Florida vs. South Carolina score, takeaways: Gators offense excites, defense continues to worry

By Adam Silverstein
October 3, 2020
Florida vs. South Carolina score, takeaways: Gators offense excites, defense continues to worry

Image Credit: @GatorsFB / Twitter

With approximately 20% of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium filled at reduced capacity amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the No. 3 Florida Gators (2-0) held in their on in a thorough but occasionally worrisome 38-24 win over the South Carolina Gamecocks (0-2). While Florida’s offense again appeared to be lights-out for most of the game, its defense lacked any shred of consistency for the second straight contest.

Despite a scoreless fourth quarter for the Gators, the hosts picked up the win on Saturday in their home opener. It is unlikely that Florida will see a rise in the top 25 rankings on Sunday as both teams ahead of it are heavily favored to win, but it likely cemented itself in the third spot as it approaches one of its more difficult opponents this season.

What went down on Saturday afternoon in The Swamp, and what does it mean for the Gators going forward? Let’s take a look at Florida’s victory as it moves to 2-0 on the season.

1. #Kyle2Kyle might be unstoppable (and award-worthy): The connection between redshirt senior quarterback Kyle Trask and junior tight end Kyle Pitts continues to pay massive dividends for the Gators. Trask hit Pitts for two touchdowns in the first half, bringing their season total up to six through as many quarters at that point. Trask himself had another efficient day, completing 21 of 29 passes for 268 yards and four touchdowns, though it was far from perfect. We’ll get to that in a moment. The performances by the two Kyles has transcended our year-old Twitter hashtag and the minds of Florida fans. ESPN featured the hashtag (well, #KyleToKyle, technically) during the first quarter and frequently pointed to their connection during the broadcast.

This begs the question: Is the Heisman Trophy a legitimate possibility for either Trask or Pitts this season? Simply put, it is unlikely Pitts keeps up this insane production. He has those six touchdowns and 227 yards on 12 receptions this season; in other words, he’s averaging 19 yards per catch. As teams begin to focus more on Pitts, he will get fewer opportunities and likely open up the rest of the offense even further. That makes Trask the more likely of the two to keep up his pace. He’s completed 72% of his passes for 684 yards and 10 touchdowns, becoming just the third SEC quarterback in history to toss that many scores in the first two games of the season (Florida’s Terry Dean in 1994, Kentucky’s Tim Couch in 1998).

It was not all rosy for Trask on Saturday, though, as he turned the ball over twice. The first was on a designed quarterback run where it got popped out at midfield; while not ideal, it was understandable. The second was far stranger as Trask nearly threw an interception on consecutive plays to open the fourth quarter … until he finally did on his third toss. A similar sequence happened in the Ole Miss game last week, except the Rebels were never able to haul in the ball. “Kyle does a good job. He made a couple critical errors today, turned the ball over twice. Bad mistakes, to be honest with you,” head coach Dan Mullen said after the game.

Turnovers and near-turnovers happen, but when you couple that pick with a scoreless period where the Gators gained just 13 yards over two legitimate drives while their competitor was threatening to make a game of it, that is a reason for some concern. Both of Trask’s turnovers immediately led to touchdowns for the Gamecocks.

“With the capability and potential of our offense and the playmakers that we have, we expect to score every single time we have the ball. And we should have scored every time we had the ball,” Trask said. “There were little things we did; we got to take care of the ball. Me personally, I can’t put balls on the ground, can’t give the ball away to the other team. We gotta just do a better job of cleaning up those little tings. If we do that, there’s no doubt in my mind that we will be able to score on every single drive.”

2. What is going on with this defense? / Third Fourth and Grantham: Luckily for Florida, its offense was fantastic over the first three quarters because its defense certainly was not. The Gators allowed the Gamecocks to compile 329 yards (to their 348) on Saturday. Not only that, South Carolina had a 100-yard rusher in Kevin Harris and outgained Florida on the ground 117-80, becoming just the 10th team to do that in two-plus seasons under Mullen (who is now 5-5 when that happens). Mullen said he needs to see improved execution and effort from the team and that it is “still catching up on defense” compared to offense from the offseason.

The Gamecocks ran 30 — THIRTY! — more plays than the Gators (83-53) and held the ball for 13 more minutes (36:23-23:37). Why? Florida could not stop South Carolina on the money downs. The visitors opened by converting 5 of 8 third downs in the first half. By the time the game was over, it was only 6 of 17. Sounds good, right? Not exactly. The Gamecocks converted five straight fourth downs on Saturday and would have gone 6 for 6 if Collin Hill could have hit a wide open Shi Smith in the end zone late in the game. So on opportunities to get South Carolina off the field, Florida’s defense was only successful about 50% of the time.

