To cornerback Jalen Tabor, the Gators have only played one bad half of football.
A five-touchdown second half by Tennessee in Florida’s 38-28 loss to the Volunteers is the lone point of the season keeping the Gators from an undefeated record.
But Tabor knows that’s not how people outside the program look at No. 18 UF’s 4-1 start (2-1 in SEC).
“They think we skipped out of LSU,” the junior said. “They think we got blown out by Tennessee. They think we ain’t smashed Vanderbilt like we were supposed [to]. UMass hung around. That’s probably the perception they think.”
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Which is why Saturday’s homecoming game against Missouri (2-3, 0-2 SEC) is all the more important to them.
After a loss to a Top-10 team, a seven-point win over a lowly Vanderbilt squad and a postponed LSU game, the Gators know they need to make a statement on Saturday if they want to remove the stigma that they can’t blow opponents out of a game.
“Saturday is the ultimate test,” Gators coach Jim McElwain said. “We’re the only group on campus that actually televises on a national stage the test that they are about to take. There aren’t any other students that go into English class on a nationally televised test that you take. People can critique how you did. This is their opportunity to get critiqued. And a chance against a good team to see how they want to compete.”
And they will be competing with their starting quarterback.
Redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio, who hasn’t played since Sept. 17 while nursing a sprained MCL, returns to action Saturday and hopes to revitalize the Gators’ offense.
In the three games Del Rio started to open the season — a 24-7 win over UMass, a 45-7 victory over Kentucky and a 32-0 win over North Texas — Florida’s offense averaged 466 yards per game.
In the two games he sat out — the loss to Tennessee and 13-6 win over Vanderbilt — the number dwindled to 319 yards, including a season-low 236 against Vanderbilt.
“He is a competitive son of a gun,” McElwain said of Del Rio. “He did a really good job, I felt, of not feeling sorry for himself when he was hurt but rather taking that opportunity to dive more into it.”
The Gators are rallying around Del Rio.
Sophomore running back Jordan Scarlett called him “the general” of the offense, calming the rest of his teammates down in tense situations.
Del Rio’s ability to make plays also helps.
“It’s an advantage, you know, because the [defensive backs] have to take account for him now,” Scarlett said. “They’re not all just playing the run.”
Scarlett and the rest of the Gators’ running backs could help Del Rio out, though.
The Tigers come into the game tied for 11th in the SEC and tied for 90th nationally in run defense, giving up an average of 189 yards on the ground. In Missouri’s 42-7 loss at LSU, it gave up 418 rushing yards and six touchdowns — and that was without going against Leonard Fournette.
“We can run the ball on them,” said Scarlett, a former St. Thomas Aquinas standout who leads the Gators in carries (55), rushing yards (274) and rushing touchdowns (four). “... I feel like we have better backs [than LSU], and we can get the job done.”
To get the job done, though, it’s not going to fall just on Del Rio or Scarlett or the defense.
The players acknowledge it will take all 11 players on the field at any given time to make their plays if Florida wants to come out with a win.
“I feel like every time we step on the field we’ve got a point to prove,” Tabor said. “We get everybody’s best game. We’re the Florida Gators. We’ve always got something to prove at the end of the day.”
Saturday: Missouri @ No. 18 Florida
Kickoff: 4 p.m.; Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Steve Spurrier-Florida Field, Gainesville.
TV/radio: SECN; WINZ 940.
Favorite: Florida by 13.
Records: Florida 4-1 (2-1 SEC); Missouri 2-3 (0-2 SEC).
Series: Missouri leads 3-2.
Florida injuries: Questionable — WR Chris Thompson (hamstring). Doubtful — LB Jeremiah Moon (thumb). Out — DL Justus Reed (undisclosed); DL Jordan Sherit (leg); DL Joey Ivie (thumb); WR Dre Massey (knee); DB C.J. McWilliams (ACL); OL Antonio Riles (knee).
Missouri injuries: Questionable — CB Christian Holmes (concussion); WR Justin Smith (knee); WR Keyon Dilosa (concussion); RB Nate Strong (ankle); CB Logan Cheadle (ankle). Out — WR Nate Brown (ankle).