GAINESVILLE — The Florida Gators are on a three-game losing streak, and their most obvious problems are well-documented. The offensive line struggles to block well enough to protect a quarterback with very little experience and open up a credible run game; the defensive line can't consistently stop the run; the defensive backfield has trouble tackling, and the kickers are still battling for the job eight games into the season.
But two other major problems contribute to Florida's woeful season: slow starts and costly penalties.
In eight games, the Gators have been outscored 62-29 in the first quarter, 41-13 in their four losses. Florida trailed Georgia by 14 in the first 5:41.
"It's certainly impacted the games as far as how we have relied on our defense in some obvious situations," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "You don't put your finger on one thing and say it's this. … We've just got to go back and put our guys in better situations to play. And that's on us as coaches. We've got to put our guys in better situations to feel more comfortable and react as opposed to think in some situations. That's the best way I can summarize it because in every game it's been a little something different."
That sluggish start isn't limited to just defense. Florida hasn't scored a touchdown in the first quarter of an SEC game since Sept. 28 against Kentucky, and players said it can be a carryover effect from the defense.
"When the defense starts slow, it doesn't help at all to start slow as well, so we've tried to find ways to pick them up," quarterback Tyler Murphy said. "We didn't do that in the first half (vs. Georgia). We got things going a little too late. You have to pick up the urgency. You have to make plays or you're going to lose the game."
And that problem is compounded by costly penalties. Florida is last in the SEC in total penalties (62), total yards in penalties (497) and penalties per game (7.8).
"It's something we coach every day; obviously we're not doing a very good job," Muschamp said. "It's something we emphasize, something we talk about, we talked about this is an emotional game. There's going to be some things that we've got to learn to walk away from those situations and it's something I'm going to address with the team again (this week)."
Penalties have cost the Gators scoring opportunities and helped opponents' drives in multiple games this season including Miami, LSU, Missouri and Georgia — all losses. Against Georgia, a fourth-quarter unsportsmanlike conduct call after the Gators had stopped a fourth-down attempt took Florida out of potential field-goal range on a drive that eventually stalled. And a personal foul after the Gators stopped Georgia on third and 5 gave the Bulldogs a first down on UF's 13-yard line and a chance to run out the game clock.
"We have to be more disciplined in that point, especially when we're making a good comeback," senior safety Jaylen Watkins said. "Every moment is critical. It's a combination of not being disciplined and the high emotions of the game."
Saturday, UF hosts a Vanderbilt team that has given up an average of 45.3 points in its four losses. Gators offensive coordinator Brent Pease said he hopes the way his team played in the second half last week will carry over.
"You've got to look and say, 'Okay, that's the way it's got to be from the beginning,' " Pease said. "Offensively, you can't wait for something to happen. You've got to go create your own. I think sometimes we're always waiting for something, a turnover or somebody else to do something. You've got to go create your own."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]