Florida Football Friday Final: Gators look to overcome third-down woes in rivalry tilt vs. LSU

By OnlyGators.com Staff
October 14, 2022
Florida Football Friday Final: Gators look to overcome third-down woes in rivalry tilt vs. LSU

Image Credit: Anna Carrington, UAA

Depending on your expectations entering the 2022 college football season, you’re either thrilled or mildly frustrated by these Florida Gators. Entering its second big-time rivalry tilt of the campaign at 4-2 with a ranked victory and two ranked losses, Florida is attempting to finish the first half of its season strong given it will only have one home game the rest of the way.

If the Gators are going to succeed Saturday night in The Swamp against the LSU Tigers, they will not be able to make some of the key mistakes that have kept far too many games close this season. Most notably, Florida must be better on third down where it ranked an astounding (and candidly, pathetic) 125th out of the nation’s 131 FBS teams.

The Gators are allowing opponents to convert 50.6% of their third-down tries, an area in which only five programs perform worse: Oregon, Northern Illinois, Charlotte, Bowling Green and Colorado. Other than Oregon (5-1), those other four teams are a combined 4-19 this season.

Florida astoundingly allowed three consecutive conversions of third-and-15 or longer just last week in a close win over Missouri. LSU is too talented to receive such opportunities and not take full advantage of them given it has a far better offense (54th vs. 86th nationally).

Gators head coach Billy Napier was hesitant to get specific on the problems at the conclusion of that Mizzou game. Given another chance to address the struggles on Monday, he was still relatively vague despite accepting the reality of the situation.

“It’s all very correctible,” Napier said. “Some of it is missed tackling. Some of it is pass rush lane integrity. Some of it is leveraging coverage. And then some, we’re just not — maybe we’re not in a great call here or there. So, it’s a combination of a lot of things.

“I don’t necessarily know that there’s one thing we can pinpoint, but it’s certainly something we have done really well at times week to week, and Saturday was an area where we struggled a little bit. We’ll go back to work there and evaluate it objectively and try to put our players in better position and then try to get the players to execute much better.”

It would be hard for Florida to execute worse. Much of the struggle can be put on the shoulders of the secondary, which has undergone a shakeup due to injuries but was at relative full strength last week. For the Gators to seem so stout defensively on other downs but fail so mightily on such an important down is clearly a source of frustration.

“Any time it’s third-and-long, if you know the numbers, you’re anticipating you’ve got a good percentage chance to win. But I also know that it comes down to execution, right?” said Napier. “Missouri had well-designed stuff at times. Their players made plays at times. So, it’s a combination of a lot of things, but when you get 11 [yards to go]-plus, those are the ones you anticipate winning. For me as a head coach, those are the ones you struggle with a little bit.”

Close with some cigars

Besides a 10-point loss to Kentucky, the other four FBS opponents Florida has faced this season have seen scores margins fall in the single digits. This continues a successful trend for Napier, who is now 19-4 (.826) all-time in one-score games at UF and Louisiana. That’s a better winning percentage in such situations than big-name coaches like Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Kirby Smart and Lincoln Riley, as pointed out by the Tampa Bay Times’ Matt Baker.

Napier candidly pointed out this week that the 4-2 Gators are equally close to having a far better and far worse record this season with a few key plays determining the trajectory of their season to this point.

“There’s a lot of days you wake up and you’re thinking, ‘Man, I’m glad we’re 4-2.’ But you also think about the potential and that we’re a very capable team. We’ve been in the fight every single week,” he said. “I heard a coach say one time that you’re always really close to being a very good team, and you’re always really close to being a very bad team. And that describes our team in a lot of ways.

“Where we’re at, we have a very capable group. What I’m hopeful that we see here is we start to minimize error a bit better. We start to be a little more efficient. We start to believe a little bit more. Our practice habits are improving. The chemistry, the morale of the group is improving. So there’s no easy outs in this league. We’ve got a tough slate ahead of us. Complete focus on this LSU game and what we need to do to position the team to win this one.”

