Florida at Ole Miss score, takeaways: Gators set records behind Trask, Pitts as defense struggles

By Adam Silverstein
September 26, 2020
Florida at Ole Miss score, takeaways: Gators set records behind Trask, Pitts as defense struggles
Football

Image Credit: @GatorsFB on Twitter

With limited fans in attendance and some strange first-quarter happenings, a slow start quickly became a fast-paced battle as the No. 5 Florida Gators (1-0) triumphed 51-35 over the Ole Miss Rebels (0-1) to open the teams’ 2020 college football seasons. Florida saw its two star offensive players make history on the afternoon, while its defensive struggles created numerous questions for the program to answer going forward.

Ultimately, the Gators picked up the W, which is what was most important coming out of the game. In doing so, they also provided plenty of highlights to further solidify their deserving status as one of the highest-ranked teams in the nation. As far as what happened over the first 60 minutes of UF’s season, that’s exactly why we are here.

“It was so good to be back out there playing,” head coach Dan Mullen said after the game. “It felt like a great day of football for us. It kind of felt normal for the first time in a long time to be out there on the field playing SEC football.”

What went down on Saturday afternoon at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Mississippi, and what does it mean for Florida football going forward? Let’s take a look at the Gators’ big season-opening win as it begins its 10-game SEC schedule in this wacky campaign.

1. #Kyle2Kyle is real, and it’s spectacular: The connection between redshirt senior quarterback Kyle Trask and junior tight end Kyle Pitts did not miss a beat this offseason. The two Kyles connected eight times with Pitts hauling in four of those for touchdowns while gaining 170 yards. Pitts scored on a 1-yard toss, a 16-yard dagger, a 71-yard bomb in which he stiff-armed his closest defender and took it to the house, and a 17-yard grab out of thin air. It was an incredibly impressive effort from Pitts, who has the ability to put together an all-time season on his way to the NFL. His four scores ties the program record for most TD catches in a single game, a mark that had not been approached since 1995.

“He’s a special player,” Mullen said. “… If you saw some of the matchups we were able to create with him today, he’s that matchup problem as a tight end. That’s what you like. … We’ve been seeing it in training camp. I know he’s had a chip on his shoulder and wanted to show what he can be this year. He’s even taken a step forward as a complete tight end in terms of what we want.”

Pitts does not grab any of those touchdowns without the tremendous effort put forth by Trask, who set a program record with six touchdowns passes in a season opener and is now tied for most in conference history with that many scores in an SEC opener. He was only one short of matching the program record of seven set by Doug Johnson in 1997. Trask completed 30 of 42 passes for 416 yards and led the Gators offense to 642 yards, the most for the program in a season opener over the last 15 seasons and most in an SEC game in program history. It was also the most yards for UF vs. any SEC team since 2005 and the most total yards in any game since 2009. Whether Trask — or Pitts for that matter — winds up as a Heisman Trophy candidate at season’s end remains to be seen, but it was an incredible start for the duo beyond even the wildest expectations of most.

Still, Mullen said there is room for improvement, including finishing better off front in the run game, some misreads in the passing game and just being cleaner when there are contested passes. The Gators were also 6 for 10 on third down in the game. “Just in that switch to game mode, I think we’ll get better,” he said. “I heard that was a school record fo offense. I would expect, when i get home, my neighbor Coach [Steve] Spurrier, right around the corner right there, I should have a really nice bottle of wine sitting on my desk right now if I broke one of his records offensively. That’s at least deserving of a nice bottle of wine, I think.”

2. The defense got absolutely shredded: As well as Florida’s offense may have played, its defense left major cause for concern over the rest of the season. The Gators wound up playing without four expected starters on that side of the ball after senior safety Shawn Davis was ejected on the first series for targeting. Already out were redshirt senior Buck Jeremiah Moon, senior defensive back Brad Stewart Jr. and senior defensive lineman Kyree Campbell. Stewart and Campbell were left off Mullen’s first depth chart, but he would not address their absences. Moon was on the depth chart but made surprise inactive before kickoff.

Despite being down those players, Florida’s defense does not deserve to be excused for the way it played. The Gators secondary gave up one explosive play after another to the Rebels, including multiple long bombs that eventually resulted in touchdowns. All five of Ole Miss’ touchdowns came on drives of 75 yards of longer and only two of them needed to be sustained for double-digit plays. Ole Miss piled up 613 yards of total offense — read that again, 6-1-3! — with starting QB and ex-Florida commit Matt Corral tossing for 395 yards and three scores. He hit wide receiver Elijah Moore 10 times for 227 yards in the standout performance of the game besides Pitts. The Rebels converted 9 of 14 third downs and matched the Gators in nearly every offensive category.

