Florida vs. Missouri score, takeaways: Gators fall in latest agonizing late collapse, Graham Mertz done

By OnlyGators.com Staff
November 19, 2023
Florida vs. Missouri score, takeaways: Gators fall in latest agonizing late collapse, Graham Mertz done

Image Credit: UAA

It seemed the Florida Gators did everything necessary to pick up a massive, momentum-altering victory Saturday night in Columbia, Missouri … only for 96 seconds to be their undoing. It actually took less time than that for Florida to cough up its third lead of the game against the No. 9 Missouri Tigers at Faurot Field as the Gators wasted a tremendous opportunity to become bowl-eligible, give themselves a jolt of excitement heading into next week’s regular-season finale and take a ton of heat off the shoulders of head coach Billy Napier.

Instead, Napier’s late-game decision making once again played a significant role in Florida’s loss. That coupled with a horrendous defensive effort on the final drive of the game, two turnovers and a season-ending injury to redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz (collarbone) were the recipe for as gut-wrenching a defeat as the Gators have suffered recently. (And yes, that is saying something given the team’s level of play over the last three seasons in particular.)

All of that also overshadowed a Florida team that — as a whole — absolutely came to play Saturday night. Motivation is an intrinsic factor to playing successful football, and for a Gators team that’s had its collective back against the wall for weeks, there’s no question that Napier had UF juiced up ready to go — particularly when its offensive captain went down and the team needed to rally late. And that’s again why Saturday night was so disappointing.

Let’s take a look at what once again went wrong for Florida on the road at Mizzou.

Scared money

Here’s the game situation: The Gators had the ball with second-and-11 on the Mizzou 18-yard-line down 2 points with less than 2 minutes to play. The Tigers, after burning a timeout on first down when sophomore running back Trevor Etienne ran for a 1-yard loss, had two remaining. In the game for UF was redshirt freshman QB Max Brown seeing by far the most significant action in the most stressful situation of his young career. He had just driven Florida down the field with a combination of passing and rushing. Etienne had been on fire the entire second half.

Got it?

Here’s what happened: Etienne again ran up the middle for -1 yard on second down; Mizzou called timeout (one left). Etienne ran out to the right — on what may have been a slightly altered operation — and took the ball out of bounds for a 2-yard gain; no timeout necessary for Mizzou. Sophomore kicker Trey Smack kicked a 35-yard field goal to put the Gators ahead 31-30, and the Tigers got the ball back with 96 seconds remaining plus the timeout they did not need to call.

Here’s what happened next: Mizzou converted a third-and-8. Mizzou converted a fourth-and-17 with a wide-open pass to star wide receiver Luther Burden III in the middle of the field to get into long field-goal range at the UF 40. With about 30 seconds remaining still, Florida then allowed two more (!) completions for a total of 27 yards, giving the Tigers a chip-shot field goal they hit to win the game.

There are so many head-scratching developments in the aforementioned sequence of events that it’s impossible to pin down one reason why the Gators lost Saturday night — because there’s not only one reason they dropped their fourth straight game — third straight in excruciating fashion.

Napier, whose signature “scared money don’t make money” mantra was bandied about upon his hiring, went as conservative as can be with the game on the line by playing for the field goal. Did he do that because he had an extremely inexperienced quarterback behind center who had previously fumbled the ball on a handoff in the game? Did he do that because he believed Etienne would continue slicing through the defense as he had most of the second half? Did he do that because he felt it, statistically, gave Florida its best chance to win? Or did he do it because he was scared of criticism if he failed giving Missouri time to come back?

(Frustratingly, we do not know the answer to this question because Napier was not asked about that decision after the game. Perhaps he will address it Monday when he does sometimes address more specific questions about the prior game.)

Certainly, throwing two incomplete passes would have given Mizzou more time on the clock and both its timeouts, but what if one was completed for a first down? Florida would have continued its possession and either punched in a touchdown or taken so much time off the clock a comeback would have been exceedingly difficult. For a 5-5 team on the road against the nation’s No. 9 program, is that not a risk worth taking?! Seems like scared money, to this observer, in a situation where the UF badly needed to make money — perhaps more so than at any point this entire season.

Part of the reasoning in playing for the field goal is trusting your defense to win you the game. To be fair, the Gators did some good defensively at times Saturday night. But they did even more bad, particularly in the second half and particularly when Florida had the lead. And any even casual observer knew that giving Mizzou, Burden, Brady Cook and Cody Schrader the ball with 96 seconds and a timeout — at home, mind you — was too much time for a talented offense with its back against the wall.

