Florida vs. Florida State score, takeaways: Gators flash but fall short as No. 16 ‘Noles escape with win

By OnlyGators.com Staff
November 26, 2022
Florida vs. Florida State score, takeaways: Gators flash but fall short as  No. 16 ‘Noles escape with win

Image Credit: UAA

A valiant effort fell short in a critical moment as the Florida Gators fell 45-38 to the No. 16 Florida State Seminoles with the in-state foes combining for the highest-scoring game in rivalry history. The ‘Noles snapped the Gators’ three-game winning streak in the series as Florida fell to 6-6 to end the first regular season under head coach Billy Napier with losses to all of its traditional rivals.

After storming back from 14 points down in the fourth quarter, the Gators trailed by seven with 4 minutes to play. Aided by a defensive pass interference on fourth-and-18, Florida managed its way down the field before facing a fourth-and-12 at the FSU 26-yard line.

Sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson was swamped as he dropped back to pass, and after evading a would-be tackler, threw incomplete into the end zone to conclude the game. However, Richardson’s facemask was clearly grabbed on the play, yet referees did not call the potential game-changing penalty despite it occurring clear as day to thousands of fans in attendance and millions watching on television.

The Gators may not have needed that penalty called had they played better in the third quarter where the ‘Noles turned a three-point halftime disadvantage into that 14-point lead despite Florida opening the second half with the ball. A triumvirate of failures — play calling, Richardson’s inconsistency and a defense incapable of keeping Florida State QB Jordan Travis from making huge gains with his legs — completely changed the game in that period.

Still, following a disastrous upset at Vanderbilt last week, there’s no question the Gators played better than expected — particularly on offense. The same problems Florida experienced all season reared their ugly heads once again at Doak Campbell Stadium as UF now faces the possibility of consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1978-79.

“Lot of good out there,” Napier said. “What I’m most proud of is how hard the players played in the game. They put it on the line across the board. … They played the game of football the right way. I have nothing but respect and admiration for our players, the effort, the physicality, the mental toughness. This is a group that’s made a ton of progress relative to making of a team, having a group that cares for each other. There’s a legitimate brotherhood. Like, I would do anything for a teammate in that locker room. That showed up tonight. …

“The football wasn’t good enough tonight. There was a lot of good ball out there, but there was some things that we can do better. There’s no question. I’m proud of the intangibles that our team showed. In that locker room right now, there’s a lot of guys that are [hurting]. It’s tough. It’s tough. When you do it the right way and you come up short, it’s tough.”

Let’s take a look at what went down Friday night.

Will talent make enough difference on defense?

Florida State entered scoring at a preposterous rate over its last four games, and its average of 43.3 points across those contests was basically matched Friday night. Where Florida failed most was containing Travis, who was the most obvious difference maker in the game rushing with 83 yards and two touchdowns on the evening. He was otherwise held to just 13 of 30 for 270 yards and another score through the air, though his legs also opened rushing lanes for running back Trey Benson, who gained 111 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Napier called Travis’ running ability “the difference in the game.”

It’s not that the Gators never contained Travis, though. They simply could not tackle him. Four would-be sackers were unable to take Travis down in the second quarter as he turned a nearly 20-yard loss and long field goal attempt (if even) into a third-and-10 conversion and easy touchdown that tied the game at 21. He provided a similar highlight in the third quarter on a series that resulted in another touchdown, giving FSU a 31-24 lead, and Travis also scored on a 29-yard rush in the first quarter. (Florida also missed four tackles on a 45-yard run by Benson that, one play later, resulted in the ‘Noles first touchdown of the game.)

Beyond the poor tackling was another rash of undisciplined penalties, including two late hits and a defensive holding that helped FSU’s 17-0 run in the third quarter. Napier is in the midst of rebuilding the program, and where it’s needed help more than anywhere else is on defense. But given the Gators inconsistency in these areas, it’s fair to wonder whether the team’s young defenders and the top-flight recruiting class that appears to be on its way are enough — or whether there are drastic schematic or personnel changes that need to occur before next season.

Again, Napier must hire a play caller

One reason Florida was outgained 162-50 and outscored 17-0 in the third quarter was its play calling coming out of halftime. (UF has now been outscored 30-76 in the third quarter across its six losses.)The Gators took a three-point lead into the break and had a great chance to pick up a two-score advantage on the road. Instead, they not only failed to score on the opening possession, they failed to move the ball across their first three drives. Florida made its bones in the first half on the ground. Sophomore RB Montrell Johnson Jr. and freshman RB Trevor Etienne combined for 111 yards on 20 carries in the first 30 minutes. Their dominance on the ground opened the passing game for Richardson, who took advantage with some huge plays to redshirt junior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall.

