The Florida Gators would’ve had plenty of excuses had they lost to the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday.
They were playing at Vandy at noon, one of the SEC’s most potent combinations causing favored teams to come out flat. Making the letdown game potential worse was the fact that they were doing it a week after losing to rival Tennessee for the first time in 11 years in a game in which the team blew a 21-0 lead. UF was also playing without its starting quarterback, and five key defensive linemen missed part of all of the contest.
The Gators’ 13-6 win in Nashville comes off as a minor accomplishment, then, given everything that could have gone wrong. It wasn’t even the ugliest victory of the Jim McElwain era, with that dubious honor going to 2015’s overtime conquest of eventual 3-9 Florida Atlantic. The game on Saturday still left plenty to be desired, however.
Austin Appleby picked up where he left off from the second half against the Volunteers, which is to say that he was unable to hit any of the deeper throws that led to points in the first half against UT. He finished with a paltry 5.1 yards per attempt, took two sacks, and failed to spread the ball around with 22 of his 28 passes targeted at just three players (DeAndre Goolsby, Antonio Callaway, and Brandon Powell).
The Florida offensive line had its second consecutive iffy outing. It had no answers early on for Vandy defensive tackle Adam Butler, who recorded both sacks before intermission and caused havoc even when not accumulating statistics. On the Gators’ only touchdown drive, Jordan Scarlett had to break tackles and make guys miss both on his 24-yard run that put the team in the red zone and on his 4-yard touchdown carry.
The way McElwain and Doug Nussmeier handled Scarlett was emblematic of UF’s offensive day. The coaches say they manage their four-headed running back rotation by feeding the hot hand. Scarlett appeared to have the hot hand on that drive, but his scoring run with 6:27 to go in the second quarter was the last time he touched the ball until finally getting another carry at the 12:04 mark in the fourth quarter.
The offense looked disorganized and clueless about how to gain any consistent forward momentum. It also hung the defense out to dry too often, with only two of Florida’s 11 offensive drives lasting longer than three minutes of game clock. The offense had a chance to salt the game away with a 1st-and-goal from the Vandy 1 while up seven with under four minutes left, but Appleby fumbled away the snap on second down to lose possession. Derek Mason and his Commodore defense deserve plenty of credit for causing problems for the Gators, but Middle Tennessee scored nearly double what Florida did against this same defense.
Fortunately for McElwain, his defense didn’t fold despite linemen dropping like flies and little support from the other side of the ball. Vanderbilt even chose to introduce a scheme heavy with multiple tight end sets that are not what a team thin on the line wants to see, but the Gators kept the Commodores out of the end zone nonetheless.
Vandy’s pass game with Kyle Shurmur was a disaster; Florida picked him off twice, sacked him twice, and held him to a 36-percent completion rate. Ralph Webb got his 110 yards, but the Gators held him to under five yards per carry with a worse 34.8-percent success rate. The only player to consistently give the defense trouble was Khari Blasingame, who went for 8.2 yards per rush, but Commodore offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig apparently didn’t notice and gave the big man just five carries on the day.
Florida’s special teams helped the defense carry the day when it mattered. Eddy Piñeiro connected on both of his field goal attempts, and Johnny Townsend frequently flipped the field with seven punts that averaged 51.9 yards apiece. A week after the Gators lost the field position battle badly to Tennessee, they won it handily with their average starting field position being their own 32 versus the Commodores starting at their own 17 on average.
If it feels like Florida’s offense is undergoing a never-ending rebuild, that’s because it kind of is. The Gators’ offensive potency fell off a cliff in 2010, and it’s had five coordinators across the seven seasons since then. The last scholarship quarterback to finish his career at Florida signed his letter of intent in 2007. Only four players who recorded an offensive stat in 2014 have also done so in 2016, and 19 of the 27 combined rushes and receptions belong to Brandon Powell alone.
There is nothing that can be done other than to ride out games like this lackluster win over Vanderbilt. Florida must wait out Luke Del Rio’s injury this year and hope that 4-star freshman Feleipe Franks develops into something special in the future. It must hope that the line that starts three underclassmen and no seniors improves with more time playing together. It must have the offense continue to gel under the consistency of being in the same system for longer than two years. After all if Nussmeier remains in Gainesville in 2017, he’ll be the first offensive coordinator to have the job for at least three consecutive years since Dan Mullen had the job 2005-08.
And in the meantime, the defense and special teams will have to keep winning close games in SEC play more often than not.