Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain was all smiles after his team’s season opener last week. Suffice to say his mood did a complete 180 once Florida got off the field against East Carolina, the only true positive coming out of the game being that the Gators’ record improved to 2-0.
Florida took down ECU 31-24 on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida, but aside from the score, the Gators could easily chalk their performance up to a loss. And not just a normal loss but one that was caused by all-too-common mistakes during the previous regime led by ex-coach Will Muschamp.
Penalties: One week after being praised for playing the game the “right way” with a clean box score, Florida was rightly admonished by McElwain for committing 12 penalties, including two unsportsmanlike conduct calls and a boneheaded running into the kicker penalty that turned a change of possession into a scoring drive for the visitors. Sound familiar?
The Gators regularly shot themselves in the feet by being undisciplined under Muschamp. He chalked that up to rough play, but McElwain has made it clear that he will not stand for playing football in that manner. “It’s not how it’s going to be around here anymore,” McElwain began during his post-game press conference. “Over the last 10 years, the most penalized team in the league – in the country. It’s not going to happen, and we’ve got to learn. And it was embarrassing. It was embarrassing to our administration, our university … and it almost came back to bite us in the end.”
McElwain was incensed, as one would expect, during and after the game. As if the team’s play on the field was not enough of a reminder of what went down under the last coaching staff, his screaming fit at junior running back Kelvin Taylor and demonstrative post-game media availability were definite flashbacks.
A blown opportunity: McElwain ran the first-half quarterback rotation just like he did in the opener, but flipped: redshirt freshman Will Grier started the game and threw about 10-12 passes before sophomore Treon Harris replaced him and finished out the half. What changed was McElwain’s decision coming out of halftime, when he gave Grier the opportunity to return to the field as the starter, a change of pace from last week and clear sign that some progress had been made in the battle.
Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity, Grier faltered. He was short on a throw, had another pass bobbled by a receiver and intercepted (not Grier’s fault but still an interception on his stat line) and threw three more passes that were potential picks, two of which were straight drops by the Pirates’ defense. (Eerily similar problems that plagued the a recent UF starting quarterback.) As a result, Harris (who appeared to be done for the night) returned to the game. Though Harris was far from electric and once again proved his ceiling is much lower than Grier’s, he was calm behind center and did not have any instances of potential turnovers.
A decision that appeared to be on its way to being made Saturday now remains up in the air. Of course, McElwain could also choose to end the indecision and go with one or the other on Saturday at Kentucky. Whereas that may have been an easy choice for him at halftime of the game, it is now quite a difficult one.
Kick in the shins: Redshirt junior kicker Austin Hardin (and his much-stronger leg) had been widely praised by McElwain after nailing two field goals against New Mexico State and booming kickoffs through the end zone and off the uprights. Hardin looked poised to continue his success Saturday when he started the game with a make from 37 yards, but he faltered in a major way with consecutive misses from 34 and 35 yards out. It even got to a point that McELwain lost so much faith in Hardin he decided to go for a short fourth down rather than kick a field goal and increase his lead.
The kicking game was a major issue for Florida under Muschamp, and while a complete turnaround could not have been expected with the same personnel, the special teams struggles – including poor coverage on kickoff and punt returns – hearkened back to issues from the prior regime.
Line of fire: The Gators’ offensive line was absolutely blown up by the Pirates’ defensive front, which picked up two sacks and five tackles for loss on Saturday. Florida’s unit – known to be lacking depth entering the season after being depleted by graduations, NFL departures and uneven recruiting – was exposed by East Carolina after looking more than adequate against New Mexico State. Such was to be expected against a better, more talented opponent, but the extreme was apparent even though McElwain claimed UF was ready for everything ECU threw at them. “It’s not like we didn’t know what they were going to run. And their D-line took it to us. … It was ridiculous,” he said.
But the defense… As much as the Gators struggled on both sides of the ball – yes, there were defensive issues as well – Florida got itself out of jams with its more physical and talented defense, just like last season. There were three sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries, three registered forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, an interception and seven pass breakups on the night. The Gators hit hard and often and asserted their dominance when necessary. Florida bent but did not completely break. The defense’s play still would not have been good enough against a better opponent, but for the night in question it was more than adequate.
Notes and bits
» Redshirt junior defensive back Marcus Maye perfectly summed up Florida’s issue entering Saturday’s game. “It just felt good to be back like scoring points and everything. So I guess we kind of got on our high horse. This week kind of brought us back down.”
» Junior linebacker Jarrad Davis on his game-ending tackle … of redshirt junior LB Alex McCalister: “You never know what could happen. … It’s situational: We got the lead, the game is over, he could score easily but we’ve just been harping on going down in those type of situations. Seal the game, let the offense come out and do the victory, and we can go strike the band up, everybody go home with the W.”
» Just one week after 14 players (eight wide receivers, three tight ends) caught passes, Florida’s signal callers only connected with six pass catchers (three receivers).
» Florida is now 37-4 in the month of September since 2005.
» The Gators are now 3-0 all-time against the Pirates.
» Florida is now 167-16 since 1990 against unranked opponents.
» The Gators’ defense has now forced 400 turnovers since 2000, most in the SEC during that time period.