“We got to get a lot better [defensively], to be honest with you. When you haven’t tackled — we’ve tackled twice since the Orange Bowl,” Mullen said. “Normally, you got a lot of spring ball, you’re getting physicality, you’re getting tackling. We only did two in our scrimmages and they were spread out over this long period of time. We were down some guys defensively today; hopefully, we get some guys back for next week. When you add all that together, we just haven’t played a lot of football. And you saw it today. … I think that’s going to get better. And give them credit … they have some talented guys. … We just got to get cleaner and better for next week.”

He later added: “You try to simulate the game in practice, but you can’t. I do think we need to clean some things up. I think maybe we took some things for granted defensively. … I know Todd and the staff are going to do a great job. I know our leadership on defense – coach and player leadership – is probably not pleased with our total performance on the day. I think those guys will step up to get it improved from Week 1 to Week 2.”

3. Back to normal? Senior wide receiver Kadarius Toney and redshirt junior running back Malik Davis have suffered through injuries and inconsistencies after having breakout freshman seasons. With a long offseason and both able to regain their health, the question was whether they would be as dynamic as they used to be and stand out as difference-makers for the Gators this season. Through one game, that answer seems to be, “Yes!” Toney was the leading rusher and second-leading receiver on Saturday, picking up 114 total yards and a touchdown on the afternoon. Davis totaled 82 yards on 10 touches and was a consistent factor on the running game. Both displayed the burst, quickness and agility that made them fan favorites soon after they took the field a few years ago.

Mullen said he spent a portion of the offseason convincing Toney that he can be the most effective when trying to take what is there as opposed to attempting to force big plays every time he touched the ball. On Saturday, Toney took off on a 50-yard run due in large part to that patience. “Now you see what he’s developed into, being an every-down player. His route-running ability, his blocking, obviously he’s exciting when we put the ball in his hands. You just see the every-down capabilities that he has as a playmaker,” Mullen said.

Junior RB Dameon Pierce got a team-high nine carries for 54 yards on the afternoon, and senior WR Trevon Grimes scored the other touchdown of the day as part of his three receptions for 64 yards. Mullen was pleased with not only his playmakers but the offensive line stepping up. “The offensive line today I thought held up, did a good job. We ran the ball for almost 200 yards, so that’s a pretty good day running the ball offensively,” he said. “… If we get 200 yards rushing every game, I’ll be pretty happy.”

4. Special, indeed: Not much was needed from Florida’s special teams on Saturday, though junior kicker Evan McPherson made all of his opportunities count. McPherson hit all three of his field goal attempts in the game, including a stunning 55-yarder that sailed through the middle of the uprights and had at least another 5 yards of air. “It puts you into scoring range a lot sooner,” said Mullen of McPherson’s leg. “… Evan, obviously, we have a lot of trust in him. I think he knows that. A great weapon. It does, it changes [how you play]. … It will change how people have to play you defensively a little bit.” Before the season, Mullen called McPherson the best kicker in the entire nation.

5. Odds and ends: Trask registered his fifth 300-yard passing game in 11 starts; Florida had three such games total over the prior nine seasons … 11 different players caught passes from Trask, and 14 players touched it overall, including redshirt sophomore QB Emory Jones … Jones committed the Gators’ lone turnover with a wounded-duck interception … freshman defensive lineman Grevon Dexter grabbed a batted-ball interception in his first career game …

Florida opened its season with a true road game for the first time since 1987 and against an SEC opponent for the first time since 1992 … UF has won its SEC opener in 15 of the last 16 seasons … the Gators evened the all-time series with he Rebels 12-12-1 and are now 6-2 in Oxford … Florida is 16-0 when scoring first, 18-0 when leading after the third quarter and 18-0 when outrushing its opponent under Mullen … the Gators are 17-2 against unranked teams under Mullen … Florida has scored 111 offensive touchdowns in 27 games under Mullen compared to 93 in 38 games from 2015-17 … UF has scored in 399 consecutive games, an NCAA record

6. Special moment: During the game’s first kickoff, the Gators and Rebels chose to kneel together in a showing of unity as a means of promoting social justice as the national fight against inequality continues.

7. What’s next? Florida will open its 2020 home slate next Saturday when it hosts South Carolina for a noon ET kickoff. The Gators have won four of the last five in this series dating back to 2015 and are 3-1 against ex-head coach Will Muschamp since he took over the program.

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