The fourth-and-17 conversion was the latest abject failure for defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong, who had linebackers 6 yards off the line of scrimmage despite the distance to gain being triple that. But perhaps even worse than that singular conversion — stay with us here — is the fact that the Florida still could have won. Mizzou would have needed a 57-yard field goal to win, and while its kicker is more than capable of that, it’s hardly a sure thing from that distance. The 27 yards UF gave up after that play were even more disgusting as it turned a (let’s say) 60/40 proposition into a 95/5 proposition.

Plenty happened Saturday night that led to the Gators’ loss — all of which we will get to in this space. There were turnovers. There were missed tackles. There were numerous penalties. There were injures. There were more problems with the offensive line.

But the fact of the matter is that Florida had victory in its hands — second-and-11 on the Mizzou 18 with less than 2 minutes to play — and it absolutely blew an opportunity to reach bowl eligibility, regain some much-needed momentum and possibly enter its rivalry game with a leg up on the competition.

This is what losing football looks like.

Mertz’s worst (?) and Brown’s best

Mertz completed 14 of 18 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns Saturday before being lost for the game — and the season — with a fractured clavicle suffered in a key moment. Looking like Tim Tebow lowing his shoulder and picking up a first down after Florida’s defense had given a lead back to Mizzou, Mertz took one additional snap before crumpling to the ground in pain. The very play that might have served as the highlight of the night instead looked as if it resulted in dashed hopes for the Gators.

Even before the injury, though, it was not all roses for Mertz, who had one of his least-accurate games of the season missing numerous receivers — usually high — and throwing his third interception (all on tipped passes) this season. It was somewhat of a homecoming game for the Overland Park, Kansas, native, and it clearly affected him in both positive and negative ways throughout the contest.

In stepped Brown, who impressively continued what looked to be a sure scoring drive for Florida only to stall in operation — forcing Napier to waste a timeout to prevent a delay of game (more on that later) – and fumble a handoff to junior RB Montrell Johnson Jr. that resulted in a fumble. Mizzou took advantage immediately, scoring a 77-yard touchdown with multiple missed tackles (more on that later, too) just a couple plays later.

The sequence took the Gators from potentially leading 24-23 or 28-23 to trailing 30-21 with 13:14 remaining. Game over, right? Fair to believe given Brown’s inexperience and his immediate mistake upon entering the game. Well, that assumption was simply wrong.

Brown excelled over the remainder of the game, ultimately completing 4 of 5 passes for 56 yards and rushing seven times for 42 yards. He showed guts putting up a pass that resulted in a 27-yard reception, and his mobility converted multiple first downs while also opening running lanes for Etienne. On the next offensive series, he converted fourth-and-4 with a pass before Etienne ran for 13 and 9 yards consecutively with the second resulting in a TD. Florida completed a 10-play, 75-yard drive run by its backup and trailed the hosts by two. (On the next possession, he took a 27-yard keeper into the red zone preceding the end-of-game sequence discussed above.)

Among the disheartening results from the loss is that the element of surprise added by Brown’s insertion into the game was wasted. Next week’s opponent, Florida State, will now have six days to prepare for Brown without UF even taking advantage of that surprise element by nabbing a win Saturday night. (FSU will also play their backup quarterback as Jordan Travis went down with an injury just hours earlier.) Still, Brown played well and at least provides hope for the Gators next week.

Offensive line

Florida is immensely banged up on the offensive line. It was down two starters entering the game and lost a third, redshirt sophomore Damieon George Jr., during the contest. Still, the way this unit played in the first half — and the lack of discipline with which it played the entire game — was immensely frustrating. There were three separate sequences Saturday night in which the Gators committed a false start in poor situations only to immediately be faced with a delay of game (twice avoided by Napier being forced to waste timeouts). Mertz also got hit far too frequently — most maddeningly on three-man rushes against a five-man line. Sure, that is on the players making mistakes, but it is once again fair to wonder how a unit with two coaches can be so consistently poor in handling its responsibilities.

Etienne vs. Johnson

Looking purely at the box score, one would see Etienne with 17 touches for 119 yards and two touchdowns compared to Johnson with 13 touches for 97 yards and wonder what there is to complain about. The better player got more opportunities, yet the more veteran player was still a contributor. That is factual. However, Etienne did almost all of his work in the second half, and he clearly brought a significant spark to the offense that it was missing when it only scored a single touchdown in the first 30 minutes of the game. Dividing the workload is understandable at this position, but Etienne always being second fiddle to Johnson does not make sense when he’s clearly the more explosive playmaker. Had he been worked into the offensive game plan more in the first half, perhaps Florida could have found more consistency and been in a better position in the second half. (The Gators only ran the ball twice, total, in the first quarter, mind you.)

