GAINESVILLE It was all going so well. After mustering an abysmal 192 yards of offense against Michigan in Week 1, Florida’s offense improved week by week. It vaulted to 380 against Tennessee, 395 against Kentucky and 467 against Vanderbilt. All those games were wins for the Gators. Then LSU visited Gainesville last Saturday, and both the winning streak and offensive improvement streak ended.
The Gators lost by one point and their offensive output dropped to 302 yards. Why? Did the SEC catch up to redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks? Did the suspensions finally derail the team’s depth? Did the injuries sustained during the game play a part?
“Yeah,” coach Jim McElwain said. “Probably the things you brought up. They’re not excuses. The expectation, I would say at this point, is to play at a faster pace.”
Florida ranks 123rd in plays per game out of 130 FBS teams, so pace could indeed be a problem. This was especially noticeable near the end of the game against the Tigers, when the Gators (3-2, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) burned 2:22 to run six plays, gain 21 yards, turn the ball over on downs and lose the game.
“We’ve just gotta come out and start faster,” wideout Josh Hammond said of this weekend’s matchup with Texas A&M. “Come out of halftime and start faster and finish. That’s the point of football.”
Sophomore running back Lamical Perine said part of the problem was plays taking too long to get to the players. McElwain admitted as much, saying sometimes the flow of the game wasn’t what it should’ve been.
“It’s on me,” he said. “It’s on me for ultimately not having, from the communication piece, making sure that it’s not too big.”
Being too big could be a problem with Franks at quarterback. He’s inexperienced, and McElwain said he has a harder time pacing the offense than Luke Del Rio, who was lost for the season against Vanderbilt. Nevertheless, Franks’ teammates support him.
“He’s a helluva quarterback,” offensive lineman Tyler Jordan said. “Talented quarterback. I think he’s just younger. He’s very raw. That’s not an excuse. We have to go out and protect better as an offensive line, especially on those big play, those big-shot plays we need to protect better.”
But that, too, could be a problem. The offensive line could be without starting left guard Brett Heggie, who left Saturday’s game with a concussion. He’s still being evaluated, and McElwain said he’s doubtful. He’s not the only one.
At every position, the Gators could be missing players because of injury. The most notable is at receiver, where sophomore Tyrie Cleveland, who missed the LSU game, could be out again. His production was missed against the Tigers, although some of his teammates didn’t see it that way.
“It affected us a little bit,” fellow wideout Freddie Swain said, “but not too much. Like last week, he’s down and next man up. Somebody needs to step up.”
Against the Tigers, no one did. Florida’s top receivers were Brandon Powell and Josh Hammond, both with 29 yards. A week earlier Cleveland more than doubled that with 67. The week before that, he had 110.
Then there’s the defensive line, where tackles Kyree Campbell and Khairi Clark are both nursing leg injuries. Campbell was held out against LSU while Clark played limited snaps. This weekend, their statuses are unclear.
At linebacker, starter Jeremiah Moon is nursing an ankle. At defensive back, starting safeties Chauncey Gardner (ankle) and Nick Washington (shoulder) are both battered. All-purpose playmaker Kadarius Toney is also highly questionable with shin and shoulder injuries, and special teams ace Garrett Stephens is out with a knee injury.
All those injuries could make increasing tempo on offense and getting back on an improvement streak tough. It could also make slowing down a Texas A&M (4-2, 2-1 SEC) offense that ranks fifth in the SEC in yards per game daunting for a depleted defense. But Florida’s players remain confident, especially with No. 4 Georgia coming up in three weeks.
“We’ve still got a lot to play for,” linebacker David Reese said. “We still haven’t lost in the East. We still have this week and this is the biggest week. … We’re excited to just to try to get that feeling out of our mouth this week.”