Florida vs. Arkansas score, takeaways: Gators crumble late for worst loss under Billy Napier

By OnlyGators.com Staff
November 4, 2023
Florida vs. Arkansas score, takeaways: Gators crumble late for worst loss under Billy Napier

Image Credit: UAA

A frustrating roller coaster game with the Florida Gators imploding early only to quickly regroup before falling apart in the latter stages has led to what must be considered the program’s worst loss under head coach Billy Napier. Florida lost 39-36 in overtime to the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday afternoon with the visitors winning their first-ever game inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (0-5 previously).

The Gators spotted the Hogs a 14-point lead after the game’s first two possessions but rallied to tie the contest at halftime. Florida then took three separate leads in the second half only to allow Arkansas to fight back every time. Ultimately, UF missed a makable field goal at the end of regulation and settled for a field goal in the first overtime period before the Hogs easily scored a touchdown on their overtime possession for the win.

The Gators dropped to 5-4 (3-3 SEC) with the loss, while the Razorbacks (3-6, 1-5 SEC) won their first league game of the season while snapping a six-game losing streak.

“There’s a lot of blame to be spread out. This game in particular, we’re going to look at all parts of our team. … It’s all under evaluation,” Napier said.

With Florida set to be significant underdogs in its final three games of the season, bowl eligibility chances plummeted with Saturday’s loss, and the Gators may now finish with a worse record in Year 2 under Napier than they achieved in Year 1.

Let’s take a closer look at what went wrong for Florida in Saturday’s disastrous result.

It starts with the coaching


Players make mistakes in every game. Coaches do, too, but they are supposed to mitigate their players’ miscues by being as sound as possible when it comes to game management and play calling. That was not the case for Napier today, and it certainly wasn’t the case for defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong, either.

The most notable error came on the final couple plays of regulation after redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz drove the Gators down the field in a tie game with 44 seconds and no timeouts remaining. Florida could not stop the clock in this situation because Napier blew two timeouts early in the fourth quarter to avoid procedure penalties on what wound up being a field-goal drive with about 8 minutes to play.

After Mertz completed a perfect 20-yard pass to redshirt freshman tight end Arlis Boardingham to get down to the Arkansas 21-yard line, Florida hurried down the field for the spike to stop the clock. However, out of nowhere, players started coming off the Gators’ sideline onto the field, resulting in an illegal substitution penalty. Sophomore kicker Trey Smack subsequently pushed a 44-yard field goal to the right of the uprights, though it was clear the same kick would have been good from 39 yards.

Napier said the mistake came as a player thought he heard the call from a coach to rush the field goal team onto the field. While Napier’s play calling did move Florida down the field with ease and Smack absolutely had a makable kick to win the game at home, the error was nevertheless tough to stomach.

“That’s [a scenario] I haven’t been around before,” Napier said after the game.

That was just the end-of-game scenario, though. Florida did fine offensively with nearly 400 yards in the contest, though Napier far too often called screens behind the line of scrimmage on key downs despite the Gators often finding success moving vertically down the field. Freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III dominated the first quarter but went nearly two quarters without a touch. Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne exploded in the second half but was once again used inconsistently with junior Montrell Johnson Jr. out-touching him.

The most frustrating offensive sequence came near the end of the first half. Florida got the ball with 4:39 remaining down three. Rather than being focused on maintaining the team’s momentum, showing urgency and driving the ball down the field, Napier was more focused on running clock as the Gators lackadaisically moved the ball. It felt in the moment like Napier played for the field goal knowing Florida would get the ball at the half; the Gators settled for a 47-yard field goal to tie it at the break.


The Gators made some frustrating decisions offensively, but where they truly failed Saturday was on defense. Yes, Florida did lose three interior starters (one for the season) before the opening kickoff — and Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson eventually found his most success through the middle of the defense late in the game. However, the unit played terribly throughout the contest.

The Gators allowed a Razorbacks offense that scored just three points two weeks ago at home against Mississippi State to rack up season-highs of 481 yards and (against an FBS team) 39 points. This despite the Hogs entering one of the nation’s toughest road environments with an interim offensive coordinator who had never called a play before. (Arkansas had scored 44 points in its prior three games combined.)

Florida’s defense struggled to finish tackles at all three levels. It rarely attacked off the snap, failed to take advantage of a rough offensive line and left receivers wide open for easy third-down conversions. Arkansas was 8 of 18 on third down for the day. The opening touchdown drive was effortless for the Hogs, and in the second half, they were able to charge down the field and score all three times the Gators took a lead, including twice in the fourth quarter.

