Florida vs. Georgia score, takeaways: Gators errors compound in latest embarrassing loss to No. 1 Dawgs

By OnlyGators.com Staff
October 28, 2023
Florida vs. Georgia score, takeaways: Gators errors compound in latest embarrassing loss to No. 1 Dawgs

Image Credit: Ashley Ray, UAA

Games are rarely lost on one play or one decision. Too much happens over the course of 60 minutes to point to a single factor as the reason for a result. But there are undoubtedly moments in games where momentum can shift, and on Saturday, that’s exactly what happened for the Florida Gators — in permanent fashion — early during what would become a 43-20 loss to the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida.

The World’s Largest Cocktail Party has been unkind to the Gators of late. Florida has now lost three straight meetings to Georgia by 22+ points for the first time in program history, and the 43 points it allowed Saturday were the most the Dawgs have scored on the Gators since 1982.

This despite Florida scoring the first touchdown of the game and looking to be in a hotly contested battle entering the second quarter. And then, suddenly, everything changed as Georgia rattled off 36 consecutive points over the middle of the game.

Once again, it all starts with head coach Billy Napier, his in-game decision making, the composition of his staff and the way the 2023 roster was built entering the season.

“We made too many mistakes today,” Napier said. “We knew the margin of error was small. I do think we can coach better — all three parts of the team. Obviously, looking the players in the eye after the game, I think they know they can play better as well.”

Let’s take a look at everything that went down in the Florida-Georgia game as the Gators lost their third straight, six in the last seven meetings and ninth in the last 13 to the Dawgs.

No coming back from that

It appeared as if Florida had turned a corner offensively two weeks ago in a 41-point outburst at South Carolina that included two stellar fourth-quarter touchdown drives. That seemed like it would continue playing out in the first quarter Saturday as the Gators charged down the field on their opening possession with redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz completing 5 of 5 passes for 62 yards and a touchdown — four of them and the score to freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III — in a 66-yard drive over 3:36 that gave UF the early lead.

That was until a blip displayed on the radar during Florida’s second possession. As he is wont to do, Napier — the offensive play caller — chose to get cute when the Gators were doing just fine without any tricks. Napier called a double reverse on first down at midfield with senior WR Ricky Pearsall nearly dropping the ball, thought the play was snuffed out anyway. UF got behind the sticks and punted three plays later as Napier — just like he has in multiple games this season — called an unnecessary trick play that failed despite his offense humming along. (Napier’s chief frustration with the offense is indeed “getting behind the sticks,” yet beyond penalties, his play calls and routes lead to those occurrences.)

But that was not the end of the game. No, that came on the next offensive drive after Florida appeared to have achieved a first down only for referees to overturn the call at the start of the second quarter — without indisputable evidence — and give the Gators a fourth-and-1 at their own 34-yard line. Beyond the decision, the refs spotted the ball nearly 2 feet behind the marker — questionable in its own right.

Napier decided to take a risk and go on fourth down. Rather than sneak with Mertz, roll him out for a pass, use a running back to rush the ball or employ the so-called Tush Push, he instead called a shotgun snap (through Mertz’s legs) to sophomore running back Trevor Etienne, who was supposed to pass the ball to Pearsall. Except Pearsall was covered and Etienne had nowhere to go, taking a 4-yard tackle for loss. Georgia scored three plays later to lead 17-7, and on Florida’s next offensive drive, it capitalized on a Mertz strip fumble with a touchdown in short order to lead 24-7, scoring 21 combined points over a span of 4:50 of UGA possession time.

Perhaps you have heard about Fourth-and-Dumb in which former UF head coach Doug Dickey tried to convert in similar fashion back in 1976. Perhaps not. The fact that this is even in the same conversation is problematic enough.

But in 2023, attempting the fourth down (while severely risky) was not the issue. Rather, it is the play Napier called and the situation in which he called it that was incredibly dumbfounding.

The situation: The Gators were on their own 34-yard line down just three points at the start of the second quarter in a rivalry game. They were moving the ball well, and their defense even stopped the Dawgs in the red zone on their first offensive possession.

The play call: With a shotgun snap in that scenario, Napier turned a need to gain 2 feet into a need to gain 5 yards. And he put the ball in the hands – not on the legs – of a running back. Beyond that, he had already ruined the surprise element of Etienne being a left-hander a couple weeks earlier, making the decision to call this play in this situation even more bone-headed.

