The Florida Gators left Tennessee last weekend with its first loss of the season. They’re hoping to reverse their fate when they leave the Volunteer State this weekend.
After giving up a three-touchdown lead last week in Knoxville en route to a 38-28 loss to Tennessee, the No. 23 Gators are eyeing a quick and early rebound on Saturday against Vanderbilt. Kickoff is set for noon from Vanderbilt Stadium and will be televised on the SEC Network.
“If we’re just going to be upset about it and nothing’s going to come from it, then it doesn’t really mean a whole lot,” said quarterback Austin Appleby, who is expected to start his second game in a row in place of the injured Luke Del Rio. “The tale of what kind of team we have, we’re going to find out who we are from this adversity and the way that we respond this week. … I know that the guys in that locker room are up to the challenge, and I know that I am, too.”
On top of the challenge of rebounding from a loss where the Gators (3-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) gave up 38 consecutive points and provided minimal offense when it mattered, UF also has the challenge of playing in its first noon game of the season.
Outside of Florida’s 24-14 win against South Carolina, the team struggled in early games during coach Jim McElwain’s inaugural season.
UF needed a last-second field goal from former kicker Austin Hardin to take a 9-7 win over Vanderbilt. It needed overtime to defeat Florida Atlantic 26-20. And it needed a trick play to score a touchdown during a 41-7 loss to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
“None of those results were very good,” McElwain said. “So I think let’s talk about the obvious, I’ve got no problem with that. We’ve got to make sure we’re ready to go play against a team that obviously has some weapons.”
The main weapon is redshirt junior and Gainesville native Ralph Webb.
The 5-10, 202-pound running back leads the SEC and ranks ninth nationally with 472 rushing yards and is one of three SEC backs with five touchdowns on the ground.
“Even at contact, his legs are constantly moving and he runs behind his pads,” McElwain said. “... When he gets to the second level, he can go ahead and give you a leg and take it away. He’s a hard guy to tackle and get clean shots on, and I think that’s what really separates him and makes him what he is.”
That was the case last year during the Gators’ 9-7 win over the Commodores.
Webb gave Florida’s defense fits, rushing for 118 yards on 22 carries. His 74-yard rushing touchdown right before halftime — a career-long burst — gave the Commodores a 7-6 lead that they held for the duration of the game until Hardin sailed a 43-yard field goal through the uprights with less than three minutes to play.
“I don’t know if his house was that direction or what,” McElwain said, “but the son of a gun was going faster than our guys.”
And after the second half against Tennessee last week, a 30-minute span where Florida’s defense gave up 336 yards, the Gators will be trying to get back to how they played in their first three games when they led the nation in multiple defensive categories.
“Everybody still has their heads up,” defensive back Marcus Maye said. “Everybody’s spirit is still up and stuff like that. We’re still the defense we know we are and stuff like that, so we’re going to continue to get better every day.”
Their next opportunity is Saturday.
Saturday: No. 23 Florida @ Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Noon; Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville.
TV/radio: SECN; WINZ 940.
Favorite: Florida by 10.
Records: Florida 3-1 (1-1 SEC); Vanderbilt 2-2 (0-1 SEC).
Series: Florida leads 37-10-2.
Florida injuries: Questionable — DB Quincy Wilson (leg); DL Jordan Sherit (leg); OL Tyler Jordan (eye); WR Chris Thompson (leg); DB Chris Williamson (knee); LB Daniel McMillian (ankle); DB Joseph Putu (ankle); WR Kalif Jackson (foot). Doubtful — QB Luke Del Rio (knee). Out —DL Joey Ivie (thumb); LB Jeremiah Moon (thumb); WR Dre Massey (knee); DB C.J. McWilliams (ACL); OL Antonio Riles (knee).
Vanderbilt injuries: Out — OT Andrew Jelks (knee); QB Shawn Stankavage (leg).