Florida at Texas A&M score, takeaways: Historically bad defense embarrasses as late fumble dooms Gators

By Adam Silverstein
October 10, 2020
Florida at Texas A&M score, takeaways: Historically bad defense embarrasses as late fumble dooms Gators

Image Credit: GatorsFB on Twitter

One of the worst defenses in program history failed to show up once again on Saturday as the No. 4 Florida Gators (2-1) saw their national championship-caliber offense wasted in a 41-38 upset loss to the No. 21 Texas A&M Aggies (2-1) in College Station, Texas. With a (relatively) packed Kyle Field serving as a strong 12th Man for the Aggies, it appeared as if the Gators had the game in hand until a late fumble doomed the visitors in the final few minutes.

Though one loss in this COVID-19 shortened season does not come anywhere near ending Florida’s SEC or national title hopes, the way its defense performed should make it clear that fans need to significantly lower their expectations as to the level of success this program will be able to achieve by season’s end.

The Gators will surely drop significantly in the top 25 rankings on Sunday as they enter the teeth of their 10-game SEC schedule. Saturday’s game against Texas A&M was supposed to be a key test for Florida to pass on its way to tougher opponents. Instead, it was a stark reminder of what it takes to win in the SEC.

What went down on Saturday afternoon at Kyle Field, and what does it mean for the Gators going forward? Let’s take a look at Florida’s first loss of the season.

1. Defense loses championships: For a program that has been prideful about their top-tier defenses over the decades, the Gators should be nothing but embarrassed at how how they have played through three games this season. Florida has given up 100 points (33.3 per game) and 1,485 total yards (495.0) while allowing opponents to convert 33 of 54 get-off-the-field downs (.611). Those 100 points are the most allowed by the Gators through three games since 1917. On Saturday against Texas A&M, it was a disaster by all accounts. Florida gave up 543 yards and was outrushed 205-90 on the day. The Aggies converted 13 of 16 attempts on third and fourth down (.813) despite committing numerous penalties that should have sunk the hosts. All of this with Todd Grantham standing as one of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in the country ($1.8 million).

If Florida’s defensive statistics hold through the remainder of the season, Grantham’s unit would finish with the second-worst total defense in the SEC in data tracing back to 2009. UF is giving up 146 more yards per game than its next-worst defense in that span. Its opponents’ third-down conversion rate (.587) would be third-worst in the league over that span and the worst for a Gators team by 20%. The only teams behind Florida in both of those categories are also playing in 2020.

“I’m disappointed — 12 of 15 third downs — we have to get off this field. We have to wrap up, we have to tackle, we have to get to the quarterback, and we have to cover,” said redshirt senior linebacker Jeremiah Moon. “It’s simple, and we’re not doing that right now. Those are the things we’re going to have to come in on Monday ready to work on.”

The Gators had absolutely no answer for the Aggies, which has been the case the entire season even as head coach Dan Mullen preached patience due to a lack of tackling in the offseason, player absences and — last week — the offense struggling in the second half. This week, Mullen was slightly more forthcoming about the defensive issues, though it’s not like he had much of a choice. “We are going to have to reevaluate a lot of things defensively,” he said. “Where we are at right now, I’m going to have to really evaluate some things with our personnel, where we are at, our ability to make plays, make sure that we have all the right guys at the right position to be able to make the plays we need to to get off the field. We can’t give up 13 of 15 conversions on the day and expect to win any game.”

Florida is unable to create pressure up front, gets pushed back in the run game, cannot tackle at the second level and struggles massively in coverage. In other words, the defense is failing at properly accomplishing nearly everything of which it is charged. Though Mullen promised adjustments and improvements, Grantham has made no significant changes through three games with “Third and Grantham” becoming even more than an ill-intentioned joke as his blitzes routinely fail to reach home.

Entering Saturday’s game, Florida under Mullen was 18-0 when scoring first and 19-0 when leading after the third quarter. Those undefeated streaks have gone by the wayside, as did the Gators’ 11-point lead in this game. UF was outscored 17-10 in the final period with a last-second field goal clinching defeat for a team whose national championship aspirations have morphed into division contention questions. The Gators have now been outscored 38-20 in the fourth quarter this season.

2. Excuses, excuses: Looking for areas in which to place blame outside his team’s own performance, Mullen pointed to the crowd at Kyle Field as a factor in Saturday’s game. Texas A&M had under 25,000 fans in attendance, though they were loud when it counted late in the second half. But it’s not like Florida has not played against completely full stadiums with incredibly loud noise levels, and this certainly was not that with reduced attendance amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Mullen even went so far as to suggest the Gators completely open up Ben Hill Griffin Stadium next week and pack it to full capacity, though no team in the state — college or professional — has given any indication they would even consider doing so despite Gov. Ron DeSantis allowing it statewide.

“Crowd was certainly a factor in the game, I’ll certainly say that. I know our governor passed that rule, so certainly, hopefully, the university administration decides to let us pack The Swamp for LSU next week,” Mullen said. “One-hundred percent. Because that crowd was a major factor in the game, and so, I certainly hope our university administration follows the governor. Our governor has passed a rule that we are allowed to pack The Swamp … to give us that home-field advantage like Texas A&M had today.” Mullen continued: “I want to see 90,000 in The Swamp. I don’t think the section behind our bench, I didn’t see an empty seat. It was packed. The entire student section, must’ve been 50,000 people behind our bench going crazy. Hopefully, that creates a home-field advantage for us next week because now we’ve passed a law in our state that we can do that.”