So, to open the third quarter, the Gators passed … and passed … and passed. After Johnson ran on the first play of the second half, Richardson threw on seven of the next eight with the lone outliner one where he tucked and ran. Those three drives combined for a loss of 2 yards, giving the ‘Noles an opportunity to make their run and take a two-touchdown lead.

This decision making becomes even more confounding when one remembers that Florida had five wide receivers out for the game, including two starters. Richardson was not only forced to keep passing, he was forced to continue trying — and failing — to hit second-team receivers. Until the fourth quarter, only two Gators had caught passes in the game. At the final whistle, just three got their hands on the ball.

“There’s no question I could do some things better there across the board,” Napier admitted.

It’s easy to criticize offensive play calling when it does not work without providing equal praise when it is successful. And there are plenty of times both this season and in this game where there has been offensive success. After all, Florida’s 38 points matched their second-highest total against a Power Five opponent this season, and they have scored 38+ points in three of the last four games.

However, these play calling issues — coupled with head-scratching situational decision making — have been apparent over significant stretches in multiple games throughout the season. Napier had no problem serving as head coach, play caller and quarterbacks coach in the Sun Belt, but trying to do all three in the SEC and at the Power Five level is a recipe for disaster. He’s not the first coach to try and fail at this. The best ones realize their errors, though, and adjust. Whether Napier will remains to be seen.

AR: The good, the bad and the ugly

As talk picks up regarding whether Richardson will head to the NFL after his first season as a full-time starter in college, Friday night again proved why professional football should be the last thing on his mind. This is not to say Richardson lacks talent; he has it in spades. AR has a cannon arm and powerful legs. Prototypically, he’s what NFL teams should want in a modern quarterback. But he’s simply not done developing as evidenced by what happened against Florida State.

Richardson started hot completing 5 of 7 passes with three going for touchdowns. He hit Pearsall for a 52-yard score on Florida’s first play from scrimmage then found him twice more for 32 yards and a 43-yard score on the Gators’ first drive in the second half. Between the strikes, which led Pearsall to a career-high yardage total before halftime, AR found redshirt sophomore tight end Jonathan Odom for a perfect 12-yard touchdown in the first quarter. That’s the good.

It all fell apart after that. Once the second half began, Richardson started missing wide-open receivers both in the flat and down the field. He threw 12 straight incomplete passes from the middle of the second quarter to the middle of the fourth, and though AR then hit 4 of 6 for a stretch, he missed the last three to end the game, finishing 9 of 27 for 198 yards. Richardson also threw an absurd interception to open the second quarter when he chose to force a side-arm toss at midfield rather than tuck and run for what would have been a massive gain.

And that’s what was perhaps more frustrating than the passing. Richardson again showed a significant hesitancy to run the ball when his 6-foot-4, 232-pound frame makes doing so in key situations not only an option but a requirement. He did run some — 10 times for 41 yards, including an incredible 15-yard gain on third-and-long late in the game that showcased exactly why he should rumble more — but Napier hardly called designed runs for him, and nearly half of those 10 carries were no-choice situations.

There were two paradigms of this decision-making failure. With the Gators driving to end the first half, Richardson chose to throw on third-and-10 rather than simply run for a huge gain. Florida settled for a 41-yard field goal rather than continue a potential touchdown drive. Even more obvious was on the game’s final drive when Richardson sat in the pocket twice as long as necessary. When he eventually broke free for a big run to midfield, the run got called back for offensive holding as a lineman had no choice but to try and keep AR upright on a key possession. If Richardson had run sooner, the lineman could have released. All of that is the bad and the ugly.

Through 12 games and 13 weeks, few answers have been provided as to why Richardson is not a more willing runner. Is Napier telling him not to run? Is Richardson trying to protect himself for the NFL? Is he simply struggling making decisions in those key situations as a means of doing “what’s right” rather than “what’s easiest?” The Gators offense has routinely operated more fluidly when AR is a threat on the ground, and that was apparent in the fourth quarter.

“I saw a guy that competed. That’s what I saw,” Napier said. “I saw a guy that made some unbelievable plays as a runner, made some elite throws — at times. When you’re playing a game like that, there’s going to be things that you can do better.”