No defense

Not sure how many times it can be repeated in this space, but the defense straight up lost Florida this game. For the second straight week, the Gators defense blew not one, not two but three separate second-half leads. Florida led 14-13 after a 37-yard reception score by Etienne? Missouri trucked 75 yards down the field in eight plays to go up 20-14. The Gators led 21-20 after a 39-yard rush by senior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall? The Tigers immediately answered with a 24-yard field goal. UF scored 10 straight points to go up 31-30 with 1:36 to play? Well, you already know the rest from there.

Napier has received a ton of criticism in this space for his offensive play calling — and he deserved it both in 2022 and over the first half of the season. There’s no doubt he has notably improved both in his offensive decision making and the operation of the unit — the game management is a separate topic, as addressed above — though he does still make some crucial errors (largely a hesitancy to get away from his game plan).

However, Napier’s offense is not why Florida is on a four-game losing streak. Armstrong’s defense has given up 41.8 points per game over this stretch. It’s constantly blown leads. The unit cannot tackle at the linebacker or secondary level. And yes, it’s filled with freshmen bound to make mental errors, but are they not supposed to improve as the season progresses? The Gators gave up 700 yards to LSU last week and 500 to Mizzou this week. They’ve allowed only two individuals — one for each team — to rush for a combined 382 yards (!) over the last two weeks.

Explosive plays are given up constantly in every phase of the game, largely due to the poor tackling at multiple levels. Florida allowed the 77-yard touchdown on a check down and a 34-yard option run on third down, just as two examples. Sophomore safety Miguel Mitchell literally bounced off Burden, rather than tackle him, allowing 20+ extra yards on a 48-yard gain.

It’s tough to argue any other point than Armstrong being out of his depth in this role. How can one look at Florida’s secondary and not expect better production from high-paid defensive backs coach Corey Raymond? It’s known the Gators need a special teams coordinator (though that unit has improved) and likely an offensive coordinator (same), but Florida may need at least a co-defensive coordinator as well because there is no way to look at that unit and be impressed with anything it is doing on a weekly basis.

More from the game

  • Pearsall was fantastic with 111 total yards and his score, though most of his gains came on two big plays.
  • The offense’s early struggles were maddening because the defense forced punts on three of Mizzou’s first five possessions before falling apart late (only one punt on the hosts’ final six possessions). Even when it allowed explosive plays in the period, it toughened up in the red zone.
  • Freshman S Jordan Castell, who impressed early this season, has become a missed tackle machine over the last two games. He was also at least partially responsible for the aforementioned 77-yard touchdown by being out of position.

Odds & ends

Florida now trails Mizzou 6-7 in the all-time series with the Tigers holding a 4-2 lead in Columbia … the Gators are 2-10 away from home under Napier (2-16 dating back to the last regime) and 2-12 in their last 14 true road games … Florida is now 9-4 when rushing for 150+ yards (back-to-back losses) and lost for the first time under Napier when outrushing an opponent (4-1) … the Gators are 3-9 when opponents score first, 4-13 when allowing 21+ points and 1-12 when tied or trailing after the third quarter … Florida is 2-9 against AP Top 25 teams under Napier, 1-4 this season … the Gators have scored in 447 consecutive games, an NCAA record

What it means

The roughest part about the Gators’ performance Saturday night is that the entire program should have been celebrating come Sunday morning. To Napier’s credit, Florida was fully motivated and playing tough football for the second straight week, which is a tough mindset to instill on a program that is not only on a losing streak but has so little for which to play. The Gators showed character, fought for one another and even rallied offensively once Mertz went down. (He shouted out the players after the game for that.)

Yet they still lost.

There are no moral victories in sports. Florida put together its best effort in the second half of this season — particularly on the road with tons of injuries and self-inflicted adversity early — but it dropped another winnable game. UF straight up should have defeated Arkansas at home and Missouri on the road. LSU certainly could have been a win, too, but Jayden Daniels is a different animal, and sometimes even the best defenses can get destroyed by a player like him.

“I know the scoreboard. Our record is not what we all know Florida football should be, but I know what’s in [their hearts],” Napier said. “They’ve showed that pretty consistently. Got to believe there’s going to be some good coming from it, but right now, we got a lot of kids that are hurting.”

The real shame is that this one victory could have completely reset everything for the Gators and Napier. A top-10 win on the road against a team that just took Georgia to the limit and was favored by nearly two touchdowns? It erases questions about Florida’s preparedness and Napier’s coaching ability while cooling down any hot seat talk and relieving some pressure on the recruiting apparatus.

Yet the Gators lost.

What’s next?

Florida hosts a top-five FSU team next week in The Swamp with both programs set to play backup quarterbacks, though the Seminoles’ is far more experienced. The Gators have sold out Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for the contest, and both teams have everything on the line. For Florida, bowl eligibility and a chance to eliminate a top rival from the College Football Playoff. For FSU, staying alive in its CFP bid and ensuring UF has a third straight losing season. The game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET


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