Playing a second consecutive road game in the state of Tennessee, the Florida Gators at least bounced back with a victory Saturday over the Vanderbilt Commodores. That’s probably the nicest thing to say about the Gators’ effort in the game: They won.
Florida’s 13-6 win left a lot to be desired and plenty of questions to be answered, particularly as the Gators’ SEC slate gets even more difficult in the coming weeks.
Here are four things we learned on Saturday.
1. Florida’s best player reveals himself: It’s tired to say punters don’t get respect. What’s more accurate is that they do not get the necessary appreciation for their impact on a given game. Well, junior Johnny Townsend is going to receive that recognition right now. As the Gators stumbled over themselves on offense and defense, Townsend did what he and Florida’s special teams was unable to one week ago against Tennessee: successfully flip the field (over and over again).
Townsend put together a tremendous performance Saturday, booting seven balls for 363 yards on the afternoon. That’s an absurd average of 51.9 yards per punt (with a long of 62). Townsend also downed five inside the 20 and saw five of his seven punts go 50 yards or longer. A guy like Townsend can allow a struggling team to play field position football, which is what Florida was forced into on Saturday. Without him, it’s doubtful the Gators win the game. “The hidden yardage was in our favor this week,” McElwain said. “… Johnny did a good job, and Eddy [Pineiro] did what he was supposed to do when given the opportunities.”
2. A primary rusher needs to be chosen: This is honestly getting ridiculous. The Gators are playing four running backs with regularity this season as junior Mark Thompson, sophomores Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite, and freshman Lamical Perine have combined for 132 carries. Scarlett leads the way with 43, followed by Thompson with 40, Perine with 31 and Cronkrite with 21. That’s a large enough sample size for head coach Jim McElwain to determine his best running back. But even when Scarlett was running through Vanderbilt on his handful of opportunities Saturday, McElwain refused to allow him to shoulder the load.
Scarlett went 25 game minutes between gashing the Commodores on a drive and scoring a touchdown in the first half and his first touch of the second half. He only carried the ball 12 times in the game, though he did have a couple questionable runs late. Regardless, McElwain’s refusal to either name a legitimate starting running back or actually ride a hot hand is mind-boggling. So is his decision to not explain himself. So is the refusal of those sitting in front of him to ask him blatantly: Why have you not chosen a starting running back when a differentiation appears to be clear between the four players? What are you seeing on film that no on else does? On Saturday, it looked like McElwain might get asked a version of that question only for him to shut it down with an absurd answer. Honestly, it makes no sense.
3. This team seriously lacks physicality and depth: Attribute it to poor offensive line recruiting and management by Will Muschamp, to-this-point underwhelming recruiting by McElwain on both lines or simply a development and coaching issue, but a Gators team that has spent the last two decades being feared up front on both sides of the ball is anything but these days. Opposing offenses are gashing Florida’s defensive front; opposing defenses are getting to the quarterback at will and stuffing runs without stacking the box.
“Offensively, their inside guys just beat the heck out of us. That was very disappointing. … The penetration really got after us. Yeah, it really got after us,” said McElwain. “I don’t think we played physical up front on either side of the ball. I think they out-physicaled us in all phases. … We got to learn to play physical and play with some pad level because we just got pushed around today.”
The Gators were dealing with numerous injuries on Saturday and are not fully healthy on either line at this time. Still, it’s quite notable that teams across the country can suffer major losses (Tennessee is down two starting linebackers and one of the top cornerbacks in the country) and barely miss a step, while any individual injury seems to completely doom Florida’s depth.
4. McElwain better get the offense right: The defense is struggling — badly — both in performance and future talent. But even putting that aside, which on its own is tough to do, McElwain came to Florida with an offensive pedigree and at times it appears as the Gators are still running in the mud like they were two years ago before he took over the program. A large part of that can be blamed on quarterback instability, of course, as McElwain lost Will Grier to a drug suspension (and subsequent transfer) and redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio to injury (he should be back against LSU). But top-tier offensive minds are supposed to figure out ways to put points on the board even in dire situations.
To this point, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have shown lacking adaptability. Freshmen across the country are starting and succeeding at quarterback, yet the best the Gators have to offer behind Del Rio is a graduate transfer who appears not to have learned much from his struggles at Purdue? “We missed some throws. It’s beyond me how you fumble the ball on a quarterback sneak at the end of the game,” McElwain said of Austin Appleby‘s performance. The freshmen may not have the pedigree of Georgia’s Jacob Eason or Texas’s Shane Buechele, but if neither is ready to play, that’s certainly an issue.
Other notes: McElwain called LSU ‘road graders” who will be “really inspired for a new coach and [playing hard out of] respect for their old coach” next week … He also said Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason made the right call by punting with 1:40 remaining as, according to the book, a team with three timeouts should be able to punt and only see the other team expend 16 seconds (that’s exactly what happened) … McElwain also offered this quip about the win in general: “A wise man once told me, no matter what, you even gotta bring them ugly babies home from the hospital. And that was ugly, alright? In fact, that might’ve been what somebody told my dad when I was born. But I’m glad they brought me home. And I feel really good about the fact that our guys figured out a way to win.”