First thing’s first: Florida is not going to allow The Swamp to be packed, even if it does decide to loosen some restrictions and potentially let in a larger proportion of total attendance. The Gators had immense difficulty selling the tickets they did have available for the South Carolina game last week as fans are not too keen about the idea of attending large gatherings in the midst of a pandemic. More importantly, though, crowd noise had little to do with Florida’s loss on Saturday. Redshirt senior quarterback Kyle Trask and freshman running back Nay’Quan Wright, among others, said as much after the game.

Mullen likely made these comments in the heat of the moment out of pure frustration based on his team’s performance and perhaps an atmosphere he did not fully anticipate considering UF’s first two games of the season. But this loss was not on attendance or fan noise. Rather, it was defensive ineptitude and a horribly timed miscue that cost the Gators what should have been a road victory against a talented Aggies team.

Update: Athletic director Scott Stricklin and UF President W. Kent Fuchs have both affirmed that COVID-19 guidelines on campus and in athletic venues will not be changing. Therefore, capacity of The Swamp will not increase.

3. The play that turned the game: Florida should not lose any game in which it scores 38 points, but while the defense was back-breaking all afternoon, it likely would have beaten Texas A&M if not for a last-minute, soul-crushing turnover that ended the game before the final field goal was even kicked. Tied at 38 with 4:30 remaining and the Gators offense confident after getting nearly anything it wanted all day, Florida took over on its own 25 and immediately ran out to midfield on a 23-yard catch-and-run by junior running back Malik Davis. After an incomplete pass, Mullen went to Davis on the ground; however, after gaining two yards, the ball was popped out of Davis’ grasp by Buddy Johnson and recovered by the Aggies at midfield with 3:40 to play. This as the Gators likely would have otherwise likely been able to grind out 10-20 yards, run the clock and win themselves.

Anyone who had watched the 56:20 prior knew Texas A&M’s short-field drive would end with a game-winning score. The Aggies gained positive yardage on six of seven plays, including 16 on third-and-8 at the UF 35-yard line. A stop would have at least forced Texas A&M to try a long field goal and given Florida some chance to respond. Instead, the Gators relented on another key down and eventually watched a 25-yard field goal sail through the uprights.

“We got the ball with 4 minutes to go; we were probably 10 yards away from being in field goal range to kind of run out the clock and kick the game-winning field goal. Unfortunately, we turned it over, and they had to go a lot further to get into that range,” Mullen said. “We weren’t able to make a stop, and they were able to kick the field goal there at the end. … They made the plays they needed to. Made one more, I guess, than we did.”

4. The matchup that turned the game: With a defense as bad as the one Florida is putting on the field, it’s unfair to single out any one player as the reason for loss. And that is not what we’re doing here because the Gators defense has problems at every level. Nevertheless, redshirt junior cornerback Marco Wilson struggled mightily in his matchup with Texas A&M wide receiver Caleb Chapman. So much so that Chapman rattled off 151 yards and two touchdowns on nine receptions despite entering the game with five receptions total. One of head coach Jimbo Fisher’s best assets is his ability to spot and exploit a mismatch, and that’s exactly what happened Saturday to Wilson. This was most notable late in the fourth quarter as Chapman caught a 51-yard game-tying touchdown pass over Wilson, who went for the interception rather than the pass breakup but instead bumped into the larger, rising Chapman and fell down.

5. The offense is great, but there is one issue: Florida scored 24+ points for the 18th time in the last 20 games under Mullen, posting 38 on 402 yards of offense. It also converted 7 of 10 key downs on the day. Trask was incredibly efficient and productive again, completing 23 of 32 passes for 312 yards and four touchdowns, giving him 14 through three games as he passed Steve Spurrier in UF’s record books. Junior tight end Kyle Pitts caught his program record-tying seventh TD in the first quarter, and senior WR Kadarius Toney stood out again with 92 yards and two TDs on seven receptions. Toney’s four scores through three games this season are more than he had in his career to this point.

The running game also seemed like it was on the verge of exploding, though Mullen continuously and inexplicably changed personnel, largely going away from running the ball in the second half, which he is prone to do. Sophomore RB Dameon Pierce ran successfully four times on the first series and only toted the rock three times the rest of the game. Wright ran four times on one drive in the second quarter and then only had three touches the rest of the game. Even Davis’ touches were sporadic until he was suddenly counted on during the final series, during which he fumbled. Despite its early success — and leading Texas A&M in rushing at halftime — Florida had just 90 yards (3.8 per rush) on the day. The Gators do not need to use a single running back, but they should probably decide on a primary ballcarrier who can gain momentum on the ground (Pierce), spelling him with the others over the course of the game.

6. Odds and ends: Sophomore kicker Evan McPherson kicked a 53-yard field goal … sophomore defensive back Brad Stewart Jr. forced a fumble recovered by Wilson … Florida has scored 127 points through three SEC games, its highest-scoring start in league play since 2009. … the Gators are now 2-3 in the all-time series against the Aggies, 1-2 in SEC play … Florida under Mullen lost for the first time when it scored first (17-1) and led after three quarters (19-1) … UF is now 5-6 when being outrushed by an opponent … the Gators fell to 4-4 against ranked opponents under Mullen … Florida has scored 24+ points in 18 of its last 20 games … the Gators have scored in 401 consecutive games, an NCAA record

7. What’s next? Florida is set to host LSU next Saturday, one week after both teams suffered surprise upset losses on the road. ESPN’s “College GameDay” had planned to be in Gainesville, Florida, for the game — sources tell OnlyGators.com — though it is unknown if those plans have changed. The Gators are 3-7 in their last 10 meetings against the Tigers dating back to 2010 with two of those victories coming in The Swamp.

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