Image Credit: AP
“Explosive offense” and “Florida Gators football” were once synonymous terms. Not so much anymore.
Let’s not get it twisted, the Gators have taken some steps forward under head coach Jim McElwain, particularly this season, but Florida has not exactly been tested outside of Vanderbilt — and that was a month ago.
Redshirt sophomore starting quarterback Luke Del Rio missed two games — including his team’s only loss — with a knee injury. McElwain has insisted on rotating four running backs when it’s obvious to most that two should be getting the majority of the carries. The offensive line, still young and developing, got off to a rough start in September; and while it has played better as of late, unforced errors like penalties have halted production.
Regardless of the lacking opponents and issues, it’s worth pointing out that the Gators rank 52nd in total offense, their best mark since 2009 — by a wide margin. Since finishing sixth in Tim Tebow’s final season, Florida’s total offense ranks have looked like this: 83rd, 105th, 104th, 115th, 96th, 112th. The Gators have also reached their second-best scoring offense ranking (60th) since the departure of Urban Meyer, but scoring is a different animal than moving the ball.
And it’s not coming on the back of major production, either. Del Rio is only completing 57.6 percent of his passes and has amassed 998 yards in four games with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. No pass catcher has more than two scores on the year, though it is certainly impressive that both sophomore Antonio Callaway and freshman Tyrie Cleveland (in limited action) are averaging north of 17 yards per reception. Yes, sophomore Jordan Scarlett, the second Florida running back to score a touchdown in five straight games in the last 12 years, leads in carries (67) and yards (375), but it’s actually freshman Lamical Perine who is pacing the team by averaging 6.3 yards per carry.
Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has taken some deserved grief for some of his play calls this season, but what’s important to remember are all of the classes of the players mentioned in the above paragraph.
“There’s been times this year where you kind of look out there, and yeah, you get a little frustrated. And yet, you realize we got a pretty good future with some of the guys that are out there playing,” said McElwain on Wednesday. “It does bode well for the direction we’re headed, and I know we’re excited about it.”
McElwain admits the Gators are “nowhere near where we need to be” on that side of ball, though he cautions that “some parts are actually starting to step up and realize how good they can be.” To him, it’s about Florida’s players “allowing” themselves to be great “by not shooting yourself in the foot with unforced errors” and having “enough confidence in your ability to overcome” those mistakes when they are made.
One aforementioned area the Gators are struggling is penalties. Florida is 113th nationally in penalties per game (8.17) and 116th in penalty yards per game (72.83). Now realize that’s out of 128 teams and four of the five best teams UF will face this season are still to come on the schedule.
“It was addressed pretty point on,” McElwain promised. “The unforced errors, that’s the thing that bothers you more than anything. The concentration to overcome when you do make an error [is key].”
To McElwain, it’s the little things the Gators need to start doing right. Florida ball carriers have been great busting through the line but are still “learning how to finish and play through the whistle.” When they have reached the second level, Scarlett and Perine especially have exploded for some big gains. McElwain says he will continue splitting carries and using a “hot hand” in the fourth quarter.
The receivers have been a breath of fresh air, though Del Rio’s injury and graduate transfer Austin Appleby‘s ineffectiveness over his final six quarters of play stymied the group. Del Rio’s return resulted in some long passes to Cleveland but a bevy of underthrown balls including three interceptions — really, there should have been five or six — against Missouri two weeks ago.
“Whenever you don’t play the way you like, you want to get back on the field and get the bad taste out of your mouth. We had a bye week. We took advantage of it. We got healthy. Definitely excited to get back on the field,” the quarterback said Monday.
McElwain attributed his quarterback’s issues to his footwork. Perhaps as a balance for his injury, Del Rio “drifted himself into trouble” in the pocket and bounced off his dropbacks. That, McElwain claims, affected his accuracy — though Del Rio himself admitted after the game that he also made a number of poor decisions in the game.
But while Del Rio did shoulder all of the blame, he did want to put the Gators’ overall performance that week in perspective.
“We had 530 yards of offense. It’s not like we’re not getting first downs and not moving the ball,” he said. “We just need to execute in the red area and stop turning the ball over on my part. Fix the little correctable things like false starts and holds and turnovers.”
Ah yes, back to the difference between total offense (moving the ball) and scoring offense (putting points on the board). Florida is 122nd nationally inside the red zone, converting just 15-of-25 trips into points. The only teams worse nationally are South Carolina (imagine that), Indiana, Northwestern, Central Michigan, Purdue and East Carolina. Combined record of those teams? Four of those six teams are 3-4 or worse, and you can bet none of them have the quality of defense the Gators boast (No. 1 in the red zone nationally).
But here’s the thing about Saturday’s game against the Georgia Bulldogs. The defensive unit now helmed by new head coach Kirby Smart may be 20th in total defense and 58th in scoring defense nationally, but it’s one of the worst in the red zone, allowing points 95.5 percent of the time (125th out of 128 teams).
“I expect our guys to play well and play excited,” McElwain said of his team’s attitude entering the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. “You only get this opportunity once a year. Let’s go take advantage of it, and let’s really enjoy it. That’s a big key.”
The other is putting points on the board against one of the best defensive minds in college football who’s had two weeks to prepare for his former co-worker in McElwain.
“I think we’re going to be ready,” McElwain said.