The bright spots

Johnson and Etienne again proved to be tremendous, and who knows what their totals would have looked like should they have run more in the second half. Etienne was a star Friday night with 17 carries for 129 yards and his 45-yard rushing score in the fourth quarter. He also had a huge 35-yard rush to kick start the Gators’ first touchdown drive of the fourth quarter, a 48-yard kickoff return to set up Florida’s first touchdown of the game and numerous other massive plays.

Johnson didn’t have as many game-breaking plays, but he still averaged 5.0 yards per carry with 85 yards and a touchdown of his own. The thread between both rushers was the Gators offensive line, which was just outstanding throughout the game opening huge holes and protecting Richardson from a heavy ‘Noles blitz. Even when AR left the game with a hip injury in the first quarter, the line dominated to continue the drive behind redshirt freshman QB Jalen Kitna until AR returned for the Odom touchdown pass. Kitna was also tremendous as reserve who twice saw action. He managed Florida in and out of its plays exceptionally well in key spots.

The defense did struggle, but it also flashed on occasion. Freshman linebacker Shemar James had a tremendous forced fumble recovered by sophomore Tre’Vez Johnson on the game’s first drive. Johnson himself came a whisper away from an incredible sideline interception in a key situation. Sophomore cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. was faced with the unenviable task of covering Florida State’s 6-foot-7 WR Johnny Wilson. Though he did commit a pass interference, Marshall also had a number of big pass breakups in the contest.

The officiating

The SEC referees in charge did not decide Friday’s game as the Gators did plenty wrong to cost themselves the victory. However, their unwillingness to call the ‘Noles for blatant offensive holding throughout the entire game was notable, and their failure to call facemask on the game’s final play was simply unacceptable. Florida State fans will point to the fourth-and-18 pass interference as a similarly bad call; however, on replay, it’s clear an FSU defensive back interfered by hooking his arm around the receiver’s waist. (Just because Brock Osweiler screams at the top of his lungs that something is not PI doesn’t mean it’s not PI.) The officiating Friday was uncommonly poor and unfairly one-sided. It’s not an excuse for Florida’s loss, but it was undoubtedly a notable factor in the result.

Odds and ends

Florida fell to 37-27-2 all-time against Florida State with the teams now tied 14-14-1 all-time in Tallahassee … the Gators played their first regular-season game scheduled on a Friday in program history … UF has scored 24+ points in 10 of 12 games this season … Florida lost for just the second time rushing for 150+ yards (6-2) … the Gators are now 1-6 when tied or trailing after the third quarter … Florida is now 7-14 against ranked opponents since 2018 … the Gators have scored in 435 consecutive games, an NCAA record

“It’s awesome. It’s humbling to be a part of,” Napier said of the Florida-FSU rivalry. “When you think of the players and the coaches that have played in that game, every generation, right? When I grew up, that was the game. Humbling to be standing on that sideline — and proud [slamming on the table] of the way those kids competed in that game. Proud of it.”

What it means / what’s next?

The expected win total for Florida was seven, and it came one game shy of reaching it. The Gators had one surprising win (vs. Utah) and one truly shocking loss (at Vanderbilt), and the Commodores are one of numerous games Florida lost that it was clearly capable of winning. Friday night was another one of those games. Losing to Florida State is not easy to stomach, but it was hardly unexpected (UF was a 10-point underdog) or embarrassing given the circumstances. Florida was down five receivers for the game and redshirt senior linebacker Ventrell Miller for the first half. FSU was on an insane run entering the game and is starting to gel in Year 3 under its coach. The ‘Noles also hosted a night game with an incredible atmosphere.

“Tough one to swallow,” Napier said. “We’re going to get better. We’re going to improve. We’re going to use that experience.”

Most disappointing is the Gators’ failures still being multiple in the regular-season finale. The offense flashed an explosive running game but inconsistent play calling and quarterbacking. The defense has made strides since the bye week but was incredibly undisciplined over the last two games. And the “GameChanger” unit (special teams) is frequently changing games for the worse. Add Napier’s play calling and decision making into the mix, and there are more questions than answers entering bowl season.

Florida will now wait nine days to learn its bowl opponent as Napier focuses on hauling in what has the potential to be a top-five recruiting class. Whether he also makes changes to his coaching staff — via additions or subtractions — remains to be seen.

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