Don’t get it twisted: While Napier might have been questioned either way for trying to convert the fourth down and failing, the play call given the circumstance is a far more significant problem. Trick plays are not inherently bad on the surface, but Napier’s issue is that he has no feel whatsoever for the offensive flow of a game, and therefore, he calls them at inopportune times. The failure rate is substantial, and failures usually put the Gators behind the sticks despite Napier pointing out weekly how that is a consistent problem the offense faces (usually due to penalties).

“One [yard] was a go,” Napier said of attempting to get the first down. “Ultimately, at that point in the game, it felt like it was going to be a point total that we needed to get to [in order] to win the game. Felt we had a good play. I think we’re close there. Whether or not the spot was right, I don’t know.”

He added: “I’ve got conviction about the call. … That’s one of many plays today we’d probably like to have back. … We can certainly call better plays at time today, but ultimately it comes down to the execution of the play.”

(Before we continue … “a point total we need to get to” sure sounds as if the Gators were chasing points at the start of the second quarter down three. And that just simply makes no sense. There was no follow-up asking Napier to further explain that comment, and it was not clear whether he was mostly referring to the fourth-down decision [totally fine] or the play call itself [totally not].)

Generally, such play call decisions hurt a singular offensive drive but don’t otherwise affect the whole game. This decision? It effectively ended the game for Florida, which was completely distraught at the utter failure of the play followed by Georgia quickly scoring a touchdown, Mertz compounding the error by losing a fumble and UGA scoring again — all in succession.

The game was over at 24-7, and so must be Napier’s future calling plays for the Gators. We have used this space for the last two years to state firmly that Napier must give up those duties, move into a CEO role in which he may flourish and hire a true offensive coordinator and play caller. Instead, Florida entered the season with no changes to its coaching staff in that regard, and here the team sits through eight games with the same problems it faced a year ago.

This was the nail in that coffin. It seemed apparent that Napier would be making such a coaching change anyway in 2024, but this play call made any other outcome an utter impossibility. The Gators simply will not succeed continuing on the way they have offensively, five-star quarterback or not next season.

On that note …

It must again be made clear that Napier formatted his coaching staff in a fashion so that there was room for two offensive line coaches — a staple of his from Louisiana — and no on-field special teams coordinator. While one might expect the lack of a dedicated coach leading to poor special teams play — the Gators have been awful for two years in the third phase of the game, including giving up a punt block for a safety Saturday — having two offensive line coaches should result in Florida fielding one of the best such units in college football.

Nope. The Gators offensive line is unreliable, and the right side got absolutely wrecked in the first half before somewhat solidifying in the second half as the Dawgs pressured less frequently given their significant lead. Napier has recruited extremely well overall for Florida, but he and those two coaches — including “co-offensive coordinator” Rob Sale, who is paid a ton of money to not call plays — have struggled to bring in top players and develop one of the most important positions on the field. And questions must be asked about the strength & conditioning team when it comes to some of these guys being pushed around.

“We need to eliminate sack fumbles on short fields and not get punts blocked,” Napier said. “Those have nothing to do with coaching risky. If we do those things well, it’s probably a little bit closer game going into the locker room at halftime.”

It’s still all about the talent

Georgia won this game in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons, but chief among them was the substantial talent disparity. Florida is trying to claw out from a five-year stretch of poor recruiting; Saturday, it went against the best-recruiting team in the nation over that same span. The Gators fielded a bunch of talented freshmen and some sophomores, who they hope to develop over the ensuing seasons, against the Dawgs’ substantial amount of developed and experienced five-star and otherwise top-tier upperclassmen.

It’s for that reason that Napier’s reluctance to prioritize the transfer portal — or his staff’s inability to be proactive mining it for talent — this past offseason is actively costing the Gators this year. One cannot solve roster issues as deep as those Florida faced with almost entirely young players. UF did add some transfers, and a couple have worked out, but there’s no question that they are far less successful en masse than those brought in by similar programs working out similar issues (such as Florida State).

Fool’s gold defense

We have been saying for weeks in this space that the Gators defense, while seemingly improved on third down and in certain aspects of the game, would be nowhere near as successful through the end of the season as it appeared early in the campaign. The cracks have been obvious from the jump; it’s just that Florida played teams with such weak offenses early in the season that the numbers made the unit look better than it would have against more talented competition. Hence it’s play Saturday — and really over the last two games.

