Florida Gators players, coaches and staff had plenty to stick their collective chest out about following Saturday’s impressive victory against LSU in The Swamp, but head coach Will Muschamp was quick to point out on Monday that the team still has a way to go until it is playing up to his high expectations.
The Gators did so many things right on Saturday that mentioning the ways in which the team stepped up in all three phases of the game is necessary.
Florida’s offense was 7-of-14 on third down and converted every single third-and-short, a situation the team struggled with in the first three games of the season. UF also averaged 3.0 yards per carry, a number that may not seem high until it is pointed out that leading rusher Mike Gillislee took 34 carries for an average of 4.3 yards on his own. Possessing the ball for nearly 15 minutes longer than the Tigers, the Gators completely controlled the second half and outworked the visitors.
Unfortunately it was far from a complete performance for Florida’s offense considering the passing game struggled mightily. Sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel did complete 8-of-12 attempts for 61 yards, but pass blocking was lackluster to say the least and Driskel made some bad decisions of his own.
“We need to improve and create more balance offensively, obviously. It’s a combination of things,” Muschamp explained on Monday. “Whether it’s route running, route concepts, getting rid of the football in the right place, taking the ball to the right place, protection – there’s a lot of things that go into that. We need to just continue to work on that.”
The Gators really shined defensively, winning the turnover battle 3-2 (due to a fumble at the end of the game on a hook-and-ladder attempt) and completely shutting down their opponent’s offense in the second half. Aside from junior safety Matt Elam’s strip and junior cornerback Jaylen Watkins’s interception, Florida registered four sacks and six tackles for loss.
Even in an area of the game in which UF looked flawless, Muschamp found one major issue.
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“We need to improve our communication,” he said. “We had some situations where we were checking some things based on formation that we got to get communicated better. That’s something we need to work on – situational football at the end of the game and some third downs.
“We just need to be more aware and cognizant of the situation in the game and how we’re playing and whether we’re trying to bluff a disguise and things we don’t need to be doing in certain situations. We just need to play smarter football on the defensive side. We certainly can make some improvements there.”
Where the Gators could probably use the most improvement is special teams, but Florida even succeeded in that phase of the game.
Sophomore punter Kyle Christy was dominant in the first half with two long punts that were downed inside the 20-yard line (one travelled 61 yards), and he finished the game with a 49.1-yard average on seven kicks. Muschamp also praised sophomore CB Loucheiz Purifoy, who was a monster in kickoff and punt coverage.
Where the Gators fell short for the fifth-straight game was in the return game. Not only did Florida fail to gain much yardage on the opportunities it actually decided to take advantage of, junior S De’Ante Saunders called a pair of fair catches on punt returns in which he had 10-15 yards of space in front of him should he have caught the ball and tried to make something happen.
“It’s just about fielding the punt and making a good decision. It’s easy sitting on the practice fields doing it. Sometimes in the game situation and they’re covering, we just got to make better decisions. We work on it every single day; it’s not something that we haven’t worked on,” Muschamp explained.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Andre Debose, who has not seen much playing time on offense this year and actually registered his first catch of the entire season on Saturday, has been the man tasked with making big plays on special teams, something he has proven that he can do throughout his career.
Muschamp saw one opportunity for Debose to break out for a big gain on Saturday but noted that the blocking once again failed him as it has numerous other times this season.
“Punt return and kickoff return we need drastic improvement. Nice job on the kickoff return right before half. Andre really hit it in there. [If] we could have cut off one guy, we might have got one out of the back there,” he said.
“Punt return, again, we’ve worked on it, fielding the punts and not losing yardage in those precious situations. We cannot afford to continue to do that. That’s something we’ve addressed and obviously I haven’t done a good job, so we’ll do it some more or find somebody different, figure out what we can do there.”
With an October schedule that is not set to get any easier for the Gators over the next few weeks, Muschamp knows that Florida must correct these issues now in order to be a better team not just against Vanderbilt but in the long term, too.