Through procedural errors and inconsistent play calling, the offense has showed signs of life through the middle third of the season, but the defense has completely fallen off a cliff. The Gators have allowed 40.33 points per game over the last three contests, and next up are three of the nation’s most explosive offenses.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly


  • Mertz was not as efficient as usual, but he throw for 282 yards and three touchdowns without a turnover. He also led Florida back from a 14-point deficit in the first quarter alone and engineered the potential game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter only for Smack’s field goal to move wide right.
  • Wilson was explosive with eight receptions for 90 yards and both of those first-quarter touchdowns. He was almost an automatic third-down conversion in the game and proved to be the exact playmaker the Gators expected when they recruited him.
  • Etienne starred with 123 total yards and a touchdown. Late in the fourth quarter with the Gators down four, he had a 41-yard catch-and-run that set up his own 26-yard rushing TD and put Florida ahead with 3:02 remaining.
  • Smack did miss the 44-yarder to win the game, but he also kept Florida in it with makes from 47, 34 and 39 yards (in overtime). Again, if Smack’s same kick had been from 39 yards at the end of regulation, it likely sails through the uprights.
  • Redshirt sophomore linebacker Scooby Williams did his best filling the hole in the middle of the defense with eight tackles (four solo, one for loss), a QB hurry and a forced fumble in the third quarter that led to the Gators’ first lead of the day.
  • Freshman EDGE Kelby Collins recovered that fumble, adding 1.5 sacks in the game. Junior EDGE Princely Umanmielen had two sacks, though it was actually expected he’d be even more impactful.
  • The black jerseys looked great. Remove the “Gators” script from the front above the number, and they would have been an “A” instead of an “A-.”


  • Senior WR Ricky Pearsall caught five balls for 55 yards and a key touchdown — he also had a 111 return yards — but allowing himself to get stripped on a pass near the sideline on Florida’s opening offensive series spotted Arkansas a 14-point lead that put UF in a massive hole just 3:06 into the game.
  • Similarly, freshman safety Jordan Castell grabbed the first interception of his career and had a team-high 11 tackles, but he probably should have had around 15 tackles given how many he missed in the second half. That was hardly a Castell-only problem, of course.
  • Junior punter Jeremy Crawshaw averaged 49.8 yards on six punts, which is nothing to sneeze at. However, as the holder, he dropped an extra point snap that changed the complexion of the game as the Gators would have led by four at that time instead of three, allowing the Hogs to both tie the game and lead by four in different junctures rather than trail and lead by three in those respective occasions.
  • Special teams. It really was a mixed bag in this contest because Florida actually did a couple things well in the third phase of the game. The Gators had 10 men on the field while defending a field goal attempt in the second quarter, Crawshaw dropped the extra point snap and the punting unit nearly allowed to blocks. However, the field goal unit largely blocked well, Crawshaw dropped times and the return game — both ways — was more successful than it had been all season.


  • Redshirt junior cornerback Jalen Kimber continues to be a liability; allowing a 45-yard pass was his most notable flaw, but he did not contribute a single statistic in the game, which shows how often the receivers he covered were open.
  • Florida’s procedural problems, which would have led to a pair of delay of game penalties, forced Napier to call those two timeouts early in the fourth quarter, which hurt UF on the game’s final possession.
  • The defense. Yes, all of it. Some plays were indeed made, but Jefferson was allowed to complete 20 of 31 for 255 yards and two TDs while rushing for 92 yards and a score with most of those ground yards coming late in the second half in key situations that continued drives. UF gave Arkansas nearly 200 more yards of offense in this game than it averaged entering the contest.
  • Napier’s overtime play calling. Sure, he could be criticized for the entire game, but what frustrated was how the Gators didn’t attack into the end zone during the bonus period. Florida showed so much promise moving vertically at points, whereas in overtime, it felt as if the play calls were too safe.

What it means

Nothing good on or off the field. Let’s start with on the field where the Gators lost a game they absolutely should have won — full stop. Florida shooting itself in the foot with a 14-point deficit changed the game from the onset, and while the program fought valiantly to tie it in the first quarter and take three second-half leads, it never felt like the Gators had the ability to put the Hogs away. Another sleepy start for a noon ET kickoff brings all sorts of questions about how Napier prepares this team. If this game had been played at night — as Florida certainly expected — no doubt it would have transpired differently. However, that was completely out of UF’s control, and only the team is to blame for the early hole.

Napier has now lost two games to teams with losing records, something neither Dan Mullen nor Jim McElwain nor Will Muschamp nor Urban Meyer nor Ron Zook nor Steve Spurrier achieved.

The Gators now appear to be on the outside looking in when it comes to bowl season. They will be significant underdogs in their three remaining games, all against top-18 teams with the next two coming on the road. More likely than not, Florida will finish the season 5-7 with five straight losses.

If the end fo the year transpires in that fashion, it would give the Gators a 5-10 record in their last 15 games dating back to last season and no bowl practices over which they could potentially improve.

Questions about the offensive play calling and lack of special teams coordinator have persisted, but now, legitimate issues must be raised about the defense after a promising — but as we said at the time, fool’s gold — start to the season.

All of that is what makes this the worst loss of Napier’s tenure — yes, worse than losing on the road to Vanderbilt last year. Florida had a more-than-beatable opponent at home. Its offense was healthy. The interior of the defense was undoubtedly banged up, sure, but the unit wasn’t deficient from a depth chart standpoint. The Gators also had three second-half leads in a must-win game. Yet they still lost.

No, Napier is not going to be fired. His $32 million buyout prevents that from even being a consideration, but it would unlikely be a thought anyway. The immediate concern is retaining the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation, one which has the potential to set up Florida — and Napier himself — for success into the future. If Napier is able to convince that star-studded list of players that a 5-7 Gators team on a five-game skid is worth reviving, it will be his biggest win of 2023.

What’s next?

Florida visits No. 13 LSU next week at a time yet to be determined (though we all know it will be a night game in Death Valley). The Tigers have four straight wins over the Gators since 2019.


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