Napier noted that Florida’s training program has the players physically and mentally prepared to deal with touch situations. “The only way that you can create growth is to make it hard. Harder is better,” he said. Napier noted the Gators go all-out in the offseason from a work an education standpoint to ensure they are all on the same page once it comes time for in-game adjustments. As his tenure with the program extends, the goal is for that to become more second nature for the players.

Clearing out the notebook

Suffice to say, Napier is not shy about rivalries. It’s clear he wants to threat them as particularly important games, especially for a program like Florida that has so many not only its division but across the conference: “It’s about awareness. In conversation in front of the team, it’s important that you educate the players a little bit about that. We’re fortunate that we’ve got some Gators in the building that have a pulse. Certainly this one is — we’ve got a lot of Louisiana ties in the building as well. There’s some awareness here. These kids, they follow college football. They know it’s a big game.”

Swiping Napier out of Louisiana was a coup for the Gators given he had turned down multiple other Power Five job offers — in the SEC and elsewhere — over his final couple seasons with the Ragin’ Cajuns. It was a significant talking point in the state that LSU was apparently not focused on Napier for its opening, instead choosing to poach Brian Kelly from Notre Dame. The first Napier vs. Kelly showdown is set for Saturday, and while Napier would not address that specifically, he did indicate how he feels about his current job.

“I don’t know that’s something you talk publicly about. We’re all well aware of chaotic times in college football when you get to November, December, January. I’ll tell you one thing: I’m grateful for the opportunity I was given here,” he said. “… I can’t imagine being at a much better place. So, we were very patient the last few years. This path was right. That’s what I would say. There’s not a day that I woke up and said, ‘Am I at the right place or not?’ I’ve got conviction about that. And the more I’m here, every day that I’m here, the more I’m confident about what we can accomplish here. So, it’s a blessing to be at the University of Florida and represent such a great place.”

Freshman running back Trevor Etienne was elevated to the firm second-string role behind sophomore Montrell Johnson Jr. on this week’s depth chart. Florida fans have long been anticipating a change in the depth chart at the position, and Napier explained this week why Etienne is so special as a player. “He’s a little bit of a unique young man relative to his brother. His brother having the success he had, having the insight to his routine, his discipline, his training, what college football is going to be like,” Napier said. “I also think that he comes from a fantastic family. Education is important. Character is important. Really good, hard-working, down-to-earth people. If you’ve ever been to Jennings, Louisiana, you know what I’m talking about.

“But no surprise to me. I mean, I had a chance to get to know him, and he’s always been a sharp, mature kid. I was impressed with the work he did in the spring semester before he got here. He really worked hard, and he was well prepared upon arrival. You’re talking about a football family. You’re talking about a kid who, he’s intelligent, he’s mature, he’s got character, and he’s continuing to get better.”

Why is sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson not running more? That’s a question Gators fans have been asking for weeks given Richardson’s athleticism is one of the traits that makes him unique as a signal caller. Napier addressed AR’s decision making and proclivity for staying in the pocket this week: “He’s using his instincts and his judgment relative to when it’s right to run and when it’s not. When you’re a passer and it’s a passing down, that’s when there’s some decisions to be made. … There’s some calculated risk relative to when to take chances, when to not, and as of late he’s been making more good ones than bad ones.”

Given Richardson is staying in the pocket, one would expect Florida to be strong throwing the football, Instead, its passing offense is ranked 92nd nationally. Richardson threw for just 66 yards against Mizzou and less than 200 in each of his first three games against Utah, Kentucky and South Florida. A combined 693-yard performance against Tennessee and Eastern Washington raised some eyebrows, but it remains to be seen if he can put it all together.

Here’s what Napier had to say about the passing game: “Good and bad. We do it really well at times, and there’s a lot of times we can do it better. We’re working towards more consistency. A lot of things contribute to throwing the ball. … You’ve got to protect the passer. Then you’ve got to have precision in the routes. If it’s zone, you’ve got to space the floor correctly. If it’s man, you’ve got to separate, you’ve got to get open. I mean, there’s tons of variables here. Much like a lot of parts of our team, we’ve done things well at times and then we’ve struggled at times. It’s an area we work hard on, and we’ll continue to get better as we go forward.”

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