“When we had opportunities to get off the field on third down playing defense, we didn’t,” Mullen said, according to 247Sports. “We made some great plays, then gave up some plays that we should make. Some missed assignments there. We have to evaluate our assignments. Have to evaluate if we’re making the right call. Have to evaluate if we’re making tackles the right way. If we’re executing the right way. … We’ll evaluate the offense and see what we have to do to fix that. We can’t have three-and-outs when we need first downs in the fourth quarter to put the game away on ice. All of the above. Every little aspect. Every second of the game concerns me about us getting better.”

“All these third-down conversions, they’re just learning lessons to help us execute next time,” said sophomore cornerback Kaiir Elam, who starred with six solo tackles and two pass breakups. “I feel like we should come off the field every third down, but if that’s not the case, you can’t dwell on it. You just got to learn from it and come smarter and harder.”

The Gators did pick up four sacks, six tackles for loss and nine quarterback hurries on the day. There were moments of improvement, including a third quarter in which the visitors only scored a field goal. But Florida was aided by South Carolina drops and penalties throughout the game, not to mention some horrendous coaching decisions and clock management by head coach Will Muschamp. Among Muschamp’s miscues were making a three-score game a three-score game by kicking a field goal down 24 in the third quarter and chewing up 7:23 of clock over 18 plays without using a timeout to end the game down two scores.

The Gators have major questions to answer defensively, and the long and short of it is that they should thanking their lucky stars that the offense is playing so well and their first two opponents have not made them pay for their lackadaisical play. Will defensive coordinator Todd Grantham get this figured out by next week? At this point, that seems like wishful thinking. Mullen after the game put some of the blame on the offense.

3. Tony! Toni! Toné! Toney! Senior wide receiver Kadarius Toney looked to be back to his normal, healthy self last week, but he proved a point on Saturday. Toney not only led the Gators in receiving yards for the second straight game (86 on six receptions), he took off on a 57-yard scamper for a touchdown that looked as if it was out of a video game. He somehow burned past four defenders that looked to have him captured for a huge score that wound up serving as Florida’s final points of the day. In fact, Toney’s touchdown is the reason why UF was able to feel even somewhat comfortable in the fourth quarter while it looked like the world was crumbling.

4 More scores: Trask also hit redshirt freshman WR Trent Whittemore for a 4-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Whittemore has caught all five of his targets through two games with 56 yards on the young season. Junior running back Dameon Pierce ran UF’s first touchdown of the game from 2 yards out, capping a drive in which he ran five times for 27 yards. Stunningly, he only had four more carries for 24 yards in the game.

“Trent is a guy that works extremely hard during the week, every day of the week. He’s a dynamic player. He’s the sleeper of the team this year,” Pitts said after the game. “… He’s going to sneak in there, get his five receptions — maybe — and he’s going to surprise a lot of people.”

5. Odds and ends: Florida won its 31st consecutive home opener … the Gators are now 29-9-3 all-time vs. the Gamecocks, 6-3 in the last nine meetings and 16-2 in Gainesville … Mullen improved to 4-0 against Muschamp as head coaches … under Mullen, Florida is now 19-0 when leading after the third quarter and 5-5 when being outrushed by its opponent … the Gators are 18-2 against unranked teams under Mullen … Florida has scored 24+ points in 17 of its last 19 games dating back to 2019 … the Gators have scored 116 touchdowns in 28 games under Mullen compared to 93 in 38 games from 2015-17 … Florida scored in its 400th consecutive game, an NCAA record … UF has won nine straight games in The Swamp

6. Fans in the stands: While some stadiums across the nation remain closed due to COVID-19 concerns, the University Athletic Association in conjunction with UF and the State of Florida decided to fill The Swamp at 20% capacity this season. This as in-state rival Florida State among other programs has provided embarrassing displays of fans ignoring safety guidelines and security seemingly not trying to enforce them. Well, according to fans at the South Carolina game, the Gators appear to be handling things pretty well with safely in mind. After the game, I reached out to our Twitter followers and asked for details from some who attended the game. The reviews were glowing.

“[The] staff was pretty strict about everyone sitting with a blue seat. There was certainly effort made to avoid groupings,” wrote Will Levenson. “Everyone had masks on from what I saw. If someone’s mask was down, they were told to put it up. Enjoyable atmosphere as well. Overall, a great success.”

“Personally, I didn’t see any issues around me — everyone had their masks on, the few that would put it down [were] quickly approached by security,” wrote Tracey J. “They had hand sanitizers at every gate and seats were distanced nicely. No complaints.”

“I was there and it was fine. Seemed like everyone was wearing masks in the stands and walking around the concourse,” said Pierre Vogelbacher. “Hard to social distance in the concourse, but there are a lot less people. Staff was telling people who had masks down to put them up. Good experience.”

7. What’s up next? Florida will face its most difficult test of the young season when it travels to College Station, Texas, to face Texas A&M next Saturday. The Aggies are currently losing to No. 2 Alabama but entered this week as the No. 13 team in the nation and should be a top 25 team come next week. The Gators are 2-2 all-time against the Aggies, 1-1 since they joined the SEC in 2012.

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