFL Draft — some of whom will be declaring early — but the Gators do have a young core of defenders that can ensure the drop off is not too significant, even though one is certainly coming. Freshman defensive back Chauncey Gardner was named the Outback Bowl MVP after nabbing two of Florida’s three interceptions on the day including a game-clinching pick-six early in the fourth quarter. The Gators got seven tackles for loss on the afternoon and saw freshman linebacker Vosean Joseph step up in a major way with six tackles (one for loss) and a pass defense. Florida was down to its third-string linebacking corps but saw all perform admirably. UF also has redshirt junior DB Marcell Harris (nine tackles, seven solo) back next year, and though he needs to learn to tackle better, he was all over the field Monday.
2. … especially if Randy Shannon is coordinating it: If Monday was indeed a job interview for Shannon, well, he got the job. Florida held Iowa to just three points and kept the underdogs scoreless through the final three quarters of the game. The three points allowed by the Gators — which came following the game’s second interception on as many series for UF — were the fewest in program bowl history, and the 27-point win was its biggest victory since the 2009 Sugar Bowl. Yes, this performance did come against one of the bottom 10 offenses in the nation, but when you consider how depleted Florida’s defense was in the game, well, it was exceedingly impressive. The Gators ensured the Hawkeyes only registered three points off two interceptions, and strong defensive stands forced long field goal attempts or punts on series that were otherwise successful for Iowa.
3. The offense flashed — again: Only 13 of Florida’s 30 points came off turnovers on Monday, which means the offense mustered 17 on its own and — at times — looked impressive doing it. Graduate transfer quarterback Austin Appleby actually threw two touchdowns (one called back on penalty) on a 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive, and he made a number of terrific throws during the game to receivers that were able to break free from a tough Hawkeyes defense. Though Appleby (14 of 25, 222 yards, two interceptions) will not be back, the players that helped him put up those numbers will be. Sophomore running back Jordan Scarlett beasted again with 14 carries for 94 yards, junior RB Mark Thompson broke six tackles while taking his one catch for an 85-yard touchdown, sophomore wide receiver Antonio Callaway hauled in game-highs of seven receptions and 55 yards, and both freshmen WRs Tyrie Cleveland and Freddie Swain flashed with big catches.
Florida is in desperate need of top-tier quarterback play, but if it can find it next year from either of its freshmen in Feleipe Franks or Kyle Trask, a long-dormant offense may finally break through and prove head coach Jim McElwain knows what he’s doing. Oh, and speaking of the coaching, highly-criticized offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier called a fantastic game from start to finish.
4. Specialists can really make the Gators special: Redshirt junior punter Johnny Townsend and redshirt sophomore kicker Eddy Pineiro are both talented enough to play at the next level, but barring a surprise, both will be back for Florida next year. And that’s a great thing for the Gators. While Florida’s coverage and block teams may be desperately lacking production, the specialists are dropping bombs consistently. Townsend punted the ball four times for an average of 45.5 yards with a long of 51 and two downed inside the 20. Pineiro connected on all three of his field goals (44, 25, 48), giving him a line of 21-for-25 on field goals this season with 12 straight makes and no misses since Oct. 29. Pineiro has booted 11-of-13 field goals from beyond 40 yards, not missed beyond 50 (3-for-3) and made all 32 of his extra points.
5. There are flaws but also flashes: For all of the Gators’ flaws under McElwain, and there are plenty that we will get into at a later date, namely recruiting to this point, there is definitely a sense that a lot of things are going right under his leadership. Florida’s players have a visible bond that the program has not truly held since Tim Tebow was around. The coaches appear to have a deep love for the players — McElwain has now choked up twice on the field when asked about team victories (on Monday and at LSU). And there has been a true demand for improvement not just with the players but through the entire football administration department — namely with attention to detail and facilities.
No one will argue that McElwain inherited a ton of defensive talent from Will Muschamp that has played a major role in the Gators being able to win back-to-back SEC East tiles in McElwain’s first two years, but if he can get the recruiting worked out and makes the proper changes to his staff this offseason, Florida may very well be in line for the resurgence fans have hoped for all decade.