The Gators have given up 82 points over the last two games. Florida on Saturday had no sacks, four tackles for loss and — once again — no turnovers. The secondary was shredded with a variety of players beaten in every which way. Certain offenders were worse than others, sure, but it hardly looks like a unit being coached by one of the nation’s supposed top assistants in secondary coach Corey Raymond.

The Gators allowed QB Carson Beck to complete 19 of 28 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns with WR Ladd McConkey putting forward a career game (135 yards, TD). They let RB Daijun Edwards score two more touchdowns while averaging 5.9 yards per carry. This despite star tight end Brock Bowers — the Dawgs’ best offensive player — sidelined with an ankle injury.

Florida’s defense is nowhere near where it needs to be for this team to be successful. An immense amount of talent is on the way this recruiting cycle — especially in the defensive front seven — but all will be true freshmen next year. And the early signing period is still about two months away.

Kirby Smart is exactly right

This statement from Georgia head coach Kirby Smart’s post-game press conference stood out. It serves as a paradigm for exactly what the Dawgs do right and exactly what the Gators continue to do wrong in Year 2 under Napier. Asked why UGA is so successful, he said: “We don’t get [many] penalties, we don’t beat ourselves, and we have a quarterback who gives us an opportunity. And we’ve got defensive players who play really hard. It’s a recipe for you to have success.”

Game notes / odds & ends

  • Sophomore linebacker Shemar James injured his knee during pregame warmups due to terrible field conditions in Jacksonville. He ultimately suited up and played the game with a brace on his knee but got reinjured in the fourth quarter. Napier made it seem like he will not be back immediately, noting that it was the aggravation of an old injury he had in high school.
  • Redshirt junior center Kingsley Eguakun, who has only played sparingly this season while recovering from a nagging ankle injury, came back Saturday after three weeks of rehabilitation. He also reinjured that ankle in the fourth quarter.
  • Saturday marked the first time Florida scored first against Georgia since 2015.
  • Wilson recorded 11 receptions, a freshman record for the Gators.
  • Junior running back Montrell Johnson Jr. broke free for a 48-yard run and had 82 yards on the day. Pearsall finished with 99 yards.

Florida is now 44-55-2 all-time against Georgia (41-49-1 in Jacksonville) with defeats in six of the last seven and nine of the last 13 meetings … an unranked Gators team has never defeated a No. 1-ranked opponent … Florida fell to 2-8 away from home under Napier (2-14 dating back to the prior regime) …. the Gators lost for the first time when scoring first this season (4-1) … Florida under Napier is now 3-11 when allowing 21+ points, 1-10 when tied or trailing after the third quarter and 2-7 when being outrushed … the Gators are 2-8 against AP Top 25 teams under Napier, 1-2 this season … Florida has scored in 444 consecutive games, an NCAA record

What it means / what’s next?

The Gators were not expected to win this game, but playing better than they had in recent years against the Dawgs was most certainly a fair outcome to consider. Instead, Florida succumbed to Georgia in the usual fashion. There’s no telling what the result would have looked like if Napier made some better offensive play calls in the first half or Mertz did not fumble; however, it’s highly doubtful the final margin would have been 23 points given the way these teams battled over the other portions of the game.

And that makes this a particularly disappointing result. With a close loss, the Gators could have perhaps taken a moral victory back to Gainesville — even if moral victories pale in comparison to real ones. Instead, Florida is back on its heels — as it always seems to be coming off notable wins — with its biggest game of the year ahead.

The biggest game not because Arkansas is a top team but rather because it’s UF’s best chance to pick up a win and obtain bowl eligibility through the remainder of the season. After the Razorbacks come to down next Saturday, the Gators will play three top 25 teams to end the regular season — with LSU and Missouri coming as consecutive road (probably night) games. It’s quite possible and maybe even likely that Florida ends the season 0-3 given the offensive proficiency that his been displayed by both Tigers.

The Gators need to beat the Hogs to become bowl eligible with six wins while simultaneously ensuring they do not finish Year 2 under Napier with a worse record than Year 1. The victory would also serve the team well as momentum for those final three games in hopes it does spring an upset or two. Otherwise, everything